Far-fetched, implausible, preposterous! That's "The Nose," a humorous Russian short story…
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.