Russian Literature around the World: Petersburg Tales

Nikolai Vasilyevich came to St. Petersburg, still a young man dreaming of transforming the world. When he reached St Petersburg, he collided with the reality of the big city. His plan was to become a lawyer in order to improve the lives of the people there. However, the young man soon understood that this was not the place for big ideas. Nikolai tried to establish himself in the field of history – unfortunately, although all his lectures found great success, it was short lived. His attempts to become an actor failed also.

In turn, this search gave him significant life experience, and helped him to decide on his true vocation, despite the disappointments and failures he still suffered. The nature of the metropolitan resistance was the basis of the future creations of mature Gogol, which the writer described in great detail.

The writer remembered how he encountered various instances of injustice, as inequality that was rather prevalent in the society of the ‘Big City’. He remembered the plight of the youth, independently carving their path in inhuman conditions. He remembered the constant lack of money for even the most essential things, and the ugly behavior demonstrated by the superior ranks, for whom the “little man” simply did not exist.

All this was reflected in the “Petersburg tales”. They recall many conflicts of Gogol on the metropolitan and urban streets, and connect these opposites within one plot and complex style.

Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol

The Nevsky Prospect

The Nevsky Prospekt is the first tale of the cycle. It describes the stories of two companions (the artist Piskarev and Lieutenant Pirogov), which though recounted independently, are integral to the overall narrative. 

The main tone of the story is shaped through an exaggerated praise, surprise, and immeasurable admiration for which various types of laughter are hidden: humor, irony, sarcasm and of course metonimia, which plays a big role in the description. Parts of the body or outfit replace a person. It turns only to a device, a frame for demonstrating the waist, a bundle bard or caps. The Nevsky Prospect in Gogol image is represented by a vanity fair, universal communication, in which people are marched, and things. It seems like the usual history of the mustache here replaces the biography:

“Here you will meet the mustache wonderful, no pen, not depicted in any brush; the mustache, which is devoted to the best half of life, is the subject of long-haired days during the day and night, the mustache, which resulted in delicious perfume and flavors and whom all the precious and rarest lipsticks.”

First, Gogol announces the thesis, denoting the main idea: Nevsky Prospect is the “street-beauty”, universal communication of St. Petersburg. It is shown how this statement has been implemented for one day: here is the almighty Nevsky in the early morning, it is at twelve o’clock in the afternoon, then from two to three hours, from four o’clock, finally – late in the evening.

Nevsky Prospect

But in this clearly calculated calendar, the time of the day is defined by so many characters, observations and considerations that the story really creates the image of the densely populated capital, and the fascinating life of the big city.

The first storyline, the story of Piskarez, begins as a story suddenly arising from amazing love at first sight. The “young dreamer” suffering behind the stranger is experiencing a terrible shock. The woman he compared with the Madonna Italian artist of the XV century Pietro Perugino, turns out to be the worker of a public house, stupid and vulgar, empty and idle.

Only in his dreams, is Piskarev honored with poetic dates and sublime conversations. Trying to preserve them as “the only wealth”, Piskarev resorts to the deception of opium and finds new hope.

“If she expresses pure repentance and changes her life, I will get married to her. I have to marry her and, right, I will do much better than many who marry their housekeeper. But my feat will be unconsumed and maybe even great. I will return the world the most beautiful jewelry.”

So Gogol begins to rescue the fallen woman, a theme which will be constantly repeated in Russian literature: Dostoevsky, Garshin, Tolstoy. However, the “frivolous plan” leads Piskarev to the final catastrophe. He does not withstand the second explanation, the vulgarity of his chosen one is overwhelming, it frightens him. He goes home and slits his throat with a razor. The artist dies from his disappointment, which the indifferent world fails even to notice.

The second storyline, the story of lieutenant Pyrogov, is told according to the laws not of high tragedy or self-deception, but a vulnerable, “bad joke.” A pretty blonde turns out to be the wife of a German tinsmith Stillar. Pirogov, trying to care for her, deserves a humiliating punishment.

“And the Germans grabbed the hands and feet of Pirogov. He was risen to fight off; These three artisans were the most formidable people from all the St. Petersburg Germans and fought him so aggressively that, I confess, I do not find words to describe this sad event.”

Saint Petersburg

In the initial editorial office, which Pushkin read, Gogol used the reception of comic sympathy and surprise:

“The Germans with the greatest rapidity broke all the dress from him. Hofman with all the severity of his feet sat on his feet. Kunz grabbed his head, and Schiller grabbed the bunch of the rods who served as a broach in his hand. I have to confess that the lieutenant of pies was very painful.”

The culmination of this storyline is not even the “Section” (this is a word Pushkin), but the reaction to her hero. The hero is building a terrible revenge plan for this humiliation and even thinks about making a state complaint. But his anger and indignation quickly pass after he has eaten two puff pastries in the pastry shop. And in the evening, Pirogov, thinking of the ladies and cavaliers, dances at the ball.

For Dostoevsky, this immortal Gogolian image turns out to be the embodiment of an important one – and shameful – the features of the national character: the chain reaction of dishonor and digestibility. Pirogov, for Dostoevsky, are people with double morality. Demonstrating the surrounding nobility and hardness, alone, they turn out to be miserable and vulgar.

Two human destinies are opposed by Gogol on the principle of these similarities and, at the same time, contrast absolutely. Both heroes are deceived. But for Piskarev, the collapse of his dreams turns out to be a tragedy, a catastrophe. Lieutenant Pirogov, on the contrary, instantly forgets the humiliation and continues to live like it never happened.

