Friday, August 18, 2017


The Great Nabacocoa

(The Sad State of the American Short Story)

The situation has been the same for years. Nothing ever seems to change and practically no one deems it necessary even to talk about it. Almost forty years ago a colleague at the university where I taught, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker and a person whose intelligence I respect, said to me, “I love The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. ‘The New Yorker story’ does not appeal to me.” In a visit to my general practitioner a month ago, the doctor, an avid reader of classical literary fiction—the canonical literary works of the world—remarked, “I love the articles in The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. Most of it is a total bore.” Over a period of forty years how many other intelligent readers of fiction have said the same thing? Repeatedly. Why is nobody listening?

Over the past ten years I have subscribed to a variety of American literary journals. Someone advised me to try reading Agni, where, so they said, some of the best fiction in the country was being published. I subscribed to Agni for two years and never found a single short story of genuine literary merit. With few exceptions the same was true of the other “literary” journals I read.

At times I was simply astonished by the winners of literary prizes. I would read the whole story and gasp with amazement. That story won a prize? That’s a story not even worth publishing. I also subscribed to One Story for a couple of years. Here, once again, since they publish only one story in each issue, you’d think their standards for what they accept would be high. Alas, their standards are low, and most of what they publish is hardly worth reading.

Sometimes I thought that part of the problem was me. I taught Russian literature for thirty years, so I cut my literary teeth on some of the best fiction ever published. Do modern writers publishing in the U.S. today simply have lower standards? Is it no longer cool to be ambitious, to want to write fiction with verve and panache, to aim for something entirely new and unique?

The standard pedestrian story, the kind of thing I cannot stand, is in the genre of what has come to be called “domestic literary fiction.” The characters are often middle-class Americans, caught up in their daily dramas of adultery or psychological trauma. The style is bland, straight realism, with few or no stylistic embellishments. The structure is often lax, with few narrative arcs, without a clear beginning, middle and end. There is no LITERATURE in these stories, and maybe I would be less offended by their omnipresence in every American journal I come across if they would just change the name: domestic fiction. Leave the ‘literary’ out. The stories would still be as egregiously dull and unimaginative, but at least they would no longer pretend to be literature.

I have subscribed to The New Yorker for forty years. I have not done a survey, but I suspect that at least half the stories published there are in the category of “domestic literary fiction.” Maybe it’s more like two thirds. In other words, the magazine widely considered the best repository of quality fiction in the whole country is publishing more dreck than good fiction. How many different fiction editors has the magazine gone through over that long time period? Wasn’t there a single one of them who could read fiction creatively? Lovers of literature should be up in arms and marching on New York, but nobody is. WHY NOT?

In the late eighties or early nineties The New Yorker started coming out with an annual “fiction edition.” For the first couple of times the yearly issue was wonderful, packed with interesting creative writing. John Updike, a survivor from the time period before the mass deterioration in fictional quality, was still publishing his stuff back then. But quite rapidly the business of the “fiction edition” went into decline. Look at this year’s offerings and you’ll find very little fiction. In lieu of fiction the regular contributors now write little autobiographical pieces about how they spent their vacations on beaches catching crabs as children.

Let’s take a couple of concrete examples to illustrate my point. Here is the beginning of a recent story in The New Yorker: “Close to five hours on the train. And then twenty minutes by taxi from the station to the school. He would have time to call the lawyer, work through the options. He had the number of a consultant, in case Rowan needed to apply somewhere else. Maybe the school legally had to contact the college he’d got into, but Richard wasn’t sure. And maybe it wouldn’t come to that. The school wouldn’t want to make anything public. The thought calmed him—good, good. They were on his side, even if they had not said so in so many words: they weren’t stupid.”

Is there anything about this lead paragraph that makes the reader want to read on? I see practically nothing. Is there even a faint taint of literature here? None. So where was the appeal for the fiction editor of The New Yorker who decided to publish this? Does the story get better later on? Hardly. This is exactly the kind of fiction that my literature- loving doctor is not going to read.

In recent years foreign writers of English-language fiction have been frequently published in American literary journals. These are sometimes persons born abroad, sometimes persons born in the U.S. of recently immigrated parents. You might think, Well wonderful. Stories set in other countries, based on exotic foreign cultures, will bring novel and exiting verve to the American short story. Alas, it appears that large numbers of such writers have bought into the gruesome American tradition of mediocrity. Their characters may be African or Indonesian, but they are fully as humdrum as the American characters mired in “domestic literary fiction.”

Another recent story in The New Yorker, written by a Chinese-American writer, is set in China. It begins with three Americans, Adrian, Peter (Adrian’s boyfriend) and Bella standing outside a restaurant “famous for its Peking duck.” We have the beginnings of a story in which, perhaps, something will happen. Then nothing does. Adrian and Peter fly back to the States, and for the whole rest of the story the Chinese-American Bella agonizes over her past. As if creative writing courses have neglected altogether the idea of STRUCTURE in short fiction, the whole first page of the story goes wandering around in the pluperfect tense.

“Bella had known Peter for twenty-five years. They had shared a place with two other housemates in Boston when they were in law school, and for as long as they had been friends they had been talking about visiting China together.” Why bother telling us this, since the visit to China together is already done (Peter has flown back to the U.S.)? The story is not about him; it is solely about hangdog Bella.

“Adrian was a writer, and he was working on ‘a multigenerational and intercontinental epic,’ based on his family history, and during the past two weeks the three of them had toured a number of towns on the East China Sea, sifting through local archives, tracing the untraceable.” Once again, if we are to have a story with Adrian in it, then write that story. As it is, all of this pluperfect summing up of things about Adrian serves no purpose. If you want a story about Bella’s tribulations why not just eliminate the whole first page? Thank God that at least we the readers are not forced to delve into Adrian’s “intercontinental epic.” This story about the divagations of Bella’s mind, however—even after we get rid of Peter and Adrian—goes nowhere and does nothing. Why did The New Yorker publish it?

And mind you, The New Yorker publishes fiction only from agented writers. If Lev Tolstoy or Anton Chekhov sent in their very best fiction unsolicited, it would receive zero consideration. So behind these writers and these stories there are literary agents, there is a history of grooming in some creative writing program at a university. You check out the author’s website on the internet, and, sure enough, she has a background in a creative writing program, in fact one of the most famous; she is a highly regarded writer who has won awards for her fiction. 

