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"Gogol's greatcoat"

The Summer of Classics continues, as I move beyond the narrative morass of Lord Jim, which I finally finished yesterday to my inestimable relief. I've decided to make occasional commentary here on the books I'm reading, and will conclude the series in October with a single post of capsule reviews. Everything I'm reading has already been comprehensively and exhaustively reviewed, examined and autopsied, so posting my own full length reviews seems somewhat pointless. So capsule reviews will suffice, once I've finished.

I've now put Conrad behind me (after Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, I doubt if I'll ever read anything else of his for the rest of my life) and have moved on to Nikolai Gogol's 1842 novella The Overcoat, which I have in an old paperback collection called Six Great Modern Short Novels which I picked up in a library sale several years ago. (The collection includes Gogol, Joyce, Faulkner, Melville, Katherine Ann Porter - all greats indeed - but also somebody named Glenway Wescott, whose name nor any of his books I don't even vaguely recognize.) I've read very little Russian literature, and Gogol might have completely evaded my attention in this book had Isaac Bashevis Singer not invoked Gogol and The Overcoat in his introduction to Knut Hamsun's Hunger, saying that just as all Russian literature was said (by Dostoevsky) to have emerged from "Gogol's greatcoat", all modern literature could be said to have come from Hamsun. (Which seems reasonable, though I'll leave that argument to the scholars.)

Thus ever since I first read Singer's comment, I've made a connection between Gogol and Hamsun, though I still never got around to reading any of the Russian's work. But when I finally opened up Six Great Modern Short Novels, it was inevitable that I'd start with Gogol. I just started The Overcoat this morning, and am thoroughly enjoying it so far. The writing is clean, rich without being overbearing, and with a touch of humor I really hadn't anticipated. I also see echoes of Akaky Akakyevitch in both Melville's Bartleby and Hamsun's unnamed protagonist of Hunger, two of my favorite literary characters.

Oh, and here's the direct quote of Dostoevsky: "We (Russian writers) all come out from Gogol's 'Overcoat'." Any work of literature that influential should crossed my radar and been read twenty years ago, and I can offer no apology or explanation for my oversight. But I'm very much enjoying my making up for lost time.

July 30, 2008 in Books | Permalink


I'm sorry it's taken me so long to check out your blog. I'll now be a regular. You're clearly much more well read than I, but Gogol has always been a favorite. It's, like you say, the "touch of humor" that makes him so great. Ever read Turgenev?

I'm just jealous you have time to read with a 3-year-old, job, etc...

Posted by: GE at Jul 30, 2008 9:50:22 AM

No Turgenev yet, but on your recommendation I'll check him out - where should I start? As for all that reading time, I'm on the train for 2+ hours a day, which gets me up obscenely early but does provide plenty of time for reading and writing.

And actually, my daughter's now 7. Probably should update that bio...

Posted by: Pete at Jul 30, 2008 4:43:24 PM