Will I forget this story, written by Nikolai Gogol, born in 1809 in Ukraine? Certainly, I won't. Mainly because "The Nose" is outrageous. Yet this word has a meaning in contrast to the three adjectives in my heading. Outrageous also means heinous, evil, and beastly. All good words to describe Putin's invasion of Ukraine for the purpose of ridding it of Nazis.

In idiomatic Russian during Gogol's time and later, "to be left without a nose" meant to be fooled. Gogol flips the idiom and leaves his main character, Major Kovalyov, without his nose. And the resulting story upends any commonly held idea of REALITY. The story begins when a barber named Ivan finds the nose of a client in a freshly baked loaf of bread. Ivan recognizes the nose as belonging to a so-called Major, who gets a shave twice a week.

Nose, this reader thinks? Two nostril openings, soft tissue over hard cartilage. Yet now, having opened my 1088 page Family Medical Guide, I see my description is inadequate. Still and all, I doubt Gogol had a medical guide to consult when he came up with his wacky and wonderful idea. A reader gets only one look at Major K's nose-less face. "Very strange indeed!" says the clerk in a newspaper office. "It's absolutely flat, like a pancake fresh off the griddle. Yes, incredibly smooth." This same fellow offers the Major some snuff! -😊 In my mind, besides seeing a bloodless pancake, I remembered a photograph of a boxer after his nose has been relocated on his face, with lots of blood to remind us of how noses bleed. I also thought of young women I knew in college who had "nose jobs," who had to wear protective nose cups until everything healed and their cute new noses went on display.

In Gogol's story we get to go on a journey with the Nose. Ivan only wants to get rid of it and while trying to do so, is arrested. Meanwhile the Nose shows up in a carriage, dressed for status, and the Major goes in hot pursuit of it. He tries to confront the Nose inside an orthodox Russian church without success. Then the narrator takes us with the Major to a newspaper office to report about the Nose. In this sense, a reader gets a tour of St. Petersburg, with a chance to witness corrupt officials, rampant bribery, and serfdom. Finally, a policeman comes to see the Major and returns the nose, which he has in a piece of paper in his pocket. The transaction is not without a payment, of course. Then Major K. consults a medical doctor in his building about reattaching the nose. But the doctor says it's a bad idea. However, he does offer to buy the nose. The next morning the Major awakens, and his nose has reattached itself to his face.

What makes this story much more than my brief description is the first-person narrator, who takes the term "unreliable narrator" beyond any known definition. This narration is a form called skaz in Russian; and each statement from the narrator is more ludicrous than the last. Writer George Saunders, in his discussion of "The Nose," in Swimming in a Pond in the Rain," says we each have an energetic and unique skaz loop running in our heads, one we believe in fully, not as "merely my opinion," but the way things absolutely are.

What I remind you of is this. When Gogol wrote anything, he had to worry about the Czar's censors. If he were living in our times, what would this brilliant writer satirize in our "free" country, in which multitudes repeat three-word phrases from some separate reality: The Big Lie, Election Was Stolen, Great Replacement Theory. Meanwhile the conservative 'Republicats' are boot-licking and brown-nosing in Hungary with the country's Autocrat, one of Putin's pals.

I will admit that last Thursday afternoon in class when it came time to discuss Gogol's "The Nose", my mind shutdown. What's happening right in front of our noses in this country is outrageous. And to act as if none of this is happening in the Disunited States of America is a worrisome and dangerous dissonance for all.

For anyone interested in Shostakovich's opera "The Nose", below is the link.

Next Week: Beloved Anton Chekhov, still deeply admired today. Note of the six Russian stories in the George Saunders book, three are by Chekhov.

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The message is this. If you want to sell your book or your blog or whatever that 'deals' in words, you've got to grab your reader by the throat in the first line. Writer as verbal rapist, you might say. Always true for journalists of the two-bit hack variety and an obvious truism for advertisers who pay by the word or the second. But can this "buzz" apply to a writer like the late Penelope Fitzgerald? She is quoted as having said she needed the first and the last lines of a novel to begin a new one. The Gate of Angels, her seventh novel of eight, begins with a question in the first line of the opening paragraph.

How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? (More in peril than what? But PF continues in a matter-of-fact narrative voice.) This was on the way to Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and workhouse. (What time frame are we in? Workhouse?) Narrator continues …

On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs (Microsoft Word seeks a correction, which I will ignore. Description continues). The cows had gone mad, tossing up silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. (What world are we in and what time frame?) They were still munching (the cows, that is). A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university devoted to logic and reason.