“Silent bliss in the world!” – Chatsky exclaims (“Woe from mind” by A. Griboedov). In Nevsky Prospekt, the unscrupulous ordinary people of the pyrographers are content and enthusiastic, elevated Piskares are dying.

Nevsky Prospect

The Overcoat 

P. Annenkov, A friend of Gogol, known in his time as a  writer and critic, remembers:

“Once with Gogol, a stationery anecdote was told about a poor official, a passionate bird hunter, who had accumulated by the amount sufficient to buy a good shotgun. For the first time, he got on a small boat at the Finnish bay. Putting his precious rifle in front of his nose, he was, according to his own assurance, in some selflessness and came to himself only if looking at the nose, he did not see his new clothes. The gun was pulled into the water with a thick cane, through which he drove somewhere, and all the efforts to find it were in vain. The official returned home, lay down in bed and no longer got up. Only a common subscription of his comrades who learned about the incident and bought him a new rifle, returned him to life … Everyone laughed at the joke, which was a true story, excluding Gogol, who listened to his thoughts and lowered his head. The anecdote was the first idea of ​​the wonderful story of his ‘The Overcoat’.”

P. Annenkov is an accurate memoirist. His accounts usually correspond to reality. And we can consider the “office anecdote” as the initial moment of creative history of the story.

Gogol was now looking for such “plots”, which would help reveal the defects reigning in society and “injustice” (the expression of the writer himself). This goal was embodied in the auditor comedy, which appeared on the stage and in print in 1836.

Saint Petersburg

Thus, the “stationery joke”, heard by Gogol in the middle of 1830s, fell on the fertile ground. In the consciousness of the writer, a drastic, long-term work … In 1841, the story “The Overcoat” was mainly written.

What is the plot “The Overcoat”? It is pretty simple. A small official worker Akaki Akakievich Bashmachkin copies papers in the department, with meekness he is ridiculed by his colleagues, but he is pleased with his humble position. However, when his old overcoat comes into disrepair, and he is forced to purchase a new one. He saves money, denies himself in everything but eventually becomes the happy owner of the new garment. This happiness however, only lasts a short time – Bashmachkin, returning at night from the guests, is robbed, and his overcoat is stolen. He appeals to the high bosses, to help return the coat, but gets a harsh reward. Scorned, and left helpless, he dies. But after death, he becomes a ghost and at night haunts passers-by: mustrate for his resentment. Having robbed the general who refused him in the past, the ghost disappears. That’s the end. 

Critics (and first of all V. Belinsky) perceived it as a tough social pamphlet, as a voice in defense of the humiliated. Poor Akakia Akakievich was interpreted as a victim of an unfair social system suffering from bureaucracy and arbitrariness. After Gogol, the same topic (a small official suffering from the heartlessness of the major officials) was developed by many Russian writers. The famous literary critic Dmitry Chizhevsky published the work “On the story of Gogol The mountain” in which he had more than a hundred stories, and the main ones were on this topic.

Saint Petersburg

Therefore, the motif was mistakenly attributed to Dostoevsky: “We all left the Gogol ‘The Overcoat’ in a certain sense, correctly: Indeed, the ‘The Overcoat’ gave rise to a whole literary tradition.”

If we talk briefly, then “The Overcoat” is a parable, where in an allegorical form it is shown as a man – meek and almost innocent –  who can fall into sin, to become a slave of his passions and die spiritually. All the external story canvas – that is, the department, officials, copying of papers, the winter cold in St. Petersburg, the tailor Petrovich, the new coat, robbers, general, cold, death – serve only as decorations, against which the spiritual drama takes place. The main plot of the story is not happening in the St. Petersburg streets, but in the soul of Akaky Akakievich.

The hero of ‘The Overcoat’ is a picture of humility, it is absolutely devoid of vanity – a vice confronting humility. In this, he radically differs from his colleagues, seeking the honor to build a career. He doesn’t just feel good in his menial task – endlessly copying documents – he performs it zealously. For him, this is the meaning of life, it gives him the greatest joy.

“Having wrapped himself up, he went to bed, smiling in advance at the thought of the willing day: something will send something to rewrite tomorrow.”

What does this copying represent? A symbol of ministry, a symbol of the blessed by the God of Labor, the symbol of subordination of the whole fishery of God.

Saint Petersburg

The topic of religion is not only prevalent here, even the name of the hero is connected with the clergy. Already in the time of Gogol, such a name was rarely used in the people, and now persists in the church; This name was used for the most pious priests. They received the name ‘Akaki’ posthumously, which indicated their suffering without guilt.

The name “Akaki” means “innocence, innocent, kindly, not making evil.” And as the hero of Gogol, this quality was still doubled. 

Nevertheless, this holy Akakia Akakievich showed a crack. When he had a need for a new coat (in itself quite natural, not at all sinful), with all his mental strength, he devoted all his energies in pursuit of it. That turned out to be not just the subject of clothing, but the purpose of life, the highest value. It became an idol for him. Akaki Akakievich changes radically:

“Since then, it’s as if the very existence of him did somehow more, as if he got married, as if some other person was present with him, as if he was not alone, but some kind of pleasant girlfriend of life agreed to pass with him Life road, – and his girlfriend was not someone else, like the same sinel on a thick cotton, on a strong lining without wear. He became somehow more lively, even the harder character, as a person who has already identified and put a goal.”

The former lifestyle, as well as the former goals, faded for him. Where joy for him previously was rewriting papers, now, all thoughts are only about overcoat:

“Once, rewriting paper, he almost did not make mistakes, so she cried out almost loud “Ohh! ” and crossed out.”

Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol

The dream was exercised – the overcoat turned out to be in the hands of a little Bashmachkin. But is it fully happy? It’s not easy to answer. 

