The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, as you might imagine from the title, collects the stories of the one and only Nikolai Gogol. The collection is divided into two distinct sets of short stories, the first set nestled in the Ukrainian countryside and the second in the comparatively urban setting of St. Petersburg. Regardless of place, each story features that peculiar whimsy characteristic of a work by Gogol. Despite very mixed impressions, the collection as a whole is worth the reading.
An Uneven but Delightful Collection of Gogol’s Signature Playful Storytelling
I think that there cannot exist a reader who would love all the stories in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol equally and I also think that the division would remain the same no matter which side of that divide you stand. In other words, I am convinced that you will either prefer the Ukrainian tales or the Petersburg tales. Maybe in repeat readings, as you grow as a person, your preference will shift from one set to the other but it seems difficult to like both at the same time.
I preferred the Petersburg tales. They have much more of the surreal and cynical in them—and it’s that special breed of cynicism which is not pessimistic but simply capable of realizing that, at bottom, none of this really means anything or matters; that life and all its particulars are things we do because we are alive and we’re here so we might as well.
In that vein, Gogol tells stories that intertwine illusion (or outright delusion) with everyday matters. Low-ranking officials, starving artists, and craftsman all lead their ordinary lives, and along the way go mad with a matter-of-factness that highlights the absurdity of reality.
What becomes clear across the stories is Gogol’s desire to experiment with narrative structure itself. Narrative is not a device or a frame for a story but a living element in it, to be worked with as consciously as an author works with dialogue, character development, and pacing. In each story, you can feel the influence of the narrative structure — as if the exact same story would somehow come out entirely different if it were told by any other narrator.
In the Ukrainian tales, he often recalls an oral tradition with narratives that feel like they’re being told to you as you drink a mug of beer in an isolated country tavern. While you might have seen that mimic of oral storytelling before, Gogol takes it a step further by capturing the flexibility of truth in oral narration.
In some stories, you’re being told the story by a set of narrators who interrupt and talk over each other, offering competing accounts of events and leaving it to the reader to choose which version of which event is the most accurate.
Gogol almost feels like an ethnographer in this half of the collection, recounting not just the myths and lore people tell themselves but how they tell it and how the lore evolves to suit the changing circumstances.
The Petersburg tales, on the other hand, feel less like folklore and more like an experiment in perspective and medium. Diary of a Madman (probably my favorite) is told, as you might guess, in diary form by a man who starts off without all his marbles and becomes increasingly unhinged as time monotonously passes by.
Eventually, even the dates of his diary entries become utter nonsense — “the 86th of Martober. Between day and night” — and while we can vaguely guess at the line between what is really happening and what is our narrator’s madness, we have no outside perspective to anchor ourselves to reality. We sit, instead, like helpless little rational observers in the corner of a madman’s head as he sits deciphering a set of letters he believes were written by the neighborhood’s dogs.
In The Nose (actually this is probably my favorite), we have an “omniscient” narrator who strategically forgets pivotal events — precisely those events which would be necessary to understand how or why this story is even happening at all. By the end, this forgetful narrator comes to a crisis when he himself tries to figure out why he started telling the ridiculous story in the first place, concluding, at length, that it is because life, too, is ridiculous.
All in all, there is value and talent in all the stories. Gogol’s sense of humor and playfulness pair well with his experimentation and scattered philosophical musings. But the Petersburg tales, like the city itself, are more populated, more richly diverse, and a little faster paced than the Ukrainian tales, which, like the countryside itself, are a little more idle and meandering.
If you are intrigued by Gogol’s pervading sense of satire and cynicism, you will manage to find something charming in each story. However, I maintain that you cannot possibly like both the Ukrainian tales and the Petersburg tales equally. You will strongly favor one collection over the other and I won’t tell you which one to favor but if it isn’t the Petersburg tales, you’re wrong.