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The Nose, a short story by Nikolai Gogol (book review and recommendation)

The Nose is one of those stories everyone has heard about, one way or the other. Not everyone will be able to link it with Gogol, but almost everyone has seen something inspired by it. Many consider The Nose a satirical masterpiece.The story takes places in St. Petersburg and features many of its famous sights. It is placed within a historical context but it can be read and enjoyed even without familiarizing one's self with the time period. Published in 1836 and written while Gogol was living in Saint Petersburg, The Nose tells a story about a officer whose nose leaves him to take on a life of its own. 

Well, that sounds rather peculiar, doesn't it? A man nose running away like that and all that. Who says that classical are boring? Well, if you are a reader, you'll know that they are not, this short story least of all. The idea is certainly very out there but Gogol makes it work. Just the other day, my niece ( who happens to be three), was running around the flat saying how her nose got away.  It does seem like something that a child would come up with. Needless to say, my niece made me smile. What a wonderful place an artist imagination is! Ursula Le Guin is often quoted as saying how an artist is a child that survived. Picasso said that it is easy to be an artist when you're a child (every child is an artist), the problem is remaining one when you grow up. I thought about them both ( Picasso and Le Guin) as I was thinking about Gogol and this wonderful short story. 

For some reason, it took me a week to summon the courage to write this review. This is not my first reading of Gogol. I read Dead Souls at least a decade ago (and fallen in love with that novel I might add). Similarly, I read The Overcoat years ago. So, why did I find writing this review challenging? Perhaps because I feel like I don’t have anything especially profound to add to it. To be honest, I might have been a bit intimidated by the literary prestige of this story. Countless reviews and articles were written about The Nose. It is such a defining work of literature. What could I possibly add to it? Finally, instead of overthinking this review, I decided to simply write down what I loved about it. It is a book after all. I love writing about books. It shouldn’t be so hard, should it? 

There are so many things I love about this short story and so many reasons why I consider it a highly accomplished work. I decided to write about the main five things I love about The Nose because I wanted to sum it up a bit. So, here it goes, my favourite five things about this Gogol's short story:

1. THE HUMOUR  ----   I love the humour in this one. Humour exists on many levels. The Nose is a satirical work on a larger scale. It is an intelligent critique of human obsession with rank and climbing the social ladder. However, it is also wonderfully funny. There are so many comic episodes in this one, from the start of this novel to the end, there is no shortage of ridiculous and deliciously absurd episodes. At the very start, the reflections of barber Ivan and his wife made me giggle, even before the obvious absurdity of finding a nose in a bread. When Ivan tries to get rid of the nose, but fails miserably, one can’t help but to sympathize with him and yet the grotesqueness of the situation makes it quite entertaining. I mean it just keeps getting better from then on. My personal favourite episode is probably when major Kovaylor visits newspaper office to place an ad about his missing nose. Gogol is a master of comic situations, no doubt about that. His talent really shines in this short story.

2. THE CHARACTERS  --- I love all the characters in this novel.  There isn’t that many of them, this is a shorter work, not a novel, but somehow they manage to represent the society of the time perfectly- or that is how it seems to me. As is expected from a short story, there is no in-depth analysis of character, but Gogol still does a great job of bringing them into life.  From barber Ivan and his nagging wife to the protagonist Kovaylor and his potential hopeful mother-in-law, they are all wonderfully flawed and realistic. Kovaylor’s nose can perhaps also be considered a character in his own right….and what a character! The scene when the nose appears to be higher in rank that Kovaylor himself is particularly entertaining. Despite the absurdity of the situation, one can’t help but wonder at the motivation behind Kovaylor’s nose actions. What is the nose trying to accomplish? Why is he running away from his owner or better to say himself? I mean the question of identity is brilliantly handled in this one, especially when it comes to our flawed protagonist. Kovaylor and his nose make for a fabulous duo character.

3. THE DIALOGUES ---The dialogues and monologues are simply brilliant. Without so well written dialogues, this short story would lose its realistic feel. Indeed, it is the realistic tone contrasted with the obviously surreal aspect of the story that probably makes it such an accomplished work of literature. The striking contrast adds volumes to the story. The dialogues help it all flow, one might add. I would count the letters exchange between major Kovaylor’s and Madame Potchorina as dialogues as well. Those letters are very entertaining, aren’t they? Finally, I really enjoyed Kovaylor’s monologues. The protagonist in his inner monologues reveals himself as man obsessed with his outer appearance.  What is a man without his nose? This question turns into a philosophical one. The reader is provoked to think things through. The protagonist might be self-absorbed and superficial, but he is written in such a way as to stimulate imagination. His inner monologues prove to be a great portraying tool for Gogol.


4. THE ORIGINALITY----You can't help but love the originality and the freshness of the idea. I mean there is no doubt that the idea is pretty original. Nobody mixes nonsense with sense quite so well as Gogol. The question of identity and the outer perception is masterfully handled but Gogol doesn’t stop at that. Some even consider this story to be the first work of magic realism. I can’t think of another similar work and link it to that time period. It is certainly something quite unique. The writing style is distinctly Gogol’s and that adds to the originality of the story. I mean Gogol’s certainly had an original artistic vision in all of his writing, and his short story is no exception, but here he seems to push it to another level. Who else could have come up with those comic and absurd episodes? That all being said, there is still something very unique about the idea itself.

5. THE TIMELESSNESS----I love the timelessness of The Nose. This is one classic that has aged well. Gogol's genius perhaps lies primarily in creating a surreal story that not only feels real, but manages to speak to us on so many levels. It is satire, but it manages to raise very serious questions. It is satire, but it is also wonderfully funny. The Nose is timeless really. You can put it within the historical context and that certainly adds an addition value to it but even on its own, it is an impressive piece of writing. Moreover, I’m convinced that a reader can enjoy it just as much without knowing all the historical details. From whatever angle you look at it, this short story is a masterpiece. A timeless classic. 


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