One of the best parts of my job as a librarian at San Francisco's favorite women's club, is the opportunity to coordinate monthly literary discussions led by writers, academics, and historians. Not every great writer is a great book group leader and there are some academics who should never never be put in front of a group of anyone (horror stories to come in future blog posts), but yesterday we were privileged to be led by San Francisco-based author and writing professor Lindsey Crittenden http://www.lindseycrittenden.com (The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray).
Whenever I invite a book group leader to lead, I ask them what they want to discuss rather than telling them what to do. Good leaders need passion, experience and empathy--I try to sniff out the empathy, in person, if possible. I then hope that passion and experience will follow.
Lindsey suggested the short story The Overcoat, written by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)--and published in Russian in 1842 and in English in 1850. She had both studied and taught the story and had a lot of supplementary readings showing its continued relevance (more on that later).
I knew nothing about the story and even less about Russian literature but thought The Overcoat might work for some simple reasons:
1)We would be reading it just after the holidays in January-- a time when people are actually wearing overcoats (even here in San Francisco) and
2) A short story might appeal to people just back from holidays--who did not have a lot of time to read.
I told you the reasons were simple!
The morning after, I am here to tell you that the discussion was a success. I can even measure the success in the number of phone calls I have received praising the speaker and the program and asking for MORE like it.
Yes, it is raining hard today and people are near their landline phones and in the mood to make phone calls. But still--they could be calling in to complain and that's clearly not the case!
Want to have an Overcoat discussion of your very own--at home, in your workplace or at your library?
Read on to see what we did.
Eight of us had the discussion yesterday--seated around the fireplace in the library as it poured outside. One women in the group was born in Russia, spoke Russian fluently, and brought her copy of the book in Russian. That certainly added a lot to the discussion--as she was able to explain nuances in our different English tranlsations. She also taught us how to pronounce Gogol--ending with a soft "L" To our American ears, it sounded like "gargle".
Most of us read the more formal, more dated translation by David Magarshack, The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil (W.W. Norton and Company 1957). Lindsey brought her more free flowing colloquial translation by Constance Garnett in THE STORY AND ITS WRITER, Ann Charters, editor. (Bedford/St martin's 2006)
One thing that we did was read a sample paragraph from the different translations. Wow--what a difference in tone and style we found--including the interchangeable use of the words "ghost" and "corpse".
The plot of the Overcoat:
A single, middle-aged, dedicated Russian civil servant, Akaky Akayevich needs a new overcoat--since the coat he has worn for years is beyond repair. It is winter and he is freezing on his walks to work, so he saves up and skip meals so that he can afford to buy the cloth and hire the tailor to make a new overcoat. The new coat turns out great and keeps him warm on his walk to work--where his co-workers admire it.
You'll have to read the story to find out what happens next, although given that this a Russian short story set in the even more depressing than usual pre-Revolution 1840s--you can probably guess. Still, I did not expect ghosts to appear.
So there's not much of a plot, if you ask me. Still, The Overcoat is and was a big deal in international literary circles. For one thing, at the time, the short story was a brand new genre.
Here are a few other reasons why we should read and discuss The Overcoat .
1) Reality literature: The Overcoat was a pioneer in featuring real people and everyday workers with all their flaws. Until then there were myths and tales of nobility. Our hero , named Akaky (which at its most polite translates from the Russian as "poop") has a complexion described as "hemorrhoidal" The tailor works seated barefoot up on a plank wood table and his toes have a fungal infection of the kind that still plagues us based on all the ads for laser toe treatments.
2) Gogol digresses at a time when digressing was new to mainstream literature. The narrator offers a lot of asides (a.k.a. digressions) on everything from the writing process to local politics--stepping in and out of the story to do so--which was unusual in the days before blogs.
It starts immediately in the opening line:
In the department...but perhaps it is just as well not to say in which department. There is nothing more touchy and ill-tempered in the world than departments, regiments, government offices, and indeed any kind of official body. Nowadays, every private individual takes a personal insult to be an insult against society at large.
Ever been to a condo owner's board meeting? Gogol would have had a field day!
3)There is foreshadowing. Book Groups love foreshadowing. There is political foreshadowing of the Russian Revolution to come in the civil servant's confrontation with a government official called (in my translation) the Very Important Person. Again, you'll have to read the story to see how that unfolds. Hint: There's a supernatural angle.
4) It has legs The social satire and jabs at human ego seem just as relevant today.
Consider the following description of a government official:
"The manners and habits of the Very Important Person were very grand and impressive, but not very subtle. His usual conversation with subordinates..consisted almost entirely of three phrases: "How dare you sir? Do you know who you're talking to, sir? Do you realize who is standing before you sir?"
You hear the same dialogue when contractors remodeling Atherton kitchens order the wrong kind of counter tile.. or when reservations get lost at The Rotunda restaurant at Nieman Marcus.
5) It has evolved Because The Overcoat has become a recognizable parable, many playwrights and authors have ammended and rewritten and sung and dramatized it over the years. It's fun to see its evolution. Lindsey read to us from The Overcoat II--a short story written in 1982 by prolific American author and social critic T.C. Boyle. Here, the setting is Moscow in the 1980s. And our protagonist purchases his overcoat from what may or may not be a black market source..
Here are the supplementary readings. Take a look at them before your discussion and you will impress everyone.
1)William Amelia's Wall Street Journal essay: The Rich Fabric of Invention: How Gogol's Overcoat has withstood the test of time. (October 2009): http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203863204574345044220293478.html
2)Russian American writer Vladimir Nabokov's (1899-1977) essay: The Apotheosis of A Mask found in his book Nikolai Gogol (1944)
I had to look up the meaning of the word apotheosis:
It means "most excellent"--actually, unmatched excellence.
The unmatched excellence of a mask?
I am confused.
Anyway, in this essay, Nabokov (author of the iconic novel Lolita, and the searing memoir Speak Memory) writes:
Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange; it is only your healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader to be a wise, old friend, nicely developing the reader's won notions of life. Great literature skirts the irrational. Hamlet is the wild dream of a neurotic scholar. Gogol's The Overcoat is a grotesque and grim nightmare making black holes in the dim pattern of life. The superficial reader of the story will merely see in it the heavy frolics of an extravagant buffoon; the solemn reader will take for granted that Gogol's prime intention was to denounce the horrors of Russian bureaucracy. But neither the person who wants a good laugh, nor the person who craves for books "that make one think" will understand what The Overcoat is really about. Give me the creative reader; this is a tale for him.
Are you a creative reader?
Is this a tale for you?
Is Nabokov a snob?
How would you have liked to have had Nabokov as a professor? He taught Russian literature at Wellesley College in the 1940s.
Thank you Lindsey Crittenden for a great morning of book talk.
Thank you dear readers, if you have read this far into my blogpost.
If you try talking about The Overcoat, let me know!
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