Bashmushkin is invited for a holiday. Akaki Akakievichis forced to go to a party. Before the dream of a new overcoat appeared in his life, he did as he wanted – he was free. Now, with a new coatl, he discovered the existence of secular conventions that have to obey through “I do not want.” He did not want to go to this party, but it would be indecent. He went there – and immediately felt superfluous in this environment. The hero has lost his liberty.

The story has an unexpected fantastic junction: Akaki Akakiyevich turns into a ghost, “under the guise of a stained overcoat, jumping from all her shoulders, without disassembling the ranks and titles,” sinels and fur coats. Fantastic work finals – utopian exercise ideas. Instead of submissive Akakia, Akakievich appears formidable avenger, instead of a strict “significant face” – a softened face. 

As we see, it is difficult to say that the victory was left for the Ghost Akakia Akakiyevich, who had stolen from the general, because in order to restore social justice, Bashmachkin went down the path of evil. So, unfortunately, not a “little man”, which acquired power, changed the world around, and the cruel, indifferent world changed him…

Gogol took the hero, which occupied one of the most recent places in the hierarchical system of Tsarist Russia, a quiet and innocuous creature, who never caused anyone, persogent.

Demolished all kinds of deprivation and mockery that never found no claims, except for the cleaner to the most necessary – on the “Overcoat”, and then only when without it it was impossible to do. And this is a person’s life mercilessly punishable and destroys some kind of villain and the criminal!

Saint Petersburg

The Nose

The plot of the book is based on a well-known anecdote translated from French, about the missing nose. Such stories were very popular. For the first time the motive of the nose, which prevents fully live, appeared in Gogol’s work as an unfinished essay, “Lantern Dyras” in 1832.

This story has undergone a lot of changes over several years, which was associated with the comments of censorship, as well as with the desire of the author to fully embody his idea. For example, Gogol changed the Nose’s ending, in one of the options, all the incredible events are explained by the dream of a hero.

Grotesque is one of the most beloved literary receptions. But if in the early works it was used to create an atmosphere of mysteriousness and mystery in the narrative, then in a later period turned into a method of satirically displaying the surrounding reality. The story “The Nose” is a visual confirmation of this. The inexplicable and strange disappearance of the nose from the physiognomy of major Kovalyov and an incredible independent existence of it separately from the owner suggests the idea of ​​unrestricted orders, in which the high status in society means much more than the person himself. With this position of things, any inanimate item can suddenly get significance and weight if it becomes a proper rank. This is the main problem of the story “The Nose”.

Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol

In the late work of N.V. Gogol realistic grotesqueness pervades. It is aimed at revealing the unnaturalness and absurdity of reality. With the heroes of the work there are incredible things, but they help to open the typical features of the surrounding world, identify the dependence of people from generally accepted conventions and norms.

Gogol contemporaries did not immediately appreciate the satirical talent of the writer. In fact, only V. Belinsky, who contributed a lot to the ‘correct’ understanding of the creativity of Nikolai Vasilyevich, once noted that in the “ugly grotesque”, which he uses in his work, contains “the abyss of poetry” and “the abyss of philosophy”, in their depth and accuracy worthy of the brush of Shakespeare.

So what is the meaning of such an incredible plot? The main topic of the story of Gogol’s “The Nose” is the loss of the character particles of their “I”. Most likely, this is due to the influence of unclean power. The organizing role in the plot is given by the prosecution motive, although the concrete embodiment of the supernatural force of Gogol is not indicated. The mystery captures readers from the very first phrase of the work. It is covered by darkness unknown not only from the mysterious branch of the nose from the body, but also how he could exist independently, and even in the status of a high-ranking official. Thus, the real and fantastic in the story of Gogol’s “Nose” is intertwined in the most unthinkable way.

Many writers noted that the “nose” is a magnificent sample of fiction, Gogol’s parody of various prejudices and naive faith of people in the power of supernatural forces. Fantastic elements in the works of Nikolai Vasilyevich are the ways of a satirical display of the vices of society, as well as the approval of the realistic principle in life.

The Nose

Questions:

  • What did you think of the book?
  • Which story did you like the most? Which the least? 
  • Which character do you pity the most? 
  • What do all these stories have in common? Why are they in the same collection?
  • How do you imagine St. Petersburg after reading the tales? Would you travel back in time to visit the St. Petersburg of the 1840s as described in Gogol’s tales?
  • Comparing Eugene Onegin (1820s) and Petersburg Tales (1840s), what is the greatest difference between these books? Is the time change noticeable?
  • What’s the deeper meaning of the Nevsky-Prospect tale? What do Piskarev and Pigorov have in common? Where do they and their destinies differ?
  • What does the metaphor of the nose from the tale ‘The Nose’ refer to?
  • ‘Diary of a Madman’ is distinct from the other tales. What is the main topic of the tale? Is there a parallel with the fate of Gogol himself?
  • In 1930, one of the greatest Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich produced an opera called ‘The Nose’ based on Gogol’s tale. What’s your opinion on this musical adaptation?
  • Are Gogol’s works famous in your country?
  • Would you recommend the book? Why?

Vojta

Amy

Yujeong

What did you think of the book?

Saint Petersburg is one of the places that I have always wanted to visit. I was actually going to travel there in 2020 but, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t possible. Many Russian classics take place in the – as the city is often nicknamed – ’Venice of the North’. Therefore, I was looking forward to reading a book directly dedicated to the northernmost metropolis in the world and the perhaps most beautiful Russian city. Sorry, Moscow, Kazan, Irkutsk or Kaliningrad! Gogol’s name had a great importance for me as well since I had already read his ‘Dead Souls’ and ‘The Inspector’ before. Hence, my expectations were fairly high.

