Gary's Reviews > The Collected Tales

The Collected Tales by Nikolai Gogol
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Jun 15, 12

bookshelves: russian
Read in January, 2011

Split into two sets of stories - those that take place in Ukraine and those in Russia, this is a collection that takes pride of place on my bookshelf.

The theme of each story tends to deal with the darker aspects of human nature – depravity, poverty, the squandering of talent and opportunity, groupthink and malice. However, the narrative never dips into over-sincerity or narcissistic exposition. There is a sharp, honest, knowing quality to the writing that is evident from the surface level aesthetics down to the very core of each story.

There are some writers who are good storytellers and some who are known because of their penmanship skills. Even translated, Gogol is clearly both. The 13 stories in this collection, while undeniably Gogol’s, play with a range of styles and rhythms. He describes states of being and situations from the disintegration of one’s mind to the excitement a young girl can feel for her booties; From the combat of a warrior to a human nose on legs with prose that is completely fitting to each situation. He is not scared of playing with a reader’s expectations in this arena. Yet somehow the writing is never inconsistent, either.

Pathos and menace are nearly always present, but somehow you feel comfortable in his hands. He plays and teases with you, drawing you in one direction before shoving you into another. Gogol paints his pictures with deep colours and complex textures, yet communicates all of this with a simple stroke, a glance in one direction that is fleeting but piercing, unapologetic, maybe dangerous in its unwavering loyalty to honesty. One scene (this does not spoil any of the stories), briefly shows a wizard flying past the moon in a magic saucepan. Written here this is sugar and twee. From the pen of Gogol it is delightful and energetic, entirely suited to the scene and, rather than squeezed in like a square peg into a pre-thought squarish hole, is in fact inevitable. It was reading this moment for the first time that I felt that rising excitement in my chest that tells me I’m reading genius. For me it’s a standout moment and one I return to again and again.

But as I said, it’s not just the writing (and of course this is translated! Gogol is famous for the sophistication of his literary techniques but I shall never read his poetry as he intended me to) but the content of the stories, too. In the grand Russian tradition they tackle the very worst of humanity in a way that is rescued from cynicism with a tinge of optimism for the future, but Gogol’s inimitable - slightly mad, and obviously completely at odds with the world around him - mind doesn’t just twist some old formulas around but instead smashes them into each other and creates something brand new and rude in their originality. In each story you can see the germination of ideas explored by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka… and these ideas are spat out and dispensed with almost immediately. Most writers could spend a career delving into each one. The rate at which Gogol sprays them across the page is staggering and beautiful. It’s ‘The Mysterious Portrait’, however, that stands out as the true achievement. Anybody - anybody - who has ever had even an inclination towards art in the smallest bone in their body (in the ear, right?) needs to read it. Gogol lacerates through every affectation and whimsy in order to get to the truth in brutal fashion, executed with such style, with such sureness and swiftness and with such power that I find it difficult to type about right now without running downstairs to reread it.

While dealing with lofty ideas and rich characters, the stories are also compelling and - importantly - fun. You want to see what happens. Not with dread or fear for the worst, but with excitement. It helps that even at his most morose, Gogol is funny. As with his writing style, he has it all - wit, sarcasm, slapstick and punch lines. He has his heroes and his villains, self-discovery, transcendence of thought and all-out action, the scenes of which put the imagination of Hollywood’s directors to shame. There is more packed into these 13 short stories than the entire careers of many giants of literature. If you read the stories in one sitting you’re left reeling, dizzy with ideas, unsure of which one to contemplate first.

And the best thing about this collection is that this isn’t even Gogol’s best stuff. That would be Dead Souls Part I and II, which I’ll write about at some point in the near future.
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s.penkevich Well said! Gogol was a genius


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