Sunday, July 11, 2010

Stalin/Gogol and Life
in the Kick-Down, Kiss-up Society

I'm still savoring that fine performance we saw at the Met a few months back of The Nose, the loopy, demanding opera scored by (a 21-year-old) Dmitri Shostakovich, with a correspondingly loopy and demanding direction from William Kentridge. The opera is based, of course, on a short story by Nikolai Gogol and lately I've been indulging myself with a number of Gogol stories (including this one) in the superb recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

The story is just as much fun as the opera but you do begin to notice a difference in sensibility between Gogol's Nose and the new one on offer from Kentridge (just exactly where Shostakovich lies on this continuum, I cannot say). Mrs. Buce flagged me to (though I think she credits another source, maybe Opera News--anyway): Kentridge models his nightmare on a vision of Stalinist Russia or (if they are different) on apartheid South Africa.

Gogol's milieu is equally nightmarish but in a different way. Sure, there were cops and informers and Gulags (though they didn't call them that) but the real nightmare of Gogol's fiction is poverty, insulted by bureaucracy. Gogol's vision is not so much the police state as it is the table of ranks (P and V print one in the intro) where except for the very bottom (and the very top?), it is kiss up, kick down. That, plus a bit of proto-Kafka, plus layer of St. Petersburg's implacable, icy fog and you have to perfect Gogol mix.

Oh, and one thing more. It's easy to overlook, but what makes Gogol's Petersburg bearable is that he also captures the sheer energy of the place. Dickens, himself no stranger to urban energ would have understood: he would have recognized place where "he noisy and the eager, and the arrogant nad the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar."* Gogol captures that flavor at the newspaper office, where poor Kovalev goes to place a lost-and-found ad for his vanished proboscis:
Around them stood a host of old women, shop clerks, and porters holding notices. One announced that a coachman of sober disposition was available for hire; another concerned a little used carriage brought from Paris in 1814; elsewhere a nineteen-year-old serf girl was released, a good laundress nd also fit for other work; a sturdy droshky lacking one spring; a hot young dapple-gray horse, seventeen years old; turnip and radish seeds newly received from London; a country house with all its appurtenance--two horse stalls and a place where an excellent birch or pine grove could be planted; next to that was an appeal to all those desiring to buy old shoes, with an invitation to come to the trading center every day from eight to three. The room into which all this company crowded was small and the air in it was very heavy; but the collegiate assessor Kovalev could not smell it, because he had covered his face with a handkerchief, and because his nose itelf was in God knows what parts.
--Nikolai Gogol, "The Nose," in
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol 301-326, 310
(Pevear and Volokhonsky trans. 2007)

*The Dickens snippet appeaars on the last page of Little Dorrit.

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