Why does this not surprise me? Well, it would have, back before I was aware of the present-day standards in mediocrity that are widely accepted all over the publishing world. All along the line there must be people who have encouraged and continue to encourage this kind of stagnant, dead writing. But WHY?

Once at a public reading a few years ago, a successful writer of short stories, quite well known, remarked, “When I was in an MFA program the only thing they allowed us to write was ‘domestic literary fiction.’” When I heard him say this I nearly rose up in rebellion and marched upon the proscenium where he stood. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that the problem of the American short story has its origins largely in the creative writing racket that flourishes all over American universities. 

Instructors in creative writing programs must publish their fiction in order to perpetuate their careers. Many of them write in the gruesome and unforgivable genre of “domestic literary fiction.” They make names for themselves, they publish their stuff in the “literary” journals. They win awards for the dreck they publish. Even worse, they perpetuate the problem by encouraging their creative writing students to write the same way. How did they win the awards? Because the prizes are given out by other hopelessly mind-numbing writer/judges who write the same crap.

In other words, everyone—creative writing instructors, agents, publishers, arbiters of literary taste, and most readers—everyone has agreed to look at the king with no clothes on and not notice his nakedness. Why, I keep asking why, and I have already provided a few answers. Here is another: publishers still want to make money, and High Art has never been much for making money. What few readers of fiction that remain in the U.S. today are, largely, readers of the pap of which I speak. Probably a lot of them think that this is what real fiction is. As Donald Trump would say—if Trump were a reader of good fiction, or even a reader of anything—SAD.

The narrator of a recent novel by the Chinese émigré writer Ha Jin, The Boat Rocker, has this to say about restrictions on the Chinese writer of fiction in Red China: “those writers, every one of them, were talented but had to toe the line, not only on the page but also in their imaginations, because they received salaries from the state and could not afford to jeopardize their livelihoods.” You say, Yeah, that’s China, but there is no censorship in America. But haven’t writers of U.S. fiction, intent on making careers, sold out their imaginations in similar ways? Not sold out to the political pressures of the ruling government, but to the pressures of the ruling trends in mediocre writing.

I sometimes think that most people, deep, deep down, are most comfortable with mediocrity. Human nature is such that in any life’s endeavor things are so set up as to find a common denominator in the pedestrian. One amazing discovery that I made while a member of American Academia is that university professors are often little interested in creativity. While professing to be great lovers of the liberal viewpoint politically, many of them are pompously pedantic arch-reactionaries at the core. Don’t try to make things better by suggesting radical new ways of doing things in Academia; they will fight you tooth and nail.

Then again, take a look at the American “free press.” Why is it that U.S. media networks all run the same news on a given evening, and all with basically the same slant? Who is the backdoor operator organizing this everyday conformity of opinion? Why, for example, is there not a single news outlet giving us, say, the Russian view of the brouhaha concerning so-called “Russian interference” in the recent U.S. presidential election? Because the Russians are assumed automatically to be guilty, since the Russians are always the bad guys. Americans take psychological comfort in knowing there are always Russians around, to bear the brunt of all the badness. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Hollywood was in a quandary for a time: who will be the bad guys in our movies now? Then they found the easy solution: although Russians aren’t communists anymore, they still are bad.

Why, to take another example, did not a single news commentator anywhere question the veracity of reporting on the most recent gas attack in Syria (April, 2017)? President Trump sent in Cruise missiles to punish our favorite bad guy, Assad, but nobody stopped to think: you know, it simply makes no sense that Assad, or his Russian allies would be behind that attack on civilians. Just at the point when our new president was prepared to consider a new approach to Assad, BAM, another use of poison gas on civilians. It’s simply not believable, but, once again, it’s a comfort for Americans, who always prefer simple answers to complicated questions. 

And mediocrity. Take American beers, all brewed for beer drinkers with absolutely no taste, and all selling voluminously. Beer drinkers in Germany, Holland, England, etc., etc., take a taste of such a beer and say, “What? Americans drink this? And elect Trump as our President.

As for The New Yorker, luckily there are a few bright spots in the fiction offerings. Offhand I’d say the magazine has five or six stories a year worth reading. This year I have appreciated Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story with its origins in The Lives of the Saints, “Christina the Astonishing,” and a story by Etgar Keret, “Fly Already”—true, this one is not by an American writer; it is translated from the Hebrew, but at least they published it. 

Acknowledged masters of American fiction make their way occasionally into the pages of The New Yorker. A recent issue featured “The Itch” by Don DeLillo, about a man caught up in the typical DeLillo malaise: “He was forty-four years old, trapped in his body. Arms, legs, torso. Face did not itch. Scalp developed something that a doctor gave a name to, but it itched only rarely, then not at all, so the name didn’t matter.” And so on, in the same vein. If you’re looking for the very best in DeLillo, try his magnificent comic novel, White Noise, one of the best pieces of American fiction of the twentieth century.

Another big exception is the writer George Saunders, who is also a contributor to The New Yorker and a participant in the grand boondoggle of the creative writing racket—he teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. The most recent of his stories I have read in The New Yorker is “Mother’s Day” (Feb., 2016), and it, once again, is wonderful, full of great humor and stylistic panache. Someone as creative as Saunders is certainly aware of the sad state of the modern short story, so why doesn’t he come out and say something about it? Well, why should he jeopardize his position in the pantheon by accusing his fellow writers of insipidity and phoniness? That would make him appear ungrateful and arrogant.

In the same issue of The New Yorker containing the story of Bella, there is an article about the well-known writer of short fiction, Grace Paley, a writer of the domestic quotidian. “Paley initially suspected that her work would be considered ‘trivial, stupid, boring, domestic, and not interesting,’ but she couldn’t help it: ‘Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me.’”

What is the difference between Paley’s domestic fiction and the stifling domestic fiction that is rampant today? The main difference is that Paley’s fiction is WRITTEN. What does that mean? Take this example from one of her stories, “A Conversation with My Father,” a tale in which the eighty-six-year-old father of the narrator, sick in bed, asks her to entertain him with a story about “simple people.” Here is what she comes up with at first, a story that is NOT WRITTEN.

