Here is a classic author who straddled two cultures that today are in conflict. Two distinctive worlds—Ukraine and Russia—are brought together in one book, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

(I am excited to announce that, after going on a nonfiction spree, I have begun reading fiction again.)

Nikolai Gogol, a master of literature who is, I think, underappreciated, was born in Ukraine in 1809. When he reached adulthood, he moved to Saint Petersburg, then and now a cultural center of Russia. Shortly thereafter, he published a collection of stories set in Ukraine, which made him famous. He later published more Ukrainian tales, and then he published tales set in Saint Petersburg. He also wrote an unfinished novel, Dead Souls, set in Russia.

I read Dead Souls last year, around the same time as I read another novel, Dead Souls by Sam Riviere, because I thought it would be funny to read two different books with the same title. (I excel at amusing myself, if I do say so myself.) I was enjoying Gogol’s novel just fine . . . when it ended midsentence. Being previously unaware that the novel was unfinished, this was a jarring experience—unpleasant enough that I didn’t write about the novel on this blog. (But you can read my preview of Riviere’s novel here.)

Interestingly, some of Gogol’s stories seem unfinished, though they are not. Others seem to conclude, but then keep going. But these are creative features of the stories, whereas the novel’s incompleteness is merely a bug. Therefore, I am excited to recommend to you The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, which includes seven Ukrainian tales and six Petersburg tales.

The Ukrainian tales, being rural, have a rustic character, while the Petersburg tales, being urban, have a metropolitan character. In both cases, Gogol’s use of language is entirely unique. The diction rushes forward, as if pell-mell tripping over itself in its haste to describe the most bizarre figments and paranormal events, or alternatively the most mundane features of ordinary life. Gogol’s imagination knows no bounds. It is impossible for the reader to guess where a story is going. Every other sentence produces a surprise, and the ordinary rules of plot, and life, do not apply.

The most famous, and best, of the stories is “The Overcoat.” If you have time to read only one Nikolai Gogol story, read that one. If you have time to read more than one, but don’t want to read the whole collection, I recommend these:

  • “The Terrible Vengeance” (Ukraine)
  • “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt” (Ukraine)
  • “The Nose” (Saint Petersburg)
  • “The Portrait” (Saint Petersburg)
  • “The Overcoat” (Saint Petersburg)

Have you ever owned an article of clothing, like, say, an overcoat, that meant everything to you?