Irkutsk

Having started reading the book, the first tale called ‘Nevsky Prospect’ didn’t disappoint me at all and I got into reading it immediately. Gogol took me to the Saint-Petersburg middle class of the 1840s and I got a chance to see contemporary society from his satirical point of view. In my copy, there were six tales in total and none of them were boring. Even though I liked some of them less and some more, my opinion on the book is certainly very positive. The big advantage of the Petersburg Tales is that it’s a collection of short stories. Thanks to that, it’s very readable and you aren’t obliged to remember every Russian name (which is complicated for many foreign readers of Russian literature) because the tales are shorter and you can be sure that you won’t need it later.

Nevsky Prospect

Personally, I believe that this book can be a good start for people who want to try Russian literature. The stories are amusing and brief and you will also learn a lot about Russian society. Furthermore, it might give you some inspiration for travelling to Saint Petersburg because Gogol mentions many real places which you can still visit today. Honestly, I think it’s much cooler if you tour Saint Petersburg with the knowledge of the Petersburg Tales – instead of basic sight-seeing with your smartphone, it will be the legends and myths which will guide you through the city.

Saint Petersburg

It’s early surrealism. It felt almost surreal in itself that something like this was being written in the 1830s, and I really enjoyed it. The stories were amusing and atmospheric, and the writing style accentuated this. 

The stories are varied but similar in how psychological they are. They’re different to most of what I’ve read before, and feel a bit like Russian Edgar Allen Poe (but maybe even stranger).

Edgar Allan Poe

The surrealism is enhanced through the Realism that is central to the stories. It’s immersive, and almost like a trip to St Petersburg. 

I think the author, Gogol, depicts real life in St. Petersburg with this book. This book reminds me of ‘Dubliners’ and ‘The Metamorphosis’, because Gogol describes St. Petersburg as a typical modern city, which features corrupt bureaucracy and Materialism. He uses Realism to criticize the pain and the breakdown of humanity, which makes me think about the social atmosphere of St. Petersburg in 19th-century Russia.

Dubliners

I’ve also thought about traveling to St. Petersburg one day, and my desire to travel to St. Petersburg increased exponentially through reading this book.

The Metamorphosis

Which story did you like the most? Which the least?

In my opinion, the best tale was ‘The Portrait’. However, I also liked ‘The Overcoat’ and ‘Nevsky Prospect’ a lot. The story of ‘The Portrait’ was very psychological, mysterious and thrilling. On the other hand, I find ‘The Carriage’ the least interesting tale. To be frank, I didn’t understand the meaning of this story but I don’t want to say that the tale is bad since it’s possible that I lack some vital knowledge to understand it properly.

The Portrait of Nikolai Gogol

My favourite was the Nevsky Prospect. Possibly this is partly because it was the first that I read and I wasn’t sure what to expect. With the psychological tragedy unfolding in almost beautiful descriptions, I was pleasantly surprised. His descriptions of the people on the Nevsky Prospect felt insightful and amusing, and the end, particularly of the first half, was dramatic. The second half I found less memorable, but I thought it was interesting how Gogol structured it. 

The Diary of a Madman was also a bit less memorable. However, I have to give it credit for the novel writing styles that Gogol experimented with, and the way he effectively depicts a man’s descent into insanity. As with all the tales, Gogol is adept at exploring the character’s point of view, and narrating through his perspective. 

Nevsky Prospect

I liked ‘The Overcoat’ because it explores elaborate human psychology. Also since it is a story that anyone could relate to with dense narrative development, I found it pretty interesting.

The story that I liked the least was ‘The Nevsky Prospect’, partly because I couldn’t really understand the ideologies of two main characters in that tale. To be fair, I’m not that kind of person so I guess I couldn’t understand their minds deeply. But just seeing the story, ‘The Nevsky Prospect’ was interesting and depicts the atmosphere of Russian society in the 19th century too.

Saint Petersburg

Which character do you pity the most?

For me, the most pitiable character of the Petersburg Tales was Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (Akakij Akakijevič Botičkin in Czech and Акакий Акакиевич Башмачкин in Russian), the main protagonist of ‘The Overcoat’. The tragedy of his story made me really sad. Gogol metaphorically explained the impossibility of living our lives independently and showed the real cruelty and unfairness of human society. Just in this tale, the reader can observe how ruthless people are and how volatile and transient popularity is. In fact, Bashmachkin is punished for a crime perpetrated by someone else and even though he always tried to live outside of the society, he discovers that he can’t escape it. This tale also depicts the magnitude of our decisions which may have a significant effect on other people’s lives even though they might seem spurious in our point of view.

Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin

This tale is, in my opinion, an absolute stab to the naive imaginations of a fair life and an understanding society. Instead of these cliché terms which still surround nowadays, Gogol narrates a story about an innocent person who didn’t want to be a part of the unfair society but society absorbed him against his will. Do we have a free will then? Read the tale and form your own opinion.

Saint Petersburg

It has to be Akaky Akakievich. The tale describes how, from his very birth, he is unremarkable, even inheriting his father’s name in almost comical fashion. He is entirely mundane, his life is repetitive, and in life no one takes an interest in him. However, the story focuses on him, and the reader feels very empathetic towards him. They can almost feel his hunger as he scrimps and saves his pennies for his new overcoat. The reader is deeply aware of the value of his new overcoat. In the miserable life of a man who is extremely average, the reader can see the change that his new overcoat has the potential to bring.

When his prized coat is cruelly stolen, this hope evaporates. The world returns to being a bitterly unforgiving place, and he is neglected by all with any power to help him. His pitiful position in society – middle-aged, impoverished, friendless – contrasts to that of those who do not help him. The reader feels his anguish.

Saint Petersburg

As his life, seemingly-miserable but established, unravels, the reader can only look on. When, driven mad by hopeless grief, he dies, his death is unremarkable too. ‘St Petersburg was left without Akaky Akakievich, as though he had never been there’. 

His life has been inoffensive, but pitiable. He has unjustly suffered at the hands of those with power, and even death does not initially bring him peace.

Saint Petersburg

Since all the characters in the story had their own stories that could be understood, it would be impossible to say that only one character is poor. However, from my point of view, the poorest person of everyone would be the one who bought a portrait with a strange curse – Tsartkov of the “Portrait”. Although Tsartkov was poor, his passion for art and art was no different from the rich. However, after buying the portrait in question, his life has completely changed.

Eventually, he died, living a life full of desire, and the portrait at the root of the problem one day appeared at an auction house. The painter’s son who painted the portrait knew the problem with the portrait and tried to recover and destroy it. However, the portrait once again disappeared while his back was turned.

Saint Petersburg

Tsartkov’s desire was not his complete greed. It was his hidden greed caused by the portrait. Had it not been for the portrait, his greed and desire would not have been revealed. He would not have died while ignoring the art he loved most.

In addition, the wealth that the portrait brought wasn’t what Tsartkov had sought. He did not know that the portrait would bring him wealth and he only bought the portrait because of his passion for art. That is why he was a victim of the curse of the portrait. Of course, through this novel, we could see the end of human passions and endless desires. However, I don’t think this result is completely his fault.

Saint Petersburg

What do all these stories have in common? Why are they in the same collection?

The tales undoubtedly have aspects of tragedy, surreality, psychology, satire and the St Petersburg location in common. All these stories take place in Saint Petersburg, and all of them end tragically (except ‘The Nose’) and contain some surreal mysteriousness. Moreover, in every tale, you can find some psychological and philosophical wisdom. Like in all other works by Gogol, the tales are slightly satirical.

Saint Petersburg

This collection represents a unique insight into the society of Saint Petersburg of the 19th century. Gogol depicts many social classes of this time and thanks to that, the reader feels like a time traveller. I would consider the book to be a social study of the epoch as well. The book also slightly resembles the Old Prague Legends thanks to its mystery, tragedy and the usage of existing places in the certain city.

Saint Petersburg

They’re all very psychological and surreal. Of course they’re also all set in St Petersburg. 

These stories originate from Russian realism. You can expect that these stories were born in St. Petersburg, Russia’s largest city, a city that captures the realities of Russia.

How do you imagine St. Petersburg after reading the tales? Would you travel back in time to visit the St. Petersburg of the 1840s as described in Gogol’s tales?

I imagine Saint Petersburg as a grand Russian imperial city in the North, inhabited by aristocrats, clerks, army officers, artists and beggars and full of beautiful palaces, mansions and villas. Saint Petersburg must have looked exquisite!

Saint Petersburg

I wish it were possible to travel back in time to see its beauty. So many stories took place in Saint Petersburg and it would be great if I could visit it untouched by the era of communism. 

Saint Petersburg

All the stories are very atmospheric – the opening of the Nevsky Prospect is especially so. Reading it, you’re instantly transported to the streets of St Petersburg (or its streets two hundred years ago), and you can almost feel the ‘air of pure conviviality’. You watch the workers in the morning, educated young men at lunch time, and upper class women – with ‘smiles that transcend art’ –  in the afternoon. Then you feel the Nevsky Prospect come alive in the evening, and see it filled with all sorts of people. All while reading a book. 

This sort of vivid description sets the scene for most of the tales, and it’s almost like travelling to Gogol’s St Petersburg. One day, I’d like to visit the 21st century city, but it’s magical to so clearly see it as it was two hundred years ago.

Saint Petersburg

People say St. Petersburg is ‘a window through Europe’. This suggests various meanings. Some people think this term means St. Petersburg is a way to go through European countries. Meanwhile the other people interpret this term means St. Petersburg is a mixture of both European and Russian atmosphere and culture. I think both sides make sense.

I can imagine St. Petersburg has a way more exotic and modernized and international atmosphere than any other cities of Russia, even Moscow. I could see artistic and fancy buildings like palaces, villas. But I can also imagine that St. Petersburg played a significant role as the political, economic and cultural center of Russia from the 19th century to the early 20th century. And that makes me want to visit the St. Petersburg of the 1840s too.

Saint Petersburg

Comparing Eugene Onegin (1820s) and Petersburg Tales (1840s), what is the greatest difference between these books? Is the time change noticeable?

I think that the greatest difference is the form. Pushkin wrote Eugene Onegin as a romantic novel in verses. Unlike the Petersburg Tales’, most of Eugene Onegin takes place in the countryside. On the other hand, Petersburg Tales is pure realism and Gogol’s stories are set in the city of Saint Petersburg. Furthermore, Pushkin’s Onegin is a romance aimed at its main protagonists and Gogol’s Petersburg Tales are just short stories depicting the mystery of life in Saint Petersburg.

Eugene Onegin

The change of time is noticeable thanks to the form as well. Eugen Onegin is classed as a romantic novel and Pushkin as one of the main figures of romanticism in the world. Gogol is conversely considered to be one of the founders of realism and the Petersburg Tales are written in the spirit of this movement as well. Therefore, we can easily say which of these two books was written earlier. However, there is no certain historical event mentioned in the books so we don’t know when precisely they are set.

Saint Petersburg

I don’t know enough about Russian history or literary trends to comment exactly on it. However, I do think it’s remarkable the Gogol was writing surrealism so early. Eugene Onegin felt like a masterpiece, but with the visceral emotions and Romanticism it felt very serious. Petersburg tales seemed far more experimental, and I guess they were quite ground-breaking in their creativity, and tendency to almost break the fourth-wall in terms of narration. The exploration of the character’s psychology, and the way Gogol explores different characters’ perspectives feels very modern – not like something written nearly two-hundred years ago.

Saint Petersburg

I haven’t learned that much about Russian history but I could see a more modern social atmosphere and a dull class society in terms of the hierarchical relationship between people. Also ‘Eugene Onegin’ shows the reality of upper class society in Russia while ‘Petersburg Tales’ shows the lives of people of different classes, from high-ranking civil servants to madmen with the bustling streets of St. Petersburg in the background. Same as the background of St. Petersburg, but the latter describes the lives of ordinary people, and at the same time, it seems to better show the appearance of St. Petersburg. 

Saint Petersburg

What’s the deeper meaning of the Nevsky-Prospect tale? What do Piskarev and Pigorov have in common? Where do they and their destinies differ?

For me, the Nevsky Prospect tale was a story about lonely love and ignorance of reality. The main message of this tale is the realisation of the contrast between our subjective wishes, needs and dreams and the objective reality which is, in many cases, totally different. Nevsky Prospect contains two narratives, based on denying the objective truth, and presents its possible consequences.

Nevsky Prospect

Piskarev and Pigorov are both dreamers. In order to please themselves, they don’t take other people and their opinions and dreams into account. Instead of that, their main goal is to realise their own dreams regardless of the feelings of others. However, as the time goes on, they start living in their own dreams absolutely and their dreams become their entire, deformed reality.

Piskarev following the enigmatic lady

The difference lies in the moment when their subjective realities are confronted by the objects of their dreams. Then, each character decides to act differently. Piskarev isn’t able to awake from his dreams which he prefers over the objective and unpleasant truth. This confrontation becomes fateful for him. Because of his incapability to return to normal life and of accepting any displeasure and disappointement, Piskarev decides to commit suicide. On the other hand, Pigorov is more emotionless in comparison to Piskarev. He is eager to do whatever it takes to achieve his dreams. Being beaten (and punished) because of his desires, he feels very angry and is not willing to give up his dreamed world. Unlike Piskarev, Pigorov is mentally strong and committed to revenge. However, his dreams have become insignificant and lost. Therefore, Pigorov’s story ends with appeasement illustrated by the beauty of magnificent Saint Petersburg.

Nevsky Prospect

The story closes with the narrator’s reflections on deceit. The tale is bookended by a vivid description of the Nevsky Prospect, and the array of people that can be found walking down it, but the ending is far more cynical, and almost warns against the romanticism of the opening. 

The tale opens celebrating the ‘belle of our capital city’, and, with its endless ‘glamour’ and potent ‘air of pure conviviality’, it sounds idyllic. It is somewhere that anyone – not just the residents of St Petersburg – would like to be.

However the ending is a warning. ‘Oh,’ the narrator implores, ‘don’t trust the Nevsky Prospect! (…) Everything, along with the streetlamp, breathes deceit.’ The friendly atmosphere conjured in the beginning lines is stripped away, leaving nothing but lies. 

Although the street (and the women!)  may appear beautiful, they’re dangerous, and not as they may seem, the narrator warns.

Saint Petersburg

The change in perspective may seem drastic, but it reflects the fate of the two male protagonists. They are both enchanted by a woman, or rather their own idea of a woman. Illuminated by the dangerous glow of streetlights that the narrator warns against, they are bewitched, and nothing the women say or do can break this spell. The fateful setting of the Nevsky Prospect is perhaps more significant since it was the first place in Russia to receive street lighting, which was installed in 1723. This contributes to the theme of deceit, as especially at night – when much of the story takes place –  the street is filled by shadows and an artificial hue.

Piskarev’s fantasies are realized only in sleep, which he becomes enslaved to. He drifts further and further from the clarity of day and wakefulness, and the reader watches his decay. Pirogov, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with a different girl, and becomes fixated on her, heedless of the fact she is married. Both men entirely lack self-awareness and the willingness (or capacity) to comprehend what the women say. They have very high opinions of themselves and their ability to ‘seduce’ the women, and the aspect of dramatic irony becomes comedic to the reader. In this way they are deceiving themselves almost more than they are deceived by the alluring street. 

Piskarev’s fate is sad, Pirogov’s merely pathetic. However both illustrate the dangers of deceit. The narrator ties this to the reality of the street itself, but really it goes beyond, into the characters of the men themselves. Piskarev in particular has lost his grip on reality, and the deception of the street’s bewitching shine is (partially at least) to blame. ‘It lies at any time of day, this Nevsky Prospect,’ the narrator warns, ‘but most of all it lies at night (…) when the Devil himself lights the street lamps solely to disclose everything, but not as it really is’.

Saint Petersburg

At the beginning of the story, the writer celebrated that there is no better place in St. Petersburg than Nevsky Prospect. However, falsehood and hypocrisy are present everywhere in St. Petersburg – including Nevsky Prospect. Therefore, these two protagonists both become deceived by love, their illusions and falsehoods. Of course, the fate of these two characters changes as a result. Piskarev fancies a woman and commits suicide in great grief when she refuses his proposal. On the other hand, Pigorov falls in love with the married woman, and when her husband violates him, he is angry with fear and humiliation. The two differ depending on whether they accept or resist fate.

Fate strangely controls our hearts. The love story of these two people transcends time and space. Just as Nevsky Prospect is still in St. Petersburg, Russia, it is not unusual and no surprise that these things are happening so far.

This story seems to be similar to ‘A painful case’ of ‘Dubliners’ (James Joyce). The protagonist of ‘A Painful Case’ also has excessive expectations and fantasies about ‘Araby’ as illusions about the girl he liked. However, after arriving in Araby, the protagonist is angry with his love for her, seeing the atmosphere that is no different from an ordinary street, but rather more sloppy and creepy.

Saint Petersburg

What does the metaphor of the nose from the tale ‘The Nose’ refer to?

There are things which we can’t imagine our lives without. The nose might be included in this array. What would you do if your nose disappeared suddenly? Probably, you wouldn’t be able to understand what happened. Anyway, you would have to accept it as reality – as something unchangeable. Would you be afraid of going outside, seeing your friends and being judged for being different even though it’s not your fault? Kovalyov, the main protagonist of Gogol’s tale symbolically called ‘The Nose’, has his own experience with that. Is his identity based on the existence of his nose? Will he be judged by the public for being noseless? Does being different have to lead to an existential crisis?

In my opinion, Gogol refers to our fears, prejudices and self-caused crises of our identity by using the metaphor of the missing nose. Kovalyov later finds out that he can live happily without his nose and then the nose magically returns to his face. Even though The Nose wasn’t the best tale of the Petersburg Tales for me, I really recommend reading it.

When I was reading The Nose, I was initially quite bemused. Maybe this was Gogol’s intention. The story is surreal, and often comical, and it’s never entirely clear whether Kovalyov is reliable in his perception – is his nose really walking around St Petersburg?

However, it’s clear that the loss of his nose deeply affects Kovalyov. Perhaps this could be a commentary on how precarious (and superficial) power is. One online guide suggested his ‘nose’ was a phallic metaphor, which would make sense especially with his concern about women, and the impact on his masculinity. Either way, his entire life changes drastically when his nose disappears. 

An interesting interpretation was Shostakovich’s, who of course wrote an opera dramatising the tale and was a fan of Gogol’s work.  In ‘Testimony’, the composer’s memoirs related at the end of his life to Solomon Volkov, he says:

‘The nose is a horror story, not a joke. How can police oppression be funny? Wherever you go, there’s a policeman, you can’t take a step or drop a piece of paper. And the crowd in The Nose isn’t funny, either. Taken individually, they’re not bad, just slightly eccentric. But together they’re a mob that wants blood.’ 

This particular focus on the presence of the police and the public, perhaps reflects his own experiences in dealing with authoritarian oppression throughout his life, and the way he was at times demonised by both the state and the people. He goes on to say:

‘There’s nothing funny in the image of The Nose. Without a nose you’re not a man, but without you the nose can become a man, and even an important beaurocrat. And there’s no exaggeration here, the story is believable. If Gogol had lived in our day, he would have seen stranger things. We have noses walking around such that the mind boggles, and what goes on in our republic along those lines isn’t funny at all.’

This interpretation may add a degree of tragic irony to the fact that his Opera was accused of formalism in 1929 by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, in the turbulence of the cultural revolution. This authoritarian control of the arts increased the fear that Shostakovich felt for his life, and the opera was not performed until 1974, just a year before his death.

Saint Petersburg

The tale ‘The Nose’ essentially satirizes fantasy and humanity. Depicting Major Kovalyov and the various adventures surrounding his nose, the author introduces several absurd characters and satirizes them, not even excusing the protagonist. It is the main point of the work, and in the process, the artist crosses the boundary between reality and unreality or surreality. I think ‘the nose’ implicates not only human vanity but also fantasy that humans can have easily. The fantasy of ‘The Nose’ comes from two opposing concepts of ‘existence’ and ‘extinction’, and the fantasy based on this opposition extends from each sentence, which is the most microscopic level of the work, to the macro level of an event or character appears structurally.

Saint Petersburg

‘Diary of a Madman’ is distinct from the other tales. What is the main topic of the tale? Is there a parallel with the fate of Gogol himself?

‘Diary of a Madman’ is a precise analysis of going crazy. Gogol amazingly depicts human insanity which you can notice even thanks to some tiny details like the date of the certain diary memo. Moreover, the whole tale is written in the form of a diary so it’s absolutely different in comparison to the other Petersburg Tales which are written in a more typical form.

The Desperate Man – Gustave Courbet

Gogol himself experienced descent into madness several years later. Because of asceticism, insane Gogol decided to burn most of his imaginative works which might have been considered sinful and soon after he refused all food and and passed away in great pain after spending his last days in his bed.

The Scream – Munch

The Diary of a Madman centres not only around the theme of madness, but, like the other tales, also around the broader idea of deception. The narrator is unreliable, deceiving himself, and, to an extent, the reader. This is maybe ironic, seeing as the story is in first-person and so psychological, but this adds to the extent of deception in the tale. 

The madman is deluded as to the state of the world, believing his position ‘sharpening quills’ to be far more prestigious than it actually is. It stems from his anger at the world, and this is a vicious cycle, with his delusions perpetuating it. He is contemptuous of his superiors, but believes himself – delusionally – to be superior, quoting their insults almost with pride. He is less intelligent and well-read than he wants to believe, comically mis-attributing some worthless poetry to Pushkin. 

Saint Petersburg

He’s also deluded in his hopes for a romantic relationship with the director’s daughter. He doesn’t think she is simply not interested in him, but instead thinks she is being almost helplessly led astray. He lives in his world of fantasies, and a frequent refrain is that he ‘spends time lying on his bed’, which could be interpreted sexually. 

The letters between the dogs are mysterious, and could be seen as another exhibition of the madman’s deteriorating mental state. They are surreal, but reveal some truth. In the theme of deceit, there is irony in the fact that letters from animals are least deceptive. 

The madman is also deceived by his fantasies of power. These relate to his delusions about power, and the reader watches him become more and more possessed by his political fantasies as the tale progresses. He is always concerned by authority, superiority and rank, but this escalates to him believing he is the king of Spain, which he eventually conflates with China. He deceives himself, and he is imprisoned by his fantasies. He puts particular emphasis on the value of clothes, believing that they are very significant in determining the prestige of a man (this theme can be seen in other tales like The Overcoat). This is particularly notable in the remark that the only obstacle to him presenting himself as king is ‘the fact that I don’t have a king’s attire’. He attempts to deceive through his clothes, but is permanently deluded as to the nature of rank. 

At the end of the tale, it becomes evident that he has ended up not in ‘Spain’ but in a mental asylum. Amidst his deluded hysteria he calls for his mother, and he is entirely mad. He has returned to a childlike state. It’s a vivid description of madness with a tragic end, and it can surely be no coincidence that it mirrors Gogol’s own fate. 

*some insights inspired by The Suffering Usurper: Gogol’s diary of a madman

Saint Petersburg

In the case of ‘Diary of Madman’, ‘madness’ is the theme, and Gogol said that in the early days of his work, he decided to title the “Diary of a Crazy Musician” and later removed the “Musician” part. Here, it may be seen that his interest has changed from the madness of the artist to that of the bureaucracy, but it cannot be said that the subject related to art has disappeared from this work. This is because Gogol cleverly hides the theme of ‘art’ in the text by suggesting the writing of the lower level public officials. ‘Diary of Madman’ can be said to be a work that combines two themes related to the madness of the day, the sorrows of civil servants and the problems of art. In general, the protagonist’s delusions of grandeur are delusions that come from the disagreement between inner identity and social status, and become a form of escape from reality. However, when I look at him, I focus on social absurdity and inequality, look at him from the point of view of the “social weak” (or small person), emphasize humanism, and focus on his cognitive limitations and snobbish desires. There are two types of attitudes toward him, the other being a critical one. Since it is a diary novel, each part is segmented through the entry of the date, but as his madness deepens, the record of the date becomes erratic, paradoxically representing the meaninglessness of temporal order consciousness in the novel. The incidents he experiences are not trivial incidents, but rather become an opportunity to express his fantasies and crazy interpretations of events and his heart.

In this way, it can be seen as a story in line with Gogol’s belief that, like other stories of Gogol, satirize and criticize social absurdity, keep a distance from excessive fantasies, and guard against desire.

Saint Petersburg

In 1930, one of the greatest Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich produced an opera called ‘The Nose’ based on Gogol’s tale. What’s your opinion on this musical adaptation?

Honestly, it’s one of the most intriguing operas I have ever seen. Shostakovich mixes horror, comedy and satire to amuse the audience. I saw the British Royal Opera House’s adaptation and it was truly exquisite. In my opinion, even people who aren’t overly interested in opera and classical music might appreciate Shostakovich’s ‘The Nose’. It might also be good motivation to read the book eventually.

I had wanted to try the opera for a long time, and reading the story upon which it was based was the perfect excuse. I’d read how, during the chaos of the cultural revolution, the opera was declared ‘formalistic’, and Shostakovich’s life and career seemed to be in jeopardy. I was curious to see why it was seen as formalistic, and to judge why it was so vehemently condemned. Reading Shostakovich’s insights in his memoirs were also really interesting, and added an extra level of insight.

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

Opera isn’t really my thing, but I quite enjoyed it. It felt quite unconventional, and conveyed and even enhanced the experimentalism of the original tale. The tap dancing noses were a high point. 

I liked the fact it wasn’t a ‘traditional opera’, and was quite surreal. I’d recommend it.

The Nose (Opera)

I hadn’t heard about Dmitri Shostakovich before. I guess the only famous and popular Russian composer in Korea is Tchaikovsky. But when I watched Dimitri Shostakovich’s opera, I was so surprised. It was really interesting that he mixes lots of emotions and atmospheres in only one opera. If you finish reading ‘Petersburg Tales’, I would recommend that you watch this!

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

Are Gogol’s works famous in your country?

Yes, they are. The most famous work by Gogol is ‘The Inspector’ which is also required for the Czech secondary-school leaving exam also known as the Maturita exam. Czechs love humour, satire and irony. Hence, Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol is one of the most popular Russian writers in Czechia.

The Inspector

His ‘Dead Souls’ is probably his most famous work in the UK. However, Russian literature (like most foreign literature) is generally not very widely read here, so Gogol is not particularly well known. He’s maybe slightly better known as a playwright, with reviews of his productions occasionally appearing in various publications. 

No, Russian literature is not very famous here so Gogol’s works are not read that much. The most well-known of his works in Korea is ‘Petersburg Tales’. I think he’s underrated here and I hope many people try Gogol’s works. 

Would you recommend the book? Why?

Yes, I would. I think it’s a book which you should certainly read if you want to visit Saint Petersburg. If you are interested in psychology, literature or Russia, this book is worth checking out as well.

Saint Petersburg

His tales are beautifully crafted, and very atmospheric, but at the same time feel distinctly modern. They’re a good taster for his works – and Russian literature as a whole – and they’re definitely not boring.  

Saint Petersburg

Yes. You can see St. Petersburg in a period of cultural and political upheaval through this book. His writing style is very modern, lean, and beautiful. After reading this book, you will definitely want to visit St. Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg

Amy

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