Book Review: ‘The Nose’ by Nikolai Gogol
It was the title that originally caught my eye: The Nose.
This strange little book (perhaps more of a novella, no, in fact, a short story) is on the reading list for one of my literature classes that I’ll be doing when the new semester that starts next month. Since it was the shortest of the mountain of books that I had to order all at once through Amazon (all scribbled-on and secondhand, of course), and I was dying to find out about this nose, I decided to put it at the top of my list.
The first thing that came to mind when reading The Nose was its similarities to another strange little book that I read a year or two ago: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, which is also a story of the absurd as the protagonist, travel salesmans Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to get ready for work only to realise he has been transformed into a giant, monstrous insect.
The Nose is of a similar theme in that the story opens with barber Ivan Yakovlevich finding a decapitated nose inside his loaf of bread at breakfast, and we later discover that the nose belongs to one of his regular customers, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov (‘Major Kovalyov’) who wakes up with an empty vacancy where his nose used to be.
Overall, I enjoyed The Nose. However, since the story was originally written in Russian, I left that a bit of the soul of the tale has been lost in translation as parts of the book seem quite “matter of fact” and a bit lifeless, yet other sections are full of colour and description.
One of the best aspects of the book is the unreliable narrator who becomes a bit of a character in its own right. The narrator frequently halts the story to talk to the reader directly to give their own opinion of what’s currently going on, or to tell the reader that they need more information (about a particular character or plot line) and they go off on a tangent, eventually returning to the present plot and moving on with the story. It’s hard to determine at which points is the narrator telling the truth or lying to us, and they even say at some point that the story “contains much that is highly implausible” – what are we meant to believe?
As the story is absurdist, I found myself continuously trying to unravel some kind of intricate deep, dark, hidden meaning to Gogol’s narrative. Is the Major’s nose disappearing a symbol for something more prominent? Does losing the nose symbolise emasculation? Castration even? Since hardly anything is given away in this story and we have to dig deep through a lot of metaphors and inferences, it’s hard to know what the narrator is really trying to say.
As if things couldn’t get any more bizarre, the Major later goes out to an advertisement office where he plans to place an ad appealing for his lost nose to be returned but on the way there, he stumbles across his nose dressed up and pretending to be a human being! He even has a conversation with it that goes a little like this:
“Hey, you’re my nose! Get back on my face!” … “Sir, I am not your nose. Don’t be so absurd and leave me alone.”
– Could it get much stranger? (Reading The Nose, I couldn’t help but imagine the characters in a kind of Tim Burton animation style. I’m not sure what that means either…)
And in the third act of the story *warning: spoiler!*, the Major wakes again one morning to find his previously lost nose back in its rightful place: stuck onto the middle of his face.
We never find out how or why the nose disappeared in the first place, or how it came to be back on the Major’s face, and towards the end, the narrator appears to become more and more unreliable and dwindles into a bit of a confusing waffle.
If I know anything, it’s that this book definitely takes a few reads and a lot of dissecting and theorizing to understand.