Today, 212-years ago, on April Fool’s Day, the writer Nikolai Gogol was born in the Ukraine. As his birthdate might suggest, Gogol was never a man to miss an opportunity to joke, and in this essay I pay homage to perhaps his most biting satirical story, THE NOSE—a tale for our times.
Sniffing out stupidity and malevolence was Gogol’s great gift. His most olfactive tale, appropriately enough, is The Nose, a comically grotesque satire from 1836—grotesque in the sense of its storyline: a drunken barber finding a nose in his breakfast roll. (Think of it like the severed human ear we see close-up in the grass, crawling with ants, at the beginning of David Lynch’s film noir Blue Velvet.) If The Portrait had haunted us with those terrible eyes, then Gogol’s own portrait has its nose take prominence, become a nasal force, fleeing the frame to blow of its own volition. Remember, Gogol had a conk complex, a thing about noses, especially his own. “My nose,” he once told a lady friend, “is decidedly bird-like, pointed and long. However, in spite of its ridiculous appearance, it is a good beast: it has never been known to turn up, it has never sneezed to please my superiors or the authorities—in short, in spite of its excessive size, it has behaved itself with great moderation, for which, no doubt, it has got the reputation of a liberal.”
In 1828, as a naïve nineteen-year-old, humiliated by the reception of his self-published poem, Hans Küchelgarten, copies of which he tried to burn, Gogol set off to emigrate to America, getting as far as Lübeck before giving up the ghost. Had he made it to the new world, he’d have most certainly had a nose job, found some plastic surgeon to reshape it. The Nose even alludes to such a possibility: “I’ve heard there’s a certain kind of specialist,” somebody says, “who can fix you up with any kind of nose you like.” In a way, The Nose is Gogol’s nose job; he sticks it into the petty affairs of Petersburg officialdom, mocking its ranks, suggesting it’s not quite true that he never turned his nose up to anyone. After all, he does something much worse: has “Major” Kovalyov lose his. Gogol cuts off the self-satisfied bureaucrat’s nose in order to spite his face, wrenching him out of his snotty complacency. Gogol’s satire had always been biting: now it was so voracious that it bit off something completely.
Gogol was a natural born storyteller even as a solitary writer. When he wrote, he’d lock himself away in his room and scribble standing up at a lectern. According to his friends, who’d sometimes spy on the unsuspecting writer through the keyhole, before getting anything on paper Gogol frantically paced up and down composing in his head, voicing aloud his characters’ dialogue, laughing to himself, engaging in all manner of bodily contortions, clutching his hair, pulling weird faces and generally waving his arms about. Thus the thespian element was embedded in his finished comic set-pieces, explaining why Gogol was such a brilliant reader of his own texts.
When it came to “Major” Kovalyov, the comedy was merciless, no holds barred. For one thing, Kovalyov isn’t a real Major, just a Collegiate Assessor who calls himself a Major out of vanity. For another, this is no dream; that nose really does turn up one morning at Ivan Yakovlevich’s, the wastrel barber, in the middle of his onion roll. And the latter recognises whose nose it is, though has no recollection of ever severing it with his razor, having shaved Kovalyov a few days back. Praskovya Osipovna, the barber’s wife, says he can’t remember because he was dead drunk that day. In any case, she cries, “I’ve heard three customers say that when they come in for a shave you start tweaking their noses about so much it’s a wonder they stay on at all!” “I’ve a mind to report you to the police myself,” she says. The barber gets in a tiz about how to get rid of the snout, deciding to dump it in the Neva river, wrapped up in a handkerchief. But a policeman spots him on St. Isaac’s Bridge, up to something fishy, and hauls the barber in for loitering suspiciously. Thereon after, the nose appears across town, “wearing a gold-braided uniform with a high stand-up collar and chamois trousers.”
