March 1, 2008 archive

The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol – Short Story Review

Thus flowed on the peaceful life of the man, who, with a salary of four hundred rubles, understood how to be content with his fate; and thus it would have continued to flow on, perhaps, to extreme old age, were there not various ills sown among the path of life for titular councillors as well as for private, actual, court and every other species of councillor, even for those who never give any advice or take any themselves. -From The Overcoat-

The Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, published this short story in 1842 – a tale about a poor Russian official named Akakii Akakievich who is the ridicule of his department. Akakii lives entirely for his duties as a copier. His co-workers laugh at him and abuse him. He often has bits and pieces of filth on his uniform due to his “peculiar knack, as he walked in the street, of arriving beneath a window when all sorts of rubbish was being flung out of it.” Akakii’s coat is threadbare and he is finally forced to have a new overcoat sewn for him by Petrovich the Tailor. The cost of the overcoat is exorbitant for Akakii, but he scrimps and saves, denying himself food and other basic necessities until he is able to purchase the coat. Overnight, he becomes respectful. His co-workers fawn over his beautiful, new coat – and even throw him a lavish party in celebration. But, disaster falls upon Akakii … his joy is short lived when the coat is stolen.

Gogol’s short story takes an interesting twist as Akakii seeks help to recover the overcoat – going first to the police and then an “important personage.” He is lost amid a barrage of bureaucracy:

…”don’t you know etiquette? Where have you come to? Don’t you know how matters are managed? You should first have entered a complaint about this at the court: it would have gone to the head of the department, to the chief of the division, then it would have been handed over to the secretary, and the secretary would have given it to me.” -From The Overcoat-

The Overcoat is a story about a common man who is beneath everyone (much is made in the beginning about Akakii’s name which comes close to the Russian word kaka – translated as “poop”), but who rises in esteem simply upon the purchase of an overcoat. He falls again with the loss of this possession, and must appeal to the government for assistance – which does not come. The ending (which I do not want to reveal to those who have not read the story), implies that the common man will ultimately rise above his persecutors. Gogol pokes fun at those in power, showing them to be insubstantial and shallow despite their titles. He allows Akakii to come out on top – demonstrating it is not material gain which grants one power.

I enjoyed this short story which is perhaps more of a parable.

Recommended; rated 4/5.

Cat’s Eye – Book Review

In front of me is the Pacific, which sends up sunset after sunset, for nothing; at my back are the improbable mountains, and beyond them an enormous barricade of land. Toronto lies behind it, at a great distance, burning in thought like Gomorrah. At which I dare not look. – From Cat’s Eye, page 418-

Elaine Risley, a painter, flees west to Vancouver from Toronto to escape her failed marriage and the deeply buried memories of childhood. Now facing middle age and the relentless passage of time, she returns to the city of her childhood for a retrospective of her art … and discovers her past.

Margaret Atwood has constructed a deeply moving novel which spans more than forty years and explores the pain of growing up, betrayal, family connectivity, and ultimately the human ability to forgive and move forward in an uncertain world.

Cat’s Eye alternates between Elaine’s present and her past, juxtaposing her childhood growing up in the 40’s and 50’s with who she has become in a changed society.  The childhood images are the strongest of the novel, painful in their reality, yet often funny as well. Elaine and her brother Steven grow up as nomads of a sort – traveling eastern Canada with their father, an entomologist and professor, and their mother who does not fit with the convention of the 40’s housewife. Elaine is more comfortable in the world of boys which include her brother and his friends, and becomes somewhat of a tomboy – ignorant of the politics of girl friendships. Atwood’s description of boys is spot on and humorous.

They work at acting like boys. They call each other by their last names, draw attention to any extra departures from cleanliness. “Hey, Robertson! Wipe off the snot!” “Who farted?” They punch one another on the arm, saying, “Got you!” “Got you back!” There always seem to be more of them in the room than there actually are. -From Cat’s Eye, page 111-

I know things about boys. I know what goes on in their heads, about girls and women, things they can’t admit to other boys, or to anyone. They’re fearful about their own bodies, shy about what they say, afraid of being laughed at. I know what kind of talk goes on among them as they horse around in the locker room, sneak cigarettes behind the field house. Stunned broad, dog, bag and bitch are words they apply to girls, as well as worse words. I don’t hold these words against them. I know these words are another version of pickled ox eyes, and snot eating, they’re prove-it words boys need to exchange, to show they are strong and not to be taken in. – From Cat’s Eye, page 261-

Elaine’s childhood friendship with three girls – Carol, Grace and Cordelia – is painful; stunning in detail and understanding of what it means to grow up awkward and wanting to fit in. As Elaine moves uncomfortably through high school and college, then through the feminist years of the 60s and into adulthood, the reader begins to understand the present day Elaine – her fears, her joys, her relationship with her parents and the men in her life. And finally, the baggage in the guise of Cordelia, who she has carried through the years and must now come to terms with.

As with all Atwood novels, Cat’s Eye is a beautifully written story full of symbolism and rich language. I found myself immersed in Elaine’s life – hurting when she hurt, despairing, wishing for resolution and understanding. The book has a melancholy feel throughout most of its nearly 500 pages, and yet by the time I had finished it I felt, like Elaine, there was light in the world…and closure.

This is a book to relish, to read slowly and spend time thinking about the images. It is a novel first and foremost about women’s friendships, with all the barbs and uneasiness, as well as the longing and desire to form them. It is a book about the connections we make, about past wrongs and how to right them or, when that fails, to release them. It is about being human in an often brutal world.

Highly recommended.

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