In his Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov warns those readers who would read Gogol because they
expect to find out something about Russia… are eager to know why the blistered Germans bungled their blitz… [or] are interested in 'ideas' and 'facts' and 'messages,' [to] keep away from Gogol. The awful trouble of learning Russian in order to read him will not be repaid in your kind of hard cash" (61).
To the others, he directs the following:
But I do welcome the right sort - my brothers, my doubles. My brother is playing the organ. My sister is reading. She is my aunt. You will first learn the alphabet, the labials, the linguals, the dentals, the letters that buzz, the drone and the bumblebee, and the Tse-tse Fly. One of the vowels will make you say "Ugh!" You will feel mentally stiff and bruised after your first declension of personal pronouns. I see however no other way of getting to Gogol (or to any other Russian writer for that matter). His work, as all great literary achievements, is a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas. "Gaw-gol," not "Go-gall." The final "l" is a soft dissolving "l" which does not exist in English. One cannot hope to understand an author if one cannot even pronounce his name.
This invitation of sorts has stayed with me throughout the more stiff and bruising moments of my relationship with the Russian language and its literature.
My interest in Russian culture has covered much ground since my initial encounter with The Brothers Karamazov five years ago (of course, Nabokov would disapprove), from Evgeny Onegin to the phenomenon of the Russian incarnation of Cosmopolitan magazine. From the beginning, I was intrigued by the strangeness of what seemed to be a dark, monolithic body of thousand-page novels. After signing up for First Year Russian on what was little more than a whim, I encountered Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose," in a class appropriately titled "Strange Russian Writers." The scene in which Kovalyov confronts his errant nose while it is praying in chuch is still one of the most delightful moments in any literature I have read.
"I can't see anything," the nose replied. "Please come to the point."
"My dear sir," continued Kovalyov in a smug voice, "I really don't know what you mean by that. It's plain enough for anyone to see… Unless you want… Don't you realize you are my own nose!"
The nose looked at the Major and frowned a little.
"My dear fellow, you are mistaken. I am a person in my own right. Furthermore, I don't see that we can have anything in common. Judging from your uniform buttons, I should say you're from another government department."
With these words the nose turned away and continued its prayers." (50)
It was in some way my desire to understand this and other, less overtly absurd works, that fueled my interest in Russian literature. I was fascinated by how Gogol could conjure a scene that seemed so natural and concrete in its strangeness that I found myself assuming that it had some real, visual meaning, but that dissolved into dancing shadows when I tried to actually see the nose, dressed in the uniform of a civil servant, frowning or praying. In some way, I find myself returning to this text almost annually. As a freshman committing to language study, the story was a symbol of the exotic nature of my new endeavor. The next year, I was eager to return to the story in the context of a survey of early Russian literature, excited to understand a little better Gogol's place in the canon next to figures like Pushkin and Turgenev. I was compelled to think of the story again last spring, as I walked through the streets of Saint Petersburg and Moscow where Gogol lived. I bought a picture book version of "The Nose," with beautiful watercolors of the nose praying at Kazanskii Sobor, across the street from the apartment I lived in. In a seminar on Dead Souls this fall, I laboured over Gogol's poema for almost four months - and was lucky enough to hear Yuri Norstein discuss some of the very problems of visualization I had struggled with myself, in his lecture on Russian animation.
In the same class I was introduced to Gogol, I read the Formalist critic Victor Shklovsky for the first time, where I was fascinated by ostraneniye , the idea that the job of literature should be to "make strange." We read from his essay "Art as Technique": "And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important" (12). This was one of my first encounters with literary theory, which has remained an interest in my studies ever since. It was an ironic introduction, though, in that so much of my experience with Russian literature has been driven by a desire to understand - to "make un-strange," a kind of personal неостранение.
This desire to make sense of something has manifested itself in many ways, in my decision to immerse myself in Saint Petersburg culture for a semester, the books and poems I choose to read, in studying the political background of that literature, and of course, in my commitment to learning the language. After all, Nabokov sees "no other way." The problem is that learning the Russian language has merely textured the problems of understanding, allowing me to approach its literature from more complicated, refined angles than ever before. When I read only in translation, the questions of sound, rhythm, precision of vocabulary were necessarily set aside; I was asked to trust the translator - or translators, when multiple editions were available - not merely to guide me through a foreign terrain but to virtually recreate it for my benefit. Myself innocent of the natural flora and fauna, it was impossible for me to know what had been transplanted for my benefit, and what continued to lurk, hidden in shadow.
And so I returned to the same passage of the original text Gogol's story, to see where I had been led when I placed my hand blindly and trustingly in that of the translator, several years ago.
— Ничего решительно не понимаю, — отвечал нос. — Изъяснитесь удовлетворительнее.
— Милостивый государь, — сказал Ковалев с чувством собственного достоинства, — я не знаю, кажется, совершенно очевидно... Или вы хотите... Ведь вы мой собственный нос!
Нос посмотрел на майора, и брови его несколько нахмурились.
— Вы ошибаетесь, милостивый государь. Я сам по себе. Притом между нами не может быть никаких тесных отношений. Судя по пуговицам вашего вицмундира, вы должны служить по другому ведомству. — Сказавши это, нос отвернулся и продолжал молиться. (68)
My first reaction was actually one of bemused disappointment. In my "Nose," in the memory of the English text I had read first, the reply of the olfactory organ, "I can't see anything," was an amusing double entendre, drawing my attention to the problems of visualizing a facial feature with facial features. Now I saw that this was a translator's invasion; literally, Gogol's nose doesn't "understand" anything. In a slight way, my previous understanding of the text had actually been flattened by an encounter with the original incarnation. But this minor compression paled in comparison to the many strange levels that opened before me - suddenly, I could hear the nose speak. «Я сам по себе» had a familiar echo, though I had just read it here for the first time; the suddenly foreign sounding "I am a person in my own right" clanked hollowly in response.
My engagement with the strangeness of Russian literature and my desire to understand it more on its own terms has led to this often frustrating and always rewarding relationship with the language. It has made me - sometimes painfully - aware of the problems of translation, and has helped lead to the development of my senior project on Soviet translations of American and English children's literature. By closely reading the attempts of others to understand an equally strange body of Western literature (A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, and Frank Baum, specifically) within the Russian cultural framework, I have begun to see more clearly some of the strengths and weaknesses of my own position. At times the language seems to writhe out of my grasp, taunting me to really hear what it has to say. But in other moments, I realize that I am fortunate, and that I bring to my reading of Russian not only distance, but a kind of sensitivity, a more self-conscious ear than I have been able to offer my native tongue.
And after seven semesters of studying Russian at Amherst College, I find that only one thing is certain: I still can't pronounce the "soft dissolving" Russian "l" with any regularity. But the other challenge Nabokov offers the would-be student of Russian is perhaps the more significant. The chapter on Gogol ends: "While trying to convey my attitude towards his art I have not produced any tangible proofs of its peculiar existence. I can only place my hand on my heart and affirm that I have not imagined Gogol. He really wrote, he really lived" (61).
For this reason, whatever the frustration of reading an original text or the doubt associated with translation, I look back on my investment contentedly, and with some pride. Even if I have yet to master the name of the artist, and am further still from claiming an understanding of his work, I no longer have to take its artistry on faith, through the veil of another's language. I, too, can swear to its existence, having proven it to myself.
Gogol, Nikolai. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Trans. Ronald Wilks. London: Penguin Books, 1972.
---. Povesti. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1952.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Russian Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Shklovsky, Victor. "Art as Technique." Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Trans. Lemon, Lee T., and Reis, Marion J. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.