Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Overcoat: Cordon off the Sentiment

Oh, hell, let's do The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol. (On Project Gutenberg, it's part of a collection of Russian short stories, and the title is translated here as "The Cloak." Just search for "cloak" or "Gogol.") I've been resisting this one a little, since my story, "An Eye for Alicia" (in the current issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review) is patterned, so to speak, on this story. The whole business started with an exercise in a class I took with Julie Orringer many years ago, in which we read "The Overcoat" and talked about fiction as a way of dispensing justice. So talking here about "The Overcoat" as a model for fiction somehow feels self-serving and self-sabotaging at the same time...but enough about me and my issues. The story is a great model for those of us who aspire to surrealism and satire, in part because it walks that delicate line between satire and cruelty. The story's oddball narrator invites us to mock the hapless protagonist, Akaky Akakiyevich--but lest we indulge ourselves too much at his expense, the narrator, every so often, calls us out.

Early on in the story, after several amusing paragraphs recounting the history of his ridiculous name, his unfortunate physical appearance, his tedious labors as a copying clerk, and so on, comes this passage:

The young officials laughed at and made fun of him, so far as their official wit permitted; told in his presence various stories concocted about him, and about his landlady, an old woman of seventy; declared that she beat him; asked when the wedding was to be; and strewed bits of paper over his head, calling them snow. But Akaky Akakiyevich answered not a word, any more than if there had been no one there besides himself. It even had no effect upon his work. Amid all these annoyances he never made a single mistake in a letter. But if the joking became wholly unbearable, as when they jogged his head, and prevented his attending to his work, he would exclaim:

"Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?"

And there was something strange in the words and the voice in which they were uttered. There was in it something which moved to pity; so much so that one young man, a newcomer, who, taking pattern by the others, had permitted himself to make sport of Akaky, suddenly stopped short, as though all about him had undergone a transformation, and presented itself in a different aspect. Some unseen force repelled him from the comrades whose acquaintance he had made, on the supposition that they were decent, well-bred men. Long afterwards, in his gayest moments, there recurred to his mind the little official with the bald forehead, with his heart rending words,

"Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?"

In these moving words, other words resounded--"I am thy brother." And the young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath refined, cultured, worldly refinement, and even, O God! in that man whom the world acknowledges as honourable and upright.

I love this brief pivot into the consciousness of a minor character, the "young man," who will never be heard from again in the story--and the way this leads to the narrator's sudden cry from deep in his heart: how much inhumanity there is in man! Through the young man's brief appearance, all of Akaky's suffering, and the narrator's sympathy for him, get compartmentalized and distilled. Thus there's no need to lard the whole story with ineffectual calls for sympathy (otherwise known as sentimentality): there's a black hole of human suffering right here, narrow but infinitely deep. Kind of like the LaBrea tar pits, cordoned off but still dangerous, containing eons of suffering, in the middle of downtown LA. In other words, hem in the emotion; keep it tight, fleeting, and intense.

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