The Cloak by Nikolai Gogol

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(A Russian card for a Russian story)

I may have pulled a muscle in my arm this weekend from patting myself on the back for my decision, when putting together my roster for Deal Me In 2014, to dedicate the clubs suit to “stories by Russian authors.” 🙂 After drawing the Ace of Clubs this week, I’m now 9 out of 9 in picking great stories from that suit!

This was only the second work by Nikolai Gogol (below) that I’ve read. (I tackled his story, “St. John’s Eve” back in May. https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2014/05/11/st-johns-eve-by-nikolai-gogol/

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I knew of this story, The Cloak, by reputation but knew nothing of the plot. It reminded me a little of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” in that its protagonist, Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin, is a minor official/apparatchik in the Russian government, whose primary duty is to copy letters and other official documents. Already rendered vulnerable by fate’s having allotted him a timid nature and now a low-paying job, he seems primed to be toppled by the next blow that the great forces of the world decide to deal him…

Gogol writes: “There exists in St. Petersburg a foe of all who receive a salary of four-hundred rubles a year, or there-abouts. This foe is no other than the Northern cold, although it is said to be very healthy.”

You see, Akakiy’s old and humble cloak has become threadbare and his daily journeys to and from his office are taking their toll on his nearly exposed back and shoulders. A tailor refuses to mend it “there’s nothing to sew a patch to…” and a new coat is beyond his means. The story takes many twists and turns as Akakiy tries to resolve his situation. I’m afraid it is a sad story, but it has its share of surprises and is thick with quotable lines and dialogue. If you’d like to read it yourself, it’s available online at http://www.classicreader.com/book/2026/1

(The story’s title is often translated as The Overcoat. This title makes more sense to me)

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Have you read any of Gogol’s stories? Which are your favorites?

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10 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    September 7, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    Jay, you are right that you made a great decision in your Russian stories/authors. This one sounds just as good as the other ones! The Northern Cold is said to be very healthy – that’s great! And that’s a beautiful card.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 8, 2014 at 7:29 am

      It was a difficult story to post too much detail about without “ruining” it for potential readers, but I really liked it. Something about themes of the pitiable human condition oppressed by great forces beyond our control appeals to me for some reason…

      There’s a great line in it too, after explaining how Akakiy is such a stereotypical minor official, when Gogol says people assumed that when Akakiy was born, he came out “already bald and in uniform” – great stuff.

      Like

  2. September 7, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    “The Nose” is comparably good. “Diary of a Madman” is a hoot. “The Portrait” is pretty good, too.

    Gogol is a rich enough prose writer that I strongly recommend doing what you can to avoid the old public domain translations, which are botch jobs, but I suppose better than nothing.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 8, 2014 at 7:32 am

      Hi Tom,
      Thanks for the tips. I read the story from an anthology I own and didn’t notice if the translation might have been sub-par or not (I admittedly may not have a refined enough taste to be able to tell, though). The “free” link I posted might not be an “approved” translation, though.
      -Jay

      Like

    • September 8, 2014 at 9:10 am

      I can’t tell either. Usually. I am passing on second-hand but trusted advice.

      Like

  3. Paula Cappa said,

    September 8, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Jay, I’m very interested in Russian authors. A character in one of my stories is Russian descent so I’ve been working on getting a sense of the culture. I’ll will definitely have to try Gogol. I’ve not read him at all.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 9, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      I’m not sure why they always seem to resonate so well with me. I spent a lot of years competing in chess tournaments, where there is, not surprisingly, a large Russian subculture, which is probably part of the reason. This experience also left me “un-intimidated” by the Russian names – and their variations – that so many seem to struggle with. Or maybe it’s the Russian people’s “great capacity for suffering” (I think that was Pasternak’s line?) that makes for such fertile ground for fiction writing…

      Like

  4. September 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    I’m already contemplating my 2015 Deal Me In list and I’ve been going back and forth about adding Russian authors. I read a lot of Russian poetry in college due to a boy from St. Petersburg I was interested in, but haven’t read many short stories (or novels). (Re: the Russian boy, I think I killed any chance I had with him when I beat him at chess. Oops.)

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 13, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Ha ha! Probably not a good strategy against ANY boy, but especially a Russian! You may not have thought enough moves ahead with that strategy! 🙂
      My Mom & Dad visited St. Petersburg once during their many post-retirement travels and “all I got was this (definitely NOT) lousy chess set…” 🙂

      Like


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