Meantime, waking up early, there was no mistake about it: Kovalyov’s nose had gone. “He began pinching himself to make sure he wasn’t sleeping, but to all intents and purposes he was wide awake.” “Damn it!” he screams. “What kind of trick is this?” Hmm. It’s Gogol’s trick, of course, heaping scorn on parvenu conceit, wreaking revenge, maybe, on all those who mocked his own elongated beak when he was a lad, imagining them, like Kovalyov, losing theirs. Noseless, Kovalyov can no longer pursue his sleazily habit of chatting up pretty young girls. Nor can he wine and dine with his old cronies, or swagger proudly along the Nevsky Prospect, or boss about his inferiors at the office, pulling rank just for the hell of it. Now, “instead of a fairly presentable and reasonably sized nose,” all Kovalyov has is “an absolutely preposterous smooth flat space.”
By chance, one afternoon, he spots his nose stepping out of a carriage, and follows it to Kazan Cathedral, confronting it inside: “Don’t you realise,” says Kovalyov, “you are my own nose!” The nose has none of it. “What do you want?” it replies, curtly. The nose looks down on Kovalyov the way the Collegiate Assessor looked down on people when it was firmly affixed to his own face. He gets a touch of his own medicine, having his nose turn itself up at him. Then it slips away, disappearing into the crowd. Infuriated, Kovalyov heads straight to Police H.Q., to report a scoundrel on the loose. But the authorities are as indolent on the job as Kovalyov is on his; the Commissioner isn’t about; and nobody at the station gives a toss about a stray nose. So Kovalyov decides to put in an ad at a Petersburg rag, about a missing body part, hoping somebody might hand it. The newspaper clerk, nonplussed, says such an announcement would give the paper a bad reputation, end up as a libel case, like the one they had the other week with a lost poodle. “My God!” despairs Kovalyov. “What have I done to deserve this?”
Before long, the nose is seen taking regular strolls along the Nevsky Prospect, at exactly three o’clock every afternoon. Crowds of inquisitive people flock there to watch the spectacle. After a few days, the police seize it and bring it to Kovalyov. He’s thrilled yet perplexed about how to stick his nose back on. The doctor is as clueless as anybody, and suggests putting it in a jar of alcohol; “better still, soak it in two tablespoons of sour vodka and warmed-up vinegar, and you’ll get good money for it. I’ll take it myself if you don’t want it.” In the end, the nose miraculously shows up again, in its rightful place on the Collegiate Assessor’s face, between his two cheeks, and Kovalyov wonders if the whole ordeal had been a bad dream. “He grabbed it with his hand to make sure—but there was no doubt this time. Aha!”
The Nose is a decidedly weird tale even by Gogol’s decidedly weird standards. His letters suggest he’d initially conceived the story as a dream, but then decided to present it in waking Petersburg life. Still, it’s not so straightforward with Gogol. Nothing ever is. After all, his narrator tells us that Kovalyov was “to all intents and purposes wide awake.” It’s the “to all intents and purposes” that raises doubts. “Perhaps I dreamt it!” Kovalyov wonders, planting further seeds of ambiguity. “How could I be so stupid as to go and lose my nose?” Was it, then, something he did himself? Or was it the barber? But how could the barber do it and Kovalyov not know it? Whatever the case, this isn’t realism we’re dealing with here. It’s Gogol’s experiment in absurdist literature, his surrealist black humour, anticipating Kafka’s Metamorphosis by eighty-years, playfully pulling the rug from underneath the reader—or pulling the wool over our eyes—provoking us, taunting us, especially with its disclaimer: “The world is full of the most outrageous nonsense. Sometimes things happen which you would hardly think possible.”
His final paragraph has us wonder if this was Gogol’s April Fool’s gag all along: “All of this took place in the northern capital of our vast empire! Only now, after much reflection, can we see that there is a great deal that is very far-fetched in this story. Apart from the fact that it’s highly unlikely for a nose to disappear in such a fantastic way and then reappear in various parts of town dressed as a state counsellor, it is hard to believe that Kovalyov was so ignorant to think newspapers would accept advertisements about noses.” On the other hand, says Gogol, you won’t find much in life that isn’t on the absurd side somewhere. “Whatever you may say, these things do happen in this world—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.”
