Enter Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, a work of wild surrealism that is just the thing to reset your mind and lift your spirits. Although Gogol originally wrote the story in 1835-6, the tale is so absurd that it defies temporal boundaries and is as relatable and humorous today as it was then. Thankfully, it requires no great amount of time, or brainpower, to consume: no more than a leisurely afternoon with a cup of tea and this short story in hand.
The Nose is an often-witty, sometimes biting, commentary of a rigidly structured social hierarchy that appears to have spiralled so wildly out of control as to allow a disembodied nose to be catapulted well above the social status of its original er… owner; Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. It throws that concept of a person owning their body parts into question, further adding to the absurdity. For why could a disembodied nose not become its own person, asks Gogol. In Gogol’s world, the Nose is capable of anything. The Nose is much like a rebellious teenager, refusing to acknowledge its parent and running around St. Petersburg whilst simultaneously embarrassing Kovalyov simply for having lost it.
In its fantastical way, Gogol’s story is a ridiculous and allegorical take on the table of social ranks introduced by Peter the Great that allowed almost anyone to rise from no social rank to a distinguished one through services to the state. It has the reader questioning the worth of social status and in some ways, finds a contemporary in the reality-star-celebrity world that surrounds us today. Often the characters in the story do not question why the Nose has risen to the rank that it has, and in so short a period of time. Instead, they flock to see this celebrity and are fascinated by it.
Despite the seemingly heavy political commentary that can be read between the lines of the tale, it is a wild rollercoaster of a comedy, causing some laugh-out-loud moments that I’m sure were appreciated by my fellow passengers in the quiet coach of the train when I re-read it a few weeks ago. The self-important rushing of the Nose in full military attire around St. Petersburg must be read in Gogol’s words to be truly appreciated. Gogol employs a distinctive 19th century style in his writing that is direct and engaging: part of the reason I fell in love with 19th century Russian literature in the first instance.
Shostakovich’s operatic adaptation of The Nose was recently featured in the Autumn 2016 programme at the Royal Opera House, accompanied by both a student only insight panel and a student only performance. The relative youth of Shostakovich when he wrote the opera and libretto (between the ages of 20 and 22) underlines the virtuosity of the composition: it is a musical tour-de-force that sweeps the viewer off their feet. It is a reminder to us all as students that we are capable of great things, and that some of the greatest moments in art may be accompanied by a chorus of giant, tap-dancing noses.
Gogol signs off his work with some consideration as to why he has written the story at all: does the country have any use of it? No, he concedes, nobody has any use of it whatsoever. “But the strangest, most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things.” – and readers should read them. Gogol’s work perfectly encapsulates that though the conveyor belt of reading thst we must be doing for our degrees rumbles on by, it serves us well to sometimes pick up a work outside of that structured regimen, be reminded that both the arts and life can be wild, humorous and absurd, and not to take everything so seriously. So if you find yourself in need of a few hours respite, I would strongly urge you to throw yourself into the surreal world of Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose.