Gogol’s Impossibilities of Imagination
Updated: Jun 24, 2018
Some reflections on magical realism via Nikolai Gogol
It would be easy to brush aside the absurd impossibilities of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose”as merely a dream or illusion, but the story’s narrator—who sometimes butts his own nose into the story to tell the reader exactly what is going on—will have none of this. As the narrator concludes, “Say what you may, but such events do happen—rarely, but they do.” Kovalyov, our poor noseless protagonist, also questions that these events could actually be happening to him. “It is impossible for a nose to disappear, no way. I must be dreaming or hallucinating.” However, after he pinches himself and screams, “The pain assured him completely that he was acting and living in reality.” So there can be no question about the fact that there are elements of the supernatural occurring in this story. It is made quite clear to readers so that they don’t dismiss utter nonsense as merely a dream. The reader must understand that this is a portrayal of real life.
Having been written in 1836, “The Nose” is perhaps the prototypical magical realist story. That is why Gogol repeatedly tells the reader that these events are real, and this is not a dream. Since readers have not yet encountered magical realism, he needs to tell them how to read it. In other magical realist stories, there are not these repeated assurances that the events are real because it is made clear from the portrayals in the writing that they are to be taken as real, but that is only because authors like Gogol paved the way. As editors David Young and Keith Hollaman write in the anthology Magical Realist Fiction, “Gogol is simply too important to ignore. If Russian fiction, as someone has remarked, came out of Gogol’s overcoat, then magical realism might be said to have come out of his nose.” The editors considered “The Nose” such an important story for magical realism that, to ensure the story started off their anthology in the best way possible, they commissioned a new translation of the story by Olga Markof-Belaeff solely for their book.
As an introduction to magical realism, the story seems to start out realistic and progressively become less realistic. A couple discovers a nose in a loaf of bread? Improbable, but not magical. A man’s nose is missing and he can see no sign that it’s been removed? We’re slipping away from reality. A nose is walking around the city like a fancy gentleman? Now that’s completely magical.
Readers of this story hunting to analyze symbols are drawn to themes of castration and penis loss. While I can see some evidence for this in the story, I am disinclined to focus on this. Like the best stories, it welcomes many interpretations, yet defies them all. The loss of a nose seems fundamentally different from the loss of genitalia. All people have noses, it is immediately apparent if the nose is missing, and it is not easy to disguise one’s face. The fact that it is a nose is crucial to the fabric of the story, and noses are a recurring theme in Gogol. As Gary Saul Morson states:
“Everything is olfactory in Gogol, who had quite a schnoz himself.”
When the nose takes on the habit of strolling through the Tauride Palace gardens, one lady “requested a special letter to the supervisor of the Palace gardens that he show this rare phenomenon to her children and, if possible, provide an explanation that would be edifying and instructive to the youths.” This seems to be Gogol anticipating what the critics would be asking about his story (Perhaps demands for a clear and useful meaning of their stories are a plague that magical realist writers always have to deal with. I can’t help but think of one of my favorite lines from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka,” “Jacques, yesterday I read your Kafka’s Castle. Interesting, very interesting, but what is he driving at? It’s too long for a dream. Allegories should be short.”) However, Gogol has his answer for these critics before the story is over. “Utter nonsense is going on in the world. Sometimes there is no verisimilitude at all,” the narrator informs us. And the opinionated narrator questions the author himself, “No, I don’t understand it at all, I absolutely don’t. But what is even stranger and even more incomprehensible is the fact that writers pick such topics. I must admit this is completely inconceivable … there is absolutely no benefit to the community … there is no benefit.” So much for an edifying explanation! Gogol’s story defies critical analysis and embraces absurdity.
Aside from the fact that it is hilarious, which is difficult to write about without making it not sound funny, my favorite thing about this story is the way Gogol forces the reader’s imagination to imagine things that don’t make sense. He’s masterful at it in this story, and studying his craft helps me think about how I can push the boundaries of readers’ imaginations in my own stories. Gogol writes, “An indescribable event had occurred in front of his eyes. A carriage had stopped at the entrance, its doors opened, a gentleman in uniform jumped out holding his head low and ran up the steps. What horror and, at the same time amazement, seized Kovalyov when he realized that it was his very own nose!” Gogol claims that the event cannot be described; nevertheless, he describes it. He goes on to describe it further in terms that are specific about the details, yet entirely omitting any explanation of how this whole situation works:
“Two minutes later, the nose did in fact come out. He was wearing a gold-embroidered uniform, suede breeches, and a sword. Judging by his plumed hat, he held the rank of state councilor.”
Aside from the uproarious detail that the nose now outranks our protagonist, leaving him trembling and afraid to address this “gentleman,” we have no choice but to picture this nose in our mind. We have a vivid description of the uniform topped with a hat, and we know he appears to be a gentleman, he somehow held his head down, yet he is also still recognizable as Kovalyov’s nose. Is he a tiny nose floating in these clothes or is he a giant nose with arms and legs? Gogol refuses to consider such details. Lest we think Kovalyov is just crazy, when the policeman eventually recaptures the nose he says, “And the odd thing is, I took him for a gentleman also. But, fortunately, I had my glasses and saw immediately that he was a nose.” What’s more, he states, “‘Knowing that you need him, I brought him with me...Your nose is just as it used to be.’ / Saying this, the constable reached into his pocket and pulled out the nose wrapped in a piece of paper.” His speech implies that some transformation must have taken place, but everything is entirely unclear. We are forced to imagine a nose with a fake passport attempting to leave the country, and somehow looking like a distinguished gentleman yet also just a regular nose upon closer inspection. The whole thing is so utterly absurd, supernatural, and impossible that it can’t possibly be explained, and yet because it is written that this is the way it happens, the reader has no choice but to keep reading and allow their imagination to fill in these impossible chasms in logic.
Forcing the Imagination to do the Impossible
With this story, Gogol pushed the boundaries of realism into the new realm of magical realism and showed that when writing about the impossible, readers' imaginations will have no choice but to follow behind. I knew that the nose was crucial to this story, but during my research, I learned that noses are crucial to Gogol’s whole oeuvre. Gogol once wrote in a letter, “sometimes I am seized by a frenzied desire to transform myself into one big nose … whose nostrils would be as large as pails so that I can imbibe as much . . . as possible.” Furthermore, “In ‘The Diary of a Madman,’ the insane hero decides that people’s noses have all emigrated to the moon; in ‘Nevsky Avenue’ we read of ‘mustaches to which the better part of a lifetime is devoted.’” With this whiff of these stories, I must dive deeper into Gogol. ------------------- For my style of magical realism, check out the story I co-authored with Suany Cañarte, “Some Girls Prickle Back,” published in Birkensnake.