“Once in my time there was a woman and she had a son. They lived nicely, in a small apartment in Manhattan. The boy at about fifteen became a junkie, which is not unusual in our neighborhood. In order to maintain her close friendship with him, she became a junkie too. She said it was part of the youth culture, with which she felt so much at home. After a while, for a number of reasons, the boy gave it all up and left the city and his mother in disgust. Hopeless and alone, she grieved. We all visit her.”

The narrator’s old father then complains that she has left everything out of the story. How did the woman look? Who were her parents that she should end up like this? The next attempt by the narrator is WRITTEN. What makes it WRITTEN? See the passages I have italicized below.

“Once, across the street from us, there was a fine handsome woman, our neighbor. She had a son whom she loved because she’d known him since birth (in helpless chubby infancy, and in the wrestling, hugging ages, seven to ten, as well as earlier and later). This boy, when he fell into the fist of adolescence, became a junkie. He was not a hopeless one. He was in fact hopeful, an ideologue and successful converter. With his busy brilliance, he wrote persuasive articles for his high-school newspaper. Seeking a wider audience, using important connections, he drummed into Lower Manhattan newsstand distribution a periodical called ‘Oh! Golden Horse!’

“In order to keep him from feeling guilty (because guilt is the stony heart of nine-tenths of all clinically diagnosed cancers in America today, she said), and because she had always believed in giving bad habits a home where one could keep an eye on them, she too became a junkie. . . .”

The writer of the article Alexandra Schwartz goes on to say the following: “On the branches of the bare first draft, life begins to bud. Before the woman seemed delusional, pathetic. Now we see her goodness, her confused optimism, her protective love for her son. The narrator’s tone turns rueful, tender; a piece of gossip has become literature” (New Yorker, May 8, 2017, p. 67-68). Well, maybe not high art, but yes, literature, and why? Because it is WRITTEN.

Oh, that only Vladimir Nabokov were still around, with his high standards for what is good literature and his hound dog’s instinct for frauds and literary trash. I would advocate forcing the fiction editor of The New Yorker, plus the fiction editors of all the American “literary” journals—before they accept for publication another single story—to read all of Grace Paley’s fiction. If they don’t have time for that, let them read one story published in The New Yorker back before the advent of the Age of Egregious: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” Here we have a mere five pages of sheer aching loveliness. Well, it too features an American domestic scene, describing an old Russian Jewish émigré couple; they live in an American city and have a grown son who is mentally ill.

But what a difference between Nabokov’s story and the pap/dreck that has long since become the new normal. What a plethora of lovely lines, what an amplitude of emotion! Read just this one story, modern-day writer of American fiction, and try to get at least a little bit ambitious! Forget everything they’ve told you back in those dismal creative writing courses.

Write something new and unique, try for something original. Then don’t send it anywhere until you’ve revised and polished it eight, ten, twenty fifty times—until it coruscates and gleams like a precious gem of lapis lazuli. Okay, we cannot all be Nabokov, but we can at least make an effort to transcend the dreck. Not interested in writing LITERATURE? Fine. Good. Go on writing the stultifying stuff, but don’t pretend that it’s literary.

The American Literary Establishment has recently been shaken up by the power of Amazon, frightened to the core by that power. I say good for Amazon, which does not have to indulge in the fakery of The Establishment. Amazon has done some highly positive things for American Letters. Take, for one example, the thing of the editorial review. Amazon customer reviews now cut into the reprehensible practice of having establishment literary figures write automatic positive reviews for any writer who is already IN. This often makes for an interesting contrast. We no longer have to trust the editorial reviews, when on Amazon we can read often highly intelligent customer reviews of the same books. The editorial reviews for established writers, were they to give stars, would all be starred at 4.5 and 5.0. When the customer reviews for the same book are at 3.0, we suspect that the writer of the editorial review has been engaged in meretricious fakery.

Herein appended is the final section of a recent review I wrote of a novel by Elif Batuman, The Idiot. My jeremiad here resembles, in some respects, that above, repeats some of the same points, but comes at the discussion from a slightly different viewpoint.

Although Elif Batuman has published only two books, both relatively recently, she has already made it big time in the Eastern Literary Establishment. Many American writers would give their right writing hand to be where she already is. Ms. Batuman has a literary agent in the most prestigious agency in New York, she is a contributor/staff writer for The New Yorker. She has hotshot editors on high, and her books are reviewed at the highest levels: The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, etc. No matter how good or bad her next novel is, it will without doubt be favorably reviewed at the same high levels as The Idiot—not really a very good novel—has just been reviewed. That’s the way the game works, after you are accepted into the IN crowd.

So what Ms. Batuman needs to do at this point is stop listening to the hotshot establishment agents and editors and write something that is real literature. Unlike so many modern American writers, those who have come out of creative writing programs, she has taken the time to read the great writers; she knows what literature is. For her first novel I can imagine the agent telling her, “Stick to the timeworn pattern, don’t get far away from realism, describe the everyday life of a girl who resembles yourself. Write ‘domestic literary fiction,’ for this is what sells in America. Don’t get too cute in your first published work. Nobody needs too much creativity.” So she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about her days at Harvard. Okay, she has listened to that spiel once, but now that she is in with the in crowd, she can write whatever kind of fiction she likes. She should.

Elif Batuman is aware of the vast wasteland that is the creative writing industry in the U.S. How do I know? Because in her nonfiction work, The Possessed (something of a companion work to The Idiot), she expresses strong opinions about that puerile racket. Just beginning her creative life, she drops in on a writing workshop on Cape Cod, where the lead guru tells her, “If you want to be an academic, go to graduate school; if you want to be a writer come here.” The implication is that you need not even read and discuss the great writers of the past. Instead you sit around reading and critiquing short stories by pedestrian writers who have read, largely, other pedestrian writers. Who, furthermore, buy into deadening trends like “political correctness” in fiction. Who actually worry about offending people. Great writers are often eager to offend people.

Here's what Franz Kafka said on that subject. “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? . . . We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply . . . . A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” He’s talking LITERATURE, fellow Homosapien. And AMBITIOUS writing.

