Monday, November 9, 2015

Gogol Earth

I read the book at some indeterminate time of my childhood, along with my first story by Edgar Allan Poe, which was part of the same series. Then both books were exiled on a high shelf in our living room, behind another row of books, and for almost three decades it was as if they had never existed. I salvaged them, finally, just as the vast majority of my parents’ large library was given to a charity that turned it to pulp. Which was a very sad day.

I picked it up again about a month ago, feeling a little guilty about always returning to the old books instead of tackling the new ones. Is it a subconscious defence strategy? But we can all do with our comforts, and this one’s mine. An old book that’s been in the family, a cheap edition which falls apart as I handle it. Every reading is an injury.

Printed in 1952 by the ‘Popular Books Cooperative’ and priced a very modest 150 lire, this 100-page collection of Nikolaj Gogol’s most famous stories – ‘The Overcoat’, ‘Diary of a Madman’ and ‘The Nose’ – has two more virtues besides: an introduction by Oreste del Buono, who along with Umberto Eco was instrumental in elevating comic books to the same status as other forms of popular literature in Italy, which made him an important cultural figure during my adolescence; and a beautiful but sadly uncredited translation.

This, I realised some years ago, was the mistake I made when selecting the books I would take with me to New Zealand when we first moved here: to have chosen Italian books that I could fairly readily find here, instead of Italian translations of foreign works in French or Spanish or Russian or Chinese.

I know this is preposterous, but every work of world literature translated into English sounds slightly wrong to my ears. I second guess the work of the translator, doubt that this or that passage is faithful to the source. Italian seems more natural not just as a transition from other romance languages, but also quite simply because it will always be, to my native ears, the language in which stories speak. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

Old, outdated translations, if anything, seem closer to the source, as they match the age of the original more closely. And if they were produced during Fascism – as this one probably was – they have an extra element of curiosity in the banishing of foreign words, and the translation of any translatable first names, which should be bothersome, but actually isn’t. Gogol himself is ‘Nicola’. Ivan Abramovic is ‘Giovanni’, Istvan Varlamovic is ‘Stefano’. But not Akaky Akakievich – he stayed the same.

The Overcoat has to be the world’s perfect comic story, but even just saying what it’s about takes half of the joy out of it. Or, worse yet, spoiling the ending. It turns out I vividly remembered the description of the old overcoat so worn as to be practically transparent, and the negotiations with the drunken tailor. As for Carolina Ivanovna and the prominent personage petitioned in vain by Akakievich, we hear that the pair had ‘a very frank friendship’ – a euphemism for ‘extra-marital affair’ that still makes me giggle inexplicably.

I found this on Wikipedia. It turns out Gogol lived in Rome at the time when he wrote The Overcoat (from 1838 to 1842), and a commemorative plaque was erected by the local ‘Russian colony’ in 1901. At Villa Borghese there’s a rather wonderful statue of him.

Diary of a Madman is the story where you wait for the twist but the twist doesn’t come. It’s got an actual stream of consciousness in it, and the following passage:
I have reached the conclusion that it is ignorance which makes us think that Spain and China are two different countries, when they are in fact one and the same. I suggest you write the word Spain. You’ll see it reads: China.
But mostly I find it melancholy and sad.

The Nose is the story of a barber who finds a nose inside his breakfast bread loaf. He recognises it as belonging to one of his customers, Major Kovalev, also known as ‘Collegiate Assessor’ Kovalev (because all of these stories are obsessed with bureaucratic titles and the status that comes with them). Panicked, he throws the nose in the Neva. Meanwhile, Kovalev wakes up without a nose. His face is flat, like a pancake. He leaves the house in a frenzy. Next to a pastry shop he bumps into a stranger, apparently a military officer, whom he immediately recognises as the nose, but he cannot apprehend him. Later he finds the nose, which is now back to being a nose and no longer a nose-person, but is unable to stick it back on. A physician says he’s better off without it and offers to buy it off him. Other things happen. The story ends in an argument between the narrator and the author, with a moral tacked at the end.
Say what you want, but episodes like these happen in our world. Rarely, it’s true, but they do happen.

I put the book back on its new shelf, next to the Edgar Allan Poe, more battered than when I took it down, wondering how many more times, if any, I shall indulge in its particular pleasures, and at the cost of what other new book that I may never get to read.


Philip said...

I read him in a Penguin collection during a Russian-literature kick in my late teens, which also encompassed the Penguin editions of Lermontov's A Hero of our Time and Dostoyevsky's doorsteps, all with nice long introductions to put everything in context. In general I agree about old translation being the best (I read a modern translation a while ago in which a Wilhelmine German general uttered the phrase "a guy like me") but I recall a bit put off by the translation of Crime and Punishment, where the dialogue is full of words like cad and bounder, which makes poor Raskolnikov sound as if he went to Eton in the 1920s. Other versions have improved on this, but for me the Penguin editions of Gogol and Lermontov are the definitive ones, despite Vladimir Nabokov's attempt to render the latter as a Nabokonovel.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes, true, some old translations are epic clunkers. Actually, contrary to what I wrote, many of the ones produced during Fascism are (I think that's how I first read Mark Twain). But in other cases, like with Dumas, I can't quite abide by the inevitable bringing up to date of new translations.

Maslow said...

I love these stories too - I love how Gogol keeps a straight face while telling the story of The Nose - there is for me, a clear line to what Kafka was doing a few years later. The story of The Overcoat also is unforgettably tragic. Thanks for writing this.