I think I may have just read the most baffling short story of all time: The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol. Leave it to those damn 19th century Russian authors to name all of their characters “Ivan” and make them do incomprehensible things, completely baffling my otherwise sensible Wednesday afternoon.
It happened thusly. I had some time on my hands and enough YouTube in my head to melt my eyeballs. I did a google search for “top short stories of all time” or something equally audacious, and came across this link, a list compiled by some other nutbar european author I’ve never heard of. I expected “The Dead” by James Joyce to be number one, but no, Alison Nutbar MacLeod values this Nose story above all others. And so I read it.
I can’t even begin to guess how my workshop would approach this story, (assuming we could somehow get around the weirdness of it taking place in Russia in the 1850′s, with all the dramatic, flowerly language that goes along with it).
Here is what happens as I understand it: A barber named Ivan finds a nose in a breadroll his mean, nasty wife has made, and he recognizes it as belonging to Kovalev, one of his clients. Ivan believes himself to be a wicked drunk and assumes responsibility for the nose, however baffling, and tries to abscond with the evidence. A police catches him trying to throw the nose over the bridge and he is apprehended.
Cut to Kovalev waking up and discovering that he is missing a nose. "To his unbounded astonishment, there was only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been!" !!!! indeed!
So we’ve been given two different perspectives at this point, implying an omniscient 3rd person narrator, until all of a sudden the narrator comes in all “allow me to tell you what Kovalev’s job is.” What the fuck is this? An omniscient first person narrator? Who does this Gogol think he is?
Since I recently had the audacity to turn in a story to workshop last week featuring multiple perspectives with a knowing, metafictional narrator (met with, as always, mixed reviews), I automatically feel a kinship with this insane Gogol person and press on.
Kovalev is distraught and goes running around St Petersburg with a hankerchief over his face. He attempts to place an ad in the paper for the missing nose and the paper is all “we don’t want to ruin our reputation.” Fair enough I guess. He then discovers a man who he somehow instantly recognizes as the lost nose itself. He follows him into a mansion and explains that the man is his nose, and that he needs his nose back because he’s kind of a big deal. But this other man doesn’t believe that he is Kovalev’s nose, and thusly escapes. Now, there’s all sorts of Russian shit going on that I don’t understand. Kovalev calls himself “Major” and is a “collegiate assessor,” which I think means that he has a pretty good job, but not the greatest job, and so he can’t shut up about it (kind of like upper middle class people who buy boats they can’t afford). The man who he thinks is his nose is a “State Councilor.” I can only conclude that this is better than a collegiate assessor.
Also this bit helps: “My dear sir, you speak in error,” was its reply. “I am just myself — myself separately. And in any case there cannot ever have existed a close relation between us, for, judging from the buttons of your undress uniform, your service is being performed in another department than my own.” And the Nose definitely turned away.
Why Kovalev thinks this man is his nose is anybody’s guess, but we know at least that the narrator agrees completely. The man is also his nose.
Kovalev has all these lady friends and he mentions them often, but in relation to their mothers, which is either some weird Russian custom of the time, or it is in fact very strange and utterly significant. Further scholarship is definitely required and it’s a damn shame I’m not likely to ever get around to it. Kovalev is convinced that it’s one of these mothers that has cast some sort of weird witch spell on him because he doesn’t want to marry her daughter, so he writes her and says so, and she’s like “I didn’t cast a spell on you and I still totally want you to marry my daughter” and from this correspondence Kovalev swiftly concludes "She, at least, is not guilty. Oh, certainly not! No one who had committed such a crime could write such a letter.” In a story like this, we have to just kind of rely on our protagonists reasoning, because injecting our own simply will not do.
So the cop who caught the barber trying to throw away the nose brings him to Kovalev’s house all “I found your nose. This barber was trying to throw it away, but oh no.”
Oh, but read this, it’s great. First Kovalev is psyched about getting his nose back, then… "But nothing lasts long in this world. Even joy grows less lively the next moment. And a moment later, again, it weakens further. And at last it reemerges insensibly with the normal mood, even as the ripple from a pebble's impact becomes reemerged with the smooth surface of the water at large. So Kovalev relapsed into thought again. For by now he had realized that even yet the affair was not wholly ended, seeing that, though retrieved, the nose needed to be re-stuck. “What if it should fail so to stick!”
I know, right?
So the nose doesn’t stick, and he calls in a doctor, and the doctor very knowingly, cryptically says that he could re-attach the nose, but implies that if he did, something really bad would happen. What? I don’t know, something really bad. He suggests he keeps the nose in a jar or try to sell it, and in fact, the doctor would love to have it if Kovalev doesn’t want it anymore. What the hell kind of a doctor is this?
So he lives for a few weeks without a nose, and it becomes the stuff of legend around town, and then bam, one day, the nose returns to his face, and everybody’s happy again. The mother’s all “you should marry my daughter now” and he’s like “no I’m still not going to do that.”
To conclude, I have to leave you with Gogol’s last couple of paragraphs because paraphrasing just will not do it justice. I warn you that this is the end of the story, so if you plan on reading it yourself you should go do that first. I myself despise having the ending of a story ruined for me. But If my summary suffices, here it is:
To think of such an affair happening in this our vast empire's northern capital! Yet general opinion decided that the affair had about it much of the improbable. Leaving out of the question the nose's strange, unnatural removal, and its subsequent appearance as a State Councilor., how came Kovalev not to know that one ought not to advertise for a nose through a newspaper? Not that I say this because I consider newspaper charges for announcements excessive. No, that is nothing, and I do not belong to the number of the mean. I say it because such a proceeding would have been gauche, derogatory, not the thing. And how came the nose into the baked roll? And what of Ivan Yakovlevitch? Oh, I cannot understand these points — absolutely I cannot. And the strangest, most unintelligible fact of all is that authors actually can select such occurrences for their subject! I confess this too to pass my comprehension, to — — But no; I will say just that I do not understand it. In the first place, a course of the sort never benefits the country. And in the second place — in the second place, a course of the sort never benefits anything at all. I cannot divine the use of it.
Yet, even considering these things; even conceding this, that, and the other (for where are not incongruities found at times?) there may have, after all, been something in the affair. For no matter what folk say to the contrary, such affairs do happen in this world — rarely of course, yet none the less really.
How have I never heard of Gogol or this story? I can only conclude that my education has profoundly failed me. It’s just one of those things. I don’t know what it means. Alison Nutbar MacLeod suggests the nose stands for a penis, but all female authors think that all things stand for penises. All I know is, sometimes you read something and you know that you’ll never be quite the same again – just the slightest shift in my perceptions of the world and literature in general, but certainly worth noting. Someone, please read this and tell me I didn’t dream or imagine it.
“The devil only knows what this vileness means!” he muttered. “If even there had been something to take the nose's place! But, as it is, there's nothing there at all.”