“For many years [goes on Elif Batuman], I gave little thought to the choice I had made between creative writing and literary criticism. In 2006, n + I magazine asked me to write about the state of the American short story, using the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005 as data. Only then, as I turned the pages in the name of science, did I find myself remembering the emptiness I had felt on that rainy day on Cape Cod” (The Possessed).

“I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft.’ . . . . I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns.”
This critique of the modern American short story goes on for two more pages and concludes as follows: “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic literary realism. Urggh.

This revelation—that the “best stories” written in the U.S. in 2004 and 2005 (and, alas, any other recent year) are bad stories—should open the eyes of the writing world. But given that the whole writing industry and publishing enterprise prefers to proceed with eyes shut, nothing essentially will be changed. In creative writing programs all over the U.S. “creative writers” teach their students to value the same twaddle. After which the students graduate, get positions as creative writing instructors, and perpetuate the problem. The best solution would be to abolish all creative writing departments in every university in the country. Then ban the genre of “domestic literary fiction.” 

When I am elected President, I will issue an executive order to that effect. Dream on.

But what about the good writers? you may ask. Some good writers come out of creative writing programs. Fine, but we need not worry about the good ones. They will find their own way; they have no need of people encouraging mediocrity and feeding them platitudes: “show, don’t tell,” and “you can’t use adverbs.”

As is obvious, however, Elif Batuman is already aware of the Vast Egregious Boondoggle that is the contemporary American short story. I’m sure she is also aware that the people interested in selling books—her agent, her editors, all of the establishment literary world—would prefer that her next novel stay with realistic characters and pedestrian plots. She is in a position now to defy those agents and editors. Write something new, vivid, vital now, Elif. Something ambitious, something with literary panache. Write us a piece of LITERATURE.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


During his famous trip to visit the penal settlements in the Far East (Sakhalin Island), Chekhov arrived in the provincial city of Blagoveshchensk (named, apparently, after the Christian holiday of Blagoveshchenie, the Annunciation) on June 27, 1890. The city is located 8000 kilometers east of Moscow, on the Amur River and bordering on China. From there he wrote his friend, the publisher A.S. Suvorin (1834-1912) a letter about his visit to a brothel:

"a nice clean room, sentimental in an Asiatic way, furnished with bric-a-brac. No ewers, no rubber devices, no portraits of generals . . . The Japanese girl has her own concept of modesty. She doesn't put out the light, and when you ask what the Japanese is for one thing or another, she gives a straight answer, and as she does so, because she doesn't understand much Russian, points her fingers and even puts her hand on it. What's more, she doesn't put on airs or go coy, like Russian women. And all the time she is laughing and making lots of tsu noises. She is amazingly skilled at her job, so that you feel that you are not having intercourse, but taking part in a top-level equitation class. When you come the Japanese girl pulls with her teeth a sheet of cotton wool from her sleeve, catches you by the 'boy' . . . and gives you a massage, and the cotton wool tickles your belly. And all of this is done with coquetry, laughing, singing and saying tsu."
English translation from Donald Rayfield biography of Chekhov (Henry Holt, 1997), p. 228. Chekhov's correspondence with Suvorin is amazingly frank and open. In Soviet times many letters between the two were published in censored form or not at all. This is one of those letters in the "not at all" category.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


My favorite photograph of Anton Chekhov. Here he sits in the middle of a company of famous actors, each of them acting like crazy for the photographer, striking all sorts of flamboyant poses, while he sits thinking, "I'm not an actor; what kind of pose can I put on?"

Friday, July 28, 2017

Notes on Chekhov's "Little Trilogy" CHEKHOV WINKS AT TOLSTOY: (2) THE GOOD COUNTRY LIFE

CHEKHOV WINKS AT TOLSTOY: (2) The Good Country Life

One of Tolstoy’s obsessions throughout much of his life was his dream of good country living, surrounded by wife and family and in close communion with nature. He exalted this sort of life in both of his two major novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Furthermore, he tried to live exactly such a life himself, on his country estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy hated cities, trains, loved peasants and Mother Earth. But his attempts to find happiness in the good country life were never entirely successful. In the final pages of Anna Karenina the author’s alter ego Levin—despite his having achieved a happy family life and contentment on his country estate—is in constant depression and contemplates suicide on a daily basis.

Chekhov has a lot of fun taking Tolstoy’s themes and circumstances, then making a travesty of them. This is most obvious in the story “Gooseberries,” which depicts how the dream of good country living results in a man becoming a miser, then marrying a woman for her money, then practically starving her to death in his parsimony. All this so that he can buy a paltry little landed estate, where he vegetates out his life, being a pig, eating hard and sour gooseberries.

As if the take-off on Tolstoy were not clear enough, Chekhov makes an obvious allusion to one of Tolstoy’s short moralizing stories, “How Much Land Does A Man Need.” This is a parable about a peasant who is told he can buy very cheaply as much land as he can walk over in a given day. But the peasant is so greedy that he overstrains himself and dies of exhaustion at the very moment he is on the verge of acquiring a huge plot of land. The moral of a story and the answer of the question in the title: a man needs really only six feet of earth to be buried in.

Chekhov has one of his characters, Ivan Ivanovich, reply to Tolstoy. “They say man needs only six feet of earth. But it is a corpse, and not a man, who needs six feet . . . . these country estates are nothing but those same six feet of earth. To escape from the town, from the struggle, from the loud bustle of life, to escape and hunker down on a country estate is not life, but egoism, idleness . . . . It is not six feet of earth, not a country estate that man needs, but the whole globe, the whole of nature, where he will have room to display his personality and the individual characteristics of his free soul.”

Don’t make the mistake, however, of assuming that the above is Chekhov’s own personal reply to Tolstoy. That is not the way Chekhov writes fiction. Everything tends to cut two ways, and the authenticity of the above opinion is undercut, at least in part, by the fact that the blowhard melancholic Ivan Ivanovich is the person voicing it.

As we move on to the next story, “About Love,” the theme of good country living/or the lack thereof moves with us. Alyokhin the landowner in “About Love” is a travesty of Levin the landowner and alter ego of Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. One of the most famous scenes in all of Russian literature is the episode that depicts Levin out mowing with his peasants, exulting in the sweat of his brow. He tells his idle half brother that he has found a new therapy, known as Arbeitskur: the work cure.