Almost two centuries after its publication, Gogol’s Nose still pokes fun at authorities and (dis)organised bureaucracies everywhere. Gogol mobilises absurdity to pillory the negative, to voice the artist as critic; yet with absurdity he also defends the “little people,” those victims of petty power who feel its injustice and complacency, who feel it while they experience their own sense of powerlessness. But Gogol is no bleeding heart liberal. His moral stances are frequently difficult to pin down, never fully settled upon. Sometimes the wielders of petty power are precisely his little people. In their fawning servility, in their yearnings to rise up the slippery slope of officialdom, Gogol knocks them down. He knows how power is scary because it is ordinary, because it is apparently autonomous, working behind the backs of those who work under it, of those who work with it and want it.
Vladimir Nabokov, in his brilliant little study of Gogol, says Gogol’s nose isn’t a proxy for sexual organs, nor any castration fantasy—which is probably how the cocaine-sniffing, nose-obsessed Freud might have read it. Rather, nasal symbolism for Gogol is more a narrative device, not so much a tongue-puller as a nose-twister, a piece of mischievous trickery related to the nose-humour so ubiquitous in Russian carnival tradition and in the hundreds of Russian sayings that revolve around the nose. Gogol knew them well. Nosology and nose-consciousness was rife in his day, all of which doubtless drew attention to the fact that his own beak was exaggeratedly long.
“The man with the longest nose,” a Russian proverb goes, “sees further.” Gogol didn’t just see further, but, as Nabokov says, brought new odours to literature and life. That’s doubtless why the authorities objected to his olfactivism: it was sniffing out awful truths about society, scenting other possibilities. When Gogol first penned The Nose, publishers weren’t turned on. They passed up on taking the tale, dismissing it as “sordid.” In printing it they feared prosecution. Gogol’s friend Pushkin eventually took the story for his own journal, The Contemporary, yet warned Gogol of probable trouble ahead, of censor repercussions. And so it was. The first beef was that the nose chose to cavort in Kazan Cathedral, a holy institution. As such, the setting was offensive, blasphemous, and had to be axed. In later versions, Gogol changed Kovalyov’s encounter with his nose to a shopping arcade—though modern reprints have restored Kazan Cathedral.
By the time of its third printing, in 1854, two-years after Gogol’s demise, the story went under the censor’s nose again. “The aim of the author,” they claimed, “is obscure and capable of being interpreted in various ways.” In condemning the tale accordingly, censors provided no better testimony to Gogol’s genius, that he was the creator of dangerous literature, a literature so ambiguous that it gave people all sorts of ideas, maybe ideas above their station. Readers might thereafter follow their own noses, and threaten the status quo, challenge the authorities as Gogol had challenged us to challenge them. Gogol’s literature stimulates deep feelings in a variety of ways, in unforeseen ways, in ways beyond the grip and grasp of governments.
That’s as good a reason as any why we should continue to read him, why we should continue to laugh with him. Most of us know from Pinocchio what happens to kids who tell fibs. Big fibs meant big noses; nice boys who fibbed and said sorry had the woodpecker come to peck their noses back to normal size. But that’s a children’s fairytale. In an adult parable, fib-tellers would lose their noses entirely; no woodpeckers would help them. “An absolutely preposterous smooth flat space” would prevail as a badge of dishonour. Corridors of political and economic power would be crawling with noseless Kovalyovs, from the petty fibbers to the really big liars, sprouting nonsense about Brexit, about how the election was rigged, about how the pandemic is nothing to fear, how it’s all a great hoax. Gogol could rewrite the script of our times, if only for a day, for April Fool’s Day, his day, and give us florid descriptions of noseless villains, clambering around frantically, outed as malicious lie-tellers, there for every honest person to see. What a day! Fake news’ nose snubbed! Whatever you may say, these things do happen in this world—rarely, I admit, but they do happen. Don’t they?