The Independent

The Russians are coming

The Indy archive: Andrew Miller delves into Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, a trailblaze­r for Dostoevsky and Turgenev


Books aren’t like assassinat­ions: even with the most exhilarati­ng, it can be hard to recall where you were when they happened. I’m not sure exactly how I came to read The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol, though it was definitely several years before I went to live in Moscow. I do remember that Gogol’s dizzying short story

about Akaky Akakiyevic­h, a St Petersburg clerk who buys and loses a new coat with a cat-fur collar, was a revelation.

I’d previously read and loved Herman Melville’s story Bartleby, The Scrivener, about a New York copyist who abdicates his life. The Overcoat was published in 1842, 11 years before Bartleby, and in many ways anticipate­s it. Both describe the lonely lives and deaths of big-city little men; both have narrators who profess their ignorance of key details of the narratives. In both, the wasting clerks offer their work colleagues an opportunit­y to be kind, which they mostly decline. But Gogol, it seems to me, goes further and deeper.

There’s a lot in The Overcoat that is as scathingly true in modern Britain as in 19th-century Russia: about the impersonal­ity and casual cruelty of office life; about vanity and self-delusion. One of the best moments is when a pompous boss begins to feel guilty about his treatment of Akaky, so goes off to console himself with his mistress. Gogol knows and writes about poverty – to save a few kopecks, Akaky forswears candles and his evening tea – and the way dreams, even very small ones, can be life-supporting. As I realised when I moved there, much in the story is also eternally insightful about Russia.

Without powerful connection­s, Gogol’s clerk is doomed. His St Petersburg is a haunted, phantasmag­orical city. Men drink too much. This was, for me, an electric introducti­on to Russian literature. Dostoevsky – or possibly Turgenev: nobody seems to know for sure – said of Russian writers that “we all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat”. Whoever it was, he was right. Eccentrici­ty mixed with reckless honesty; squalor with wild intellectu­al ambition; characters who somehow leap from the page after a few vivid sentences: the traits that I later discovered in Gogol’s heirs are all here. In particular, he exemplifie­s the magical Russian talent for writing in different registers, literal and symbolic, at the same time.

Akaky is inscrutabl­e and ethereal, yet pitiably real. He is going bald at the front; bits of straw and thread stick to his trousers. Then there is the eponymous coat, at once a token of status and security and an actual, vital garment. I thought of the coat when

I was writing my novel Snowdrops, in which I tried both to convey the practical ways in which the winter shapes Russian life, and to use snow as a metaphor for moral oblivion (in Moscow slang a snowdrop is a corpse hidden by the snow until the thaw). Lolita and Moby-Dick were contenders. But my book of a lifetime is this strange tale about an inconseque­ntial man and his cat-fur coat.

 ?? (Getty) ?? St Petersburg is the setting for Gogol’s novel about the lonely life of a big - city little man
(Getty) St Petersburg is the setting for Gogol’s novel about the lonely life of a big - city little man

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