But Alyokin is bored stiff living in the country. He works like a peasant only because he has no choice, but he finds the work exhausting and stultifying. He “ploughed, sowed and reaped” and felt “like a village cat driven by hunger to eat cucumbers in the kitchen garden.” So much for the Arbeitskur.

As for the little pokes at Tolstoy, especially at Anna Karenina, the list could be extended indefinitely. In an important episode in Tolstoy’s novel a man falls under a train at the station and is killed. Anna Karenina is present at this time, and the death haunts her for the rest of the novel. In Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” Ivan Ivanovich tells of a man who fell under a train; his leg was cut off. Taken away for treatment to the waiting room, the bloodied man pleads desperately for someone to find the leg: it had twenty rubles in the boot and he doesn’t want to lose his money.

Why all the literary poking at Tolstoy and his works? For one thing it’s fun. For another it takes Tolstoy’s literary works and subtly rewrites them, showing some of the multivaried possibilites for new works based on the same materials. Finally, it is a way Chekhov has of asserting: “I too am a writer, and I too can show you a thing or two about writing.” This is the age-old business of the competition between literary “fathers” and their literary “sons.”

Notes on Chekhov's "Little Trilogy" CHEKHOV WINKING AT TOLSTOY: (1) ON LOVE AND ADULTERY

Tolstoy, Gorky and Chekhov

CHEKHOV WINKING AT TOLSTOY: (1) On love and adultery.

Throughout nearly all of the years of Chekhov’s writing career the most salient and powerful voice in Russian letters was Lev Tolstoy. Chekhov was in awe of Tolstoy’s talents as a literary master, but not always in agreement with the social stances of the old man.

Time and again, especially in stories of the late 1880s and 1890s, Chekhov uses parodic devices in his fiction, taking subtle pokes at Tolstoy and his socio-political views. He also frequently names his female characters ‘Anna,’ partially in tribute to his favorite novel, Anna Karenina, partly as a way of demonstrating the multiplicity of possible life’s paths for women of that name.

As one critic has pointed out, all three of the stories in The Little Trilogy are about love. “Each of the three stories involves a travesty of the ideal love relationship. Belikov of ‘Man in a Case’ considers marrying Varvara (Varenka) nor because he loves her, but because he feels that he ought to; Nikolai Ivanovich in ‘Gooseberries’ is in love with the dream of a country estate, not a woman; Alyokhin in ‘About Love’ is in love with a married woman” (David Maxwell).

Anna Karenina is probably the best literary work ever written on the theme of love, marriage and family. The novel, has, incidentally, a character named Varenka who does not quite get married. It also has a man, the main hero of the book, Levin, who is obsessed with the good life on his country estate, in communion with nature, and it has a man, Vronsky, who is in love with a married woman.

Throughout a period of a century and a half readers of Anna Karenina have argued over whether Anna really had to die, over why she and Vronsky could not get a divorce and live happily on. In his story “About Love,” Chekhov recapitulates the central drama of Tolstoy’s novel in just a few pages. His short story makes clear that every human situation involving love between men and women is unique in itself. Even more importantly, it makes clear that love triangles create predicaments that are not resolvable.

At the end of “Gooseberries” the overwrought Ivan Ivanovich pleads with Alyokhin to be an altruist, to “do good.” The story “About Love” is about how Alyokhin has in a sense done good. He has refused to commit adultery and betray his friend. But the “doing good,” so it turns out, has led to another sort of “encasement”—not only of him, but of the woman in the three-way situation, Anna Alekseevna, who, tormented by their unconsummated love, becomes a neurasthenic. Such is Chekhov’s brief take on Tolstoy’s broad theme.

Note, by the way, the name, borrowed from Tolstoy. Anna Alekseevna (Annie) in Anna Karenina is the daughter of Vronsky and Anna, but also is, in a sense, the daughter of both Vronsky and Karenin. She is born out of wedlock, but is legally Karenin’s daughter, since Anna is married to him when she is born. Both of her “fathers” are named Aleksey (in Russia children take their second name, the patronymic, from their father: hence “Alekseevna”). After Anna Karenina’s death by suicide Vronsky gives the care of his daughter into the hands of Karenin. At the end of the novel she is living with Karenin, who loves her dearly as his own daughter. She (the little girl) is emblematic in the flesh of Anna Karenina’s predicament: her state of limbo in the three-way that rules her life.

Notes on Chekhov's "Little Trilogy" ANNA KARENINA

What was Chekhov's favorite novel? What was Bunin's, Nabokov's? The answer to all three questions is Anna Karenina. Chekhov once remarked that in comparison to such full-blooded women as Tolstoy’s Anna all of Turgenev’s heroines are bland and insipid.

Once, while rushing by train from the south of Russia to the bedside of his brother Aleksandr, who was thought to have typhus, Chekhov spent the whole long journey reading Anna Karenina, and in a letter he later noted that at this time of emotional turmoil he was consoled on the train by “dear sweet Anna.”

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Notes on Chekhov's "Little Trilogy" NATURE DESCRIPTIONS


Modern readers tend to skip nature descriptions and get back to the action of the story. But if you are a good reader, one who knows how to read genuine literary fiction—there are, admittedly, few of us left—you don’t do that. The nature description is not there just so the author can escape from his narrative, take a break from characters he may not like to breathe in the fragrance of the night-blooming jasmine that he so lyrically describes.

Take the description at the end of “Man in A Case.” His story of Belikov told, the high school teacher Burkin walks out of the shed to where we the readers can see him for the first time. He is not an imposing figure: “He was short in stature, stout, absolutely bald, with a long black beard reaching nearly to his waist; two dogs came out with him.

‘Look at that moon!’ he said, gazing up overhead.

“It was already midnight. The whole of the village was visible on the right, the long street extending for a good five versts. Everything was plunged into a deep, quiet sleep; not a sound, not a stir, incredible how nature could be so silent. When on a moonlit night you gaze upon a village street, with its peasant huts, and hayricks and sleeping willow trees, a quietude descends on your soul. Steeped in serenity, sheltered by the shadows of the night from all toil, cares and grief, the village seems meek, melancholy and beautiful, the very stars seem to look down upon it caressingly, with deep feeling, and there seems to be no more evil in the world and all is well. To the left, where the village ended, the fields began, visible far, far away, to the very horizon, and throughout the whole broad expanse of those fields, flooded with moonlight, once more nothing stirred, and all was silent.”