Okay, speaking more seriously, the opening paragraph of the novel is about an observed reality, something that Fitzgerald saw from a bus on her way into Cambridge, England ( it is called now). Wise Penelope saw the upended cows and never forgot them. Same as what I saw years ago from a window of the Riverwalk Restaurant in Yorktown, Virginia, where hordes of people with cellphones in the air were walking about, as if awaiting the Second Coming. The server stared out the window with me and said, "We've all gone crazy." I had to ask her what the people were doing with their cellphones. Ah, the latest phenomenon: Pokémon Go!

The Gate of Angels is about observables and unobservables (think atoms). (Word again is trying to correct Penelope Fitzgerald). The novel is a love story about two improbable mates, Fred and Daisy, whose naked bellies end up in bed together because of a bike accident (think sailors on land in peril). The novel becomes Fred's quest for Daisy in 1912, a time of change in the physical sciences at Cambridge. This is six years before the cataclysmic World War 1, which the characters know nothing about. Yet the reader knows what's ahead. A big question in the novel is one you might ask. Is there something called the soul, and does the soul survive our bodily deaths? No small questions from Fitzgerald. As in the opening paragraph, The Gate of Angels is about the need to recognize patterns of chance, forms of coincidence, improbability, and accidents. All are evidence of an underlying spiritual reality in which Fitzgerald believed, but one she did not talk about except through her fiction. The novel is short and unforgettable. "A love story, a ghost story and a philosophical enquiry, beautifully evocative of time and place. A triumph."

Next week: George Saunders, Russian short stories, and A Swim in the Pond in the Rain.

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Anita Brookner, a British writer and contemporary of Fitzgerald, made this telling comment about Penelope. This is something that students in my recent class on Fitzgerald came to believe.

The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow in 1913, is a novel I opened one afternoon and did not stop reading until I reached the end, page 245. The following day I opened the novel to its first page and began again, reading slowly, a chapter at a time, over the next few days. Before my Fitzgerald class began in April, I read "Beginning" again, even more carefully. Am I a slow learner or something? 😊 ( No, though admittedly an aging one.) A fourth reading of the novel provided yet more pleasure from the "quiet genius" of Penelope, whose last four novels are extraordinary. (Which is not to discount her earlier four.)

The question asked before Fitzgerald's death in 2000 is still being asked? "How does she do it?"

On the back of my Mariner edition of "Beginning" is a quote from a current USA literary star, Teju Cole, who admitted he was "abuzz for days the first time he read The Beginning of Spring & The Blue Flower. She (Fitzgerald) was curiously perfect," he noted. A Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote of Fitzgerald's Russian novel: "…writing so precise and lilting it can make you shiver."

Yes, the novel is a marvel and "bristles with comedy" because Fitzgerald writes tragicomedy. And she is the only novelist I can think of who matches the genius of J.D. Salinger's portrayal of children, those "wise kids." Fitzgerald's character, Dolly, in "Beginning" is unforgettable and possibly a prototype for the spirited adult Daisy in Gate of Angels, a novel I will write about next week.

Fitzgerald's last four novels offer detailed and researched material existences layered with underlying spiritual realities. As I said before, a Penelope Fitzgerald literary experience is not meant to be "got over." Her novels are written in ways that continue to work on a reader's mind and heart. In The Beginning of Spring, a reader will experience pre-revolutionary Russia, thus live in another age, and be made aware of a magical and mystical realm there.

I can only say, given Putin's Russia today, you might consider reading, The Beginning of Spring. Protagonist Frank Reid's affection for Moscow comes "over him at odd and inappropriate times in undistinguished places. Dear, slovenly, mother Moscow, bemused with the bells of its four times forty churches, indifferently sheltering factories, whore-houses and golden domes, impeded by Greeks and Persians and bewildered villagers…but reaching outwards with a frowsty leap across the boulevards to the circle of workers' dormitories and railheads, where the monasteries still prayed, and at last to a circle of pig-sties, cabbage patches, earth roads, earth closets, where Moscow sank back, seemingly with relief, into a village." (A hundred and nine years ago!)

Next week: The same period of time… but the setting for Gate of Angels is the revolutionary era in physics at Cambridge University in England.

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