A few weeks ago, I started reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I have been making slow progress (due in part to a lack of time and wakefulness, and in part due to my slow grasp of who everyone is (the first several chapters are at a soiree, and there are so many characters introduced)), and there is a long way to go, but I’m quite excited to be finally reading it.
Being such an epic novel — both in actual length and in literary importance — I knew at the outset that I would occasionally need other reading material as a break from War and Peace. It just so happened that today my partner showed me a video of a scene from Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose. In this particular scene, there are a number of people (maybe ten or so) dressed as large noses, and they tap dance around the stage.
We were both very baffled by what was going on, and wondered what sort of opera could feature such a strange act. In the interests of edification, as my partner moved on to other things (i.e. work), I Googled it myself, and found that it’s actually based on a novella of the same name. As it so happened, it was written by Nikolai Gogol, one of the other greats of Russian literature.
By now my curiosity was sufficiently piqued, and I wanted to know what Gogol’s story was all about. Luckily I found an online copy, and I read the whole thing in one sitting (it’s quite short). As one would expect from the tap-dancing noses, The Nose was quite a bizarre and fantastical story. I found it quite funny too. If you have a bit of spare time to fill in, and don’t mind peculiar stories, I’d recommend looking it up. Otherwise, if you don’t mind spoilers, please read on.
The story is set in 19th Century Petersburg, and starts with a barber — an overall quite ordinary man — who has awoken from his sleep to find that his wife has baked some bread. He promptly gets up, and sits at the table to eat this freshly baked bread. However, when he slices through the middle of one of the loaves, he discovers that there is a human nose there!
Already quite shocked, he is further alarmed when he recognises the nose as belonging to one of his clients. His wife is equally startled, but seems to be mostly angry, and admonishes her husband for his drunken nights, claiming that his drunkenness was what brought the nose into their household. She orders him to take it away from their home, and dispose of it at once.
Meanwhile, this client, Kovalyov wakes up in his apartment to discover that instead of a nose, there is only skin, smooth and flat. He later encounters a clerk at a newspaper who describes it as “absolutely flat, like a pancake fresh off the griddle”.
(This clerk was the source of much hilarity. He later sympathises with Kovalyov, and offers him some snuff because “it dispels headaches and melancholy; it’s even good for haemorrhoids”. This stirs indignation in the nose-less man, as he lacks the very thing one needs in order to take snuff.)
Anyway, I won’t retell the whole story. Suffice to say there is much running around (literally and figuratively), but eventually Kovalyov wakes one day to find that his nose has been restored to its former place. The final absurdity is offered by the narrator of this tale, who concludes by saying that the whole story is ridiculous, and it’s inconceivable that such things should have happened. He even goes so far as to say that “the strangest, the most incomprehensible thing of all, is how authors can choose such subjects”.
Apparently Dostoevsky and Kafka took inspiration from the works of Gogol, which kind of makes sense now.