Immediately following this description Ivan Ivanovich begins nattering on about how sad life is, how people lie and scheme, how we simply have to stop living the way we do. This will carry on from the end of this story into the following story, “Gooseberries.” So an obvious function of the nature description here is for contrast: life is beautiful, but we don’t know how to live. A typical attitude of the narrator in a great many Chekhov stories is to stand observing human nature while pondering human evil and stagnation.

But here the nature description has another function: it prepares us for the next story, “Gooseberries,” which describes a true lover of nature, a man who strives to escape city life and find joy in country living, communing with nature. And who ends up, nonetheless, living like a pig and reveling in tasteless gooseberries. Nature, it seems, cannot protect humanity from encasement.

Near the beginning of “Gooseberries” the melancholic Ivan Ivanovich, brother of the gooseberry man, splashes about merrily, reveling in the very thing (lovely nature) that has brought his brother to ruin:

“Ivan Ivanovich emerged from the shed, splashed noisily into the water, and began swimming beneath the rain, taking broad swim strokes with his arms, making waves all around him, and the white water lilies rocked on the waves he made. He swam into the very middle of the river and then dived, a moment later came up at another place and swam further, diving constantly, trying to touch the bottom. ‘Ah, my God,’ he kept exclaiming joyfully, ‘Ah, my God.’ He swam up to the mill, had a talk with some peasants there and turned back, but when he reached the middle of the river he floated on his back, holding his face up to the rain. Burkin and Alyokhin were dressed and ready to go, but he went on swimming and diving.

‘God, God!’ he kept saying. ‘Lord have mercy!’

‘Enough, then!’ shouted Burkin.”

In his communion with nature this is the only time in “The Little Trilogy” that Ivan Ivanovich—who often plagues the reader and his companions with long melancholy moaning about how people live—is shown to be enjoying himself. Nature is different things for different people; some want to grow gooseberries, some want to swim.



One thing that makes Chekhov a great writer is his intuitive feel for how to structure a story. In writing “The Man in a Case” why did he choose to begin the story and conclude it with descriptions of apparently incidental characters, the veterinarian Ivan Ivanovich Chimsha-Himalaisky and the teacher Burkin, who are out hunting together? Since the story features mainly Belikov, the teacher of Greek, why not just tell the Belikov tale?

There are several reasons why, some of them complex. The first and obvious reason is that in framing the story about a man in a case—putting it in a frame—you, in a sense, demonstrate the main theme: encasement. Another reason is that the story within (or framed around) the main story has relevance to the primary theme. For example, the incidental character Mavra, who wanders the night in the frame story, at the very end, is another example of a person encased.

It seems logical that Chekhov already had three stories in mind when he began writing the first. Later on we discover that the behavior of the two hunters and their reaction to the tale of Belikov are not incidental at all, since they become important characters in the trilogy as a whole. As the stories progress we can see more and more clearly the relationship of Ivan Ivanovich and Burkin to the major issue of encasement.

The structural principle underlying the stories is as follows. With each succeeding story in the trilogy Chekhov chooses to bring the frame narrative (the story within a story) closer and closer to the action of the framed (main) story. In “Man in a Case” Belikov is a colleague of Burkin the narrator, but in “Gooseberries” the main character Nikolay is the narrator’s brother, and in “About Love” the main character is the narrator himself, Alyokhin.

As he brings the frame story closer and closer to the main story, Chekhov may be suggesting that life’s problems get more and more complex the more you are personally involved in them. Belikov is an character extreme in all respects, practically a paranoiac, utterly obsessed with order in life. Chekhov condemns his countrymen’s tendency to be passive, to allow such a man to dictate their behavior, but the reader, perhaps, can laugh at Belikov and condemn him out of hand. “I’m not like that.” The same can be said for Nikolay Ivanovich the gooseberry lover, who spends his life chasing an idle dream and ends up a living pig. “No way I’d live my life like that.”

But when we get to Alyokhin’s encasement in love, we realize that breaking out of shells and finding freedom is a difficult matter indeed. Here we have a decent man, no paranoiac, no gooseberry-loving pig. What does a decent man do when he falls in love with his best friend’s wife? Whatever he does he will be wrong. At the end of the story, after the woman he loves has left his life forever, after he has just admitted to her for the first time that he loves her, here is how Alyokhin sums things up.

“I confessed my love for her, and with a searing pain in my heart I understood  how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceitful was everything that had hindered our love. I understood that when you love, then in your reasoning about that love you need to proceed from the highest principles, from something more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin, or virtue in their usual sense, or there’s no need to reason at all.”

Readers sometimes take such summary statements on the part of Chekhov’s characters as Chekhov’s ways of getting important truths into the story. Most frequently that is a mistake. Chekhov seldom speaks directly through his characters, and when a character expatiates at length on life’s truths you can almost always take it for granted that the character is a blowhard. Such is Ivan Ivanovich in “The Little Trilogy” (more on him later).

Alyokhin is not a blowhard, but if you take a good look at the passage quoted above, you can’t help thinking that he is saying not much of anything coherent. Earlier in the story he says that the only thing you can really say about human love is that love is a great mystery. That is more to the point.

And in taking off on Chekhov’s “About Love”—in his wonderful story titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”—the American writer Raymond Carver ends up at the same place Chekhov did: with characters encased in love and wondering what love is. We’re talking really out our backsides when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017



Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy”
The Theme of Encasement (Two): Universality

In all three stories of Chekhov’s trilogy the characters are all “encased” in one way or another, trapped in lives that are stultifying and never fulfilled. But world literature is full of such characters. You might even say that “encasement” is a condition typical of the human predicament.

To speak only of Russian literature, in reading these stories, one constantly is reminded of authors and literary works who came both before and after Chekhov. Gogol’s characters (say, Shponka and Akaky Akakievich) are men in cases. So is the vile Iudushka in Saltykov’s The Golovyov Family and Sologub’s Peredonov in The Petty Demon. Nabokov’s Pnin is a man who craves “discreteness,” who constantly seeks protection from the intrusive world around him. Belikov, the Man in the Case, loves pronouncing the word “man” in ancient Greek (Anthropos), as will later Maxim Gorky in his apotheosis of Soviet man: “Man: that word sounds proud!”

Many Russian authors themselves are in cases of their own making, or sometimes at least partially made by their society. Gogol was in a case practically all his life, Tolstoy in a different sort of case, Mayakovsky in a case that drove him to suicide. The list could be extended almost indefinitely.

“Oh, I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Who said that? Another man in a case, Prince Hamlet. 

Readers of Chekhov in the year 1898, and the year 1998, and the year 2098 (if there is any humanity left then, and any readers), look at the major theme of Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy” and say to themselves: You know what? I’m a man in a case myself.

Notes to Chekhov's "LITTLE TRILOGY" The Theme of "Encasement" (One)

Notes to Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy”
The Theme of “Encasement” (One)

All three of the stories of “The Little Trilogy” are about the lack of freedom in human lives. They’re about people who live in shells, who build protective walls around themselves and stagnate behind those walls.

Russian critics have used the word “футлярность” [“Encasement,” taken from the title of the first story, “Человек в футляре, Man in a Case”] to describe “encasing oneself physically, morally and spiritually in order to reduce points of contact between oneself and the rest of the world” (the critic Karl Kramer).

Note that the idea of outside social or political restrictions on human freedom plays little role. In these stories, as well as in much of what Chekhov wrote, people are not free because they themselves choose not to be. As Ronald Hingley has written, “individuals were often as big a menace to their own freedom as any government, because of a tendency to accept from others, or to impose on themselves, unimaginative and stultifying patterns of behavior.” These stories are about how people encase themselves.

While embodied most obviously in the first story by the title character Belikov, the theme is all-encompassing. There is practically no one in any of the three stories who is not “encased.” Some more obvious examples: the gooseberry lover Nikolay Ivanovich in “Gooseberries,” the landowner Alyokhin in “About Love.” These are major characters, but the secondary characters live the same stultifying lives. 

Mavra, the wife of the village elder (in “Man in a Case”) is “a perfectly healthy and by no means unintelligent woman, who had never been out of her native village in her life. She had never seen a town or a railroad, and had spent the last ten years sitting by her stove, venturing out only at night.” What is Mavra’s problem? We never find out. All we know is that she is another in the grand collective of encased humanity.

The list could go on indefinitely. There is the beautiful maidservant Pelageya, who turns up briefly in both “Gooseberries” and “About Love.” She is in love with the alcoholic cook Nikanor, an ugly violent character who beats her when drunk, but somehow she cannot make herself leave him. There is Anna Alekseevna of “About Love,” whose encasement leads her into emotional illness, but she is still in a case upon her final appearance. There are hardly any exceptions in the stories, not even Ivan Ivanich and Burkin, the hunters who narrate the first two tales. Only the first story is titled “Man in A Case,” but all three stories have people in cases.

The big moral question is why do people choose to give up their personal freedom and encase themselves? For different reasons. With Belikov in the first story the answer is obvious: the man is preternaturally fearful of practically everything in life. He keeps his shell on to protect himself from the world. But then, as we proceed with the narrative, things get more subtle. Alyokhin and his secret love, Anna Alekseevna in “About Love,” end up in a very complicated case/shell, provided by Life Itself, and they cannot find a way out of the shell.


Notes on Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy” INFLUENCES

“Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,” “About Love.” Anton Chekhov wrote his three stories, what later came to be called The Little Trilogy, in 1898. I’m not sure whether there were any commemorations of his feat in 1998, but there should have been public readings all over Russia and all over the world. That’s how good these stories are. If the world survives for another hundred years, in 2098 they will still be good.

Practically any writer of short stories in the world has been influenced by Chekhov’s stories. The way they are realistic bits and pieces of life, the way not much happens in them, the way the mood and subtleties of tone predominate.

So people try to write like Chekhov and, in large part, fail. That’s one reason that practically any issue of The New Yorker and any issue of the top American literary journals is full of bad stories.

Friday, July 14, 2017

LAST YEARS OF NIKOLAI GOGOL, excerpt from novel by U.R. Bowie, "GOGOL'S HEAD"

Biographical Ten

Final Flight of the Buffleheaded Goo-Goo Bird

The preacher in Gogol was now in total control, the sanctimonious religious fanatic. Well-meaning friends, those like Aksakov, who cherished the great fiction he had written, tried to rein him in. But it was far too late. He went on travelling around Europe, foot firmly implanted on the neck of his own best creativity, nursing his mad plan for edifying all of mankind. He stayed with Vasily Zhukovsky and his family repeatedly, in various parts of Germany. The great poet spent a lot of time with Gogol over the years; he must have had some insights into Gogol’s character. But Zhukovsky never wrote a memoir of Gogol. Other than a few scattered notes in reminiscences Gogol’s other “friends” never did either: Pletnyov, Vjazemsky, Sheviryov, Khomyakov, Pogodin, Smirnova, the Vielgorskies. The main exception is Aksakov.

Why were they so reluctant to write about the man who was generally recognized for years as Pushkin’s successor, the greatest creative writer that the land of Rus had to offer? Probably because he mystified them. They could not reconcile the man with the great works because the two were not reconcilable. The Gogol they saw in their presence was a man of highly limited vision.

“While he was endowed with a superhuman power of creative imagination (in which in the world’s literature he has had equals but certainly no superior), his understanding was strikingly inadequate to his genius. His ideas were those of his provincial home, of his simple, childish mother, modified only by an equally primitive romantic cult of beauty and of art, imbibed during the first years of his literary career” (D.S. Mirsky).

Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, which Gogol termed his “only sane book,” was published in January, 1847, and it turned out to be a thoroughly insane book. There is an air of derangement about the text from the start, beginning in the preface, in which Gogol mentions that God has brought him back from the brink of death, and he now deems it necessary to enlighten each and all about certain matters sacred to God. This is followed by a Will and Testament, beginning with instructions not to bury his body until it showed clear signs of decomposition, inasmuch as there had been times when he went into a condition of comatose numbness, when his heart stopped beating and no pulse could be detected.


Postage Stamp Commemorating Publication of "The Overcoat" in 1842

The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in “The Overcoat” shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes that we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.

                                            … Vladimir Nabokov

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

GOGOL LOVES NOSES excerpt from U.R. Bowie novel, "GOGOL'S HEAD"

In March, 1837, Gogol moved on to Rome and immediately fell in love with the place. Rome remained with him an obsession for many years. Here is an excerpt from a letter linking Gogol’s nose motif in his writings and life to the beloved city: 

“What a spring! Lord God, what a spring! . . . . What air! Inhale deeply through your nose and you feel as if no less than seven hundred angels had come flying up your nasal nostrils. An amazing spring it is! I can’t get enough of admiring it. All of Rome is strewn these days with roses . . . . Believe me that frequently I feel the frenzied desire to turn into nothing but a nose, so that there would be nothing more of me—no eyes, no hands, no feet—just one gigantic nose, with nostrils as big as good-sized buckets, so that I could draw into my insides the maximum volume of aromas and of spring” 
(letter to Marya Balabina, April, 1838, with a heading that reads, “Rome. The month of April. Year 2588th since the founding of the city”).

Note the pleonasm in the phrase “nasal nostrils (носовые ноздри),” as if to suggest that there were other bodily nostrils in addition to the nasal ones. Such “errors” are typical of Gogol’s style, which, even in his best fiction, often is weirdly ragged, nonstandard. A famous example of another such pleonasm is a passage describing “Russian mouzhiks” at the beginning of Dead Souls, as if there were mouzhiks (Russian peasants) in countries other than Russia.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cover art and front matter for new novel, "GOGOL'S HEAD," by U.R. Bowie



The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull

A Gogolian Novel
(With Gogolian Biography Appended)

U.R. Bowie
Series: The Collected Works of U.R. Bowie, Volume Eleven
Ogee Zakamora Publications, 2017

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Lee Bowie
All Rights Reserved
ISBN-13: 978-1548244149
ISBN-10: 1548244147

Front Cover Illustration:
N.A. Andreev, Medallion on Enclosure
of Nikolai Gogol’s Grave
(Danilov Monastery, Moscow, 1909)

Cover Design by Daniel Hime

Parts of this book have been workshopped through Gainesville Poets and Writers. Special thanks to my publicist Daniel Hime, who created the beautiful cover design. Also I am grateful to my copy editor D. C. Williams, and to my editor and publisher O.G. Zakamora. Once again Sergei Stadnik has helped me with proofreading the Cyrillic passages and refining my style in Russian. Благодарю!

                      NOTE ON CALENDARS
During the lifetime of Nikolai Gogol, Russia still operated according to the old Julian calendar, which, in the nineteenth century was twelve days behind the Gregorian calendar, then widely adopted in the countries of Western Europe. The differences can make for confusion. For example, Gogol’s friend, the poet Nikolai Yazykov, died in two different years: in December of 1846 by the Julian calendar, but in January, 1847 by the Gregorian. At the time of Lenin’s Socialist Revolution in 1917 Russia still ran on Julian dates, and, as a result, what the Soviets always referred to as “The Great October Revolution” took place in November.
Gogol, of course, spent much of his later life abroad, living by the Gregorian calendar. In the text of this book dates are given mostly by  Gregorian. In instances when the Julian calendar date is used, the initials OS (for Old Style) appear in parentheses.




In Lieu of an Introduction                                                                                                                                            
Biographical One: Freak Shows (Ukraine, 1822)                                                                  
Chapter One: The Exhumation                                                                                                                  
Biographical Two: Off to Meet Pushkin (St. Petersburg, Winter, 1829)          
Biographical Three: The Hans Fiasco, First Flight (May, 1829)                       
Chapter Two: Meet Adrian Nule                                                                                                               
Biographical Four: The Scrivener/Writer (St. Petersburg, 1829-1831) 
Chapter Three: Shoes Run Amuck                                                                                                                              
Biographical Five: Good Times (St. Petersburg, Moscow,1831-1834)  
Chapter Four: How It Began with Nule                                                                                                  Biographical Six: Performing (1835-1836)                                                                                            Chapter Five: More Skullduggery                                                                                                                               
Biographical Seven: Wandering, Borrowing Money (1836-1839)   
Chapter Six: Akaky Goes Out Partying                                                                                                      
Biographical Eight: In Search of A Living Soul (1839-1842)                                               
The Three-Handed (Moscow, February, 1842)                                                                    
Buttons (Bad Gastein, Austria, early October, 1842)                                                           
Chapter Seven: The Politburo and the Skull                                                                                          
Biographical Nine: Floundering on, Petering out (1842-1845)                         
Chapter Eight: Nule’s Head Maunders On                                                                                            
Biographical Ten: Final Flight of the Buffleheaded Goo-Goo Bird 
Dear Eyes Gone (Moscow, February, 1852)                                                                                         
Chapter Nine: An Eye for an Eye at the Hands of the Head                                             
In Lieu of a Conclusion: Masafuera                                                                                                            

If mere creative force is to be the standard of valuation, Gogol is the greatest of Russian writers. In this respect he need hardly fear comparison with Shakespeare, and can boldly stand by the side of Rabelais. Neither Pushkin nor Tolstoy possessed anything like that volcano of imaginative creativeness.
                                                               … D.S. Mirsky

Nobody can ever imagine what Gogol was really like. From beginning to end everything about him is incomprehensible. The individual features are blurred, inchoate—they refuse to add up to anything.
                                                                … Anna Akhmatova

What are you like? As a person you are secretive, egotistical, arrogant, and mistrustful, a man who sacrifices everything for fame. As a friend what are you like? But then, do you really have any friends?
                                       … Pletnyov letter to Gogol, October, 1844

Дорога, дорогадорогая дорогадорога мне дороже всего (The road, the road—the dear road—dearest of all to me is the road).
                                      … Gogol letter to Pogodin, October, 1840

The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in “The Overcoat” shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes that we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.

                                                           … Vladimir Nabokov

Вместо Предисловия
In Lieu of an Introduction

This is the story of a head, and the story of the man who lost his head, and the story of what happened to the lost head. We begin with background on the man. In the process of telling the story of the purloined head, we tell—in lieu of a biography—a truncated version of the life of the man. We cut through all the lies and establish the truth.
                                                                        Adrian Lee Nule, ABD
                                                                        Madison, Wisconsin,
                                                                        March 20, 2015