Workshop Meets Gogol

The fifth of the seven chapters in George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (which, I will repeat here for those who have not been following, I am enjoying immensely and learning a lot from) features Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” This was a risky move on Saunders’ part because the basically rational and construction-focused approach he has adopted, exploring “the physics of the [short story] form,” for his book does not seem to match up well with much of Gogol’s work, “The Nose” perhaps least of all, with its tendency to veer away from rationality and structural consistency, to exhibit — let’s call them — bulges, protrusions, and assorted eccentricities that make it difficult to analyze from any sort of efficiency-minded standpoint.

In part this is because Gogol’s language is idiosyncratic, which highlights issues of language per se, making it difficult to translate, on the one hand, but also difficult to discuss without invoking language, on the other. Saunders appropriately brings in the notion of skaz here, and remarks, parenthetically, that there are “American variants” of this narrative technique in Mark Twain, Sacha Boren Cohen, and others: an intriguing idea, but this supposed parallel is mostly about point of view, not language. And if one is approaching the text as if it were written in English (see this earlier post), then we’re left with a conundrum, something Saunders indicates with disarming frankness when he remarks, “It’s kind of problematic to be talking about the language of a piece we can read only in translation” (p. 286). My inner translator wants to agree with him with something like what he writes in response to the narrator’s admission that “there is much that is improbable in [“The Nose”]”: “‘Uh, yeah.” But another, more rational voice has a better response: “Well, it depends on what you want to say about it.”

I recall the rigorous reading practice of a fiction writer colleague of mine, who used to help me evaluate stories for publication at The Iowa Review: if he noticed a rich, exuberant style at the beginning of a submission, he would immediately be on the lookout for structural flaws; if he read through the whole of it and found the piece structurally sound, he would read back through it to see whether the language held up all the way through. This is a version of Saunders’ approach, which is focused on the form’s perfection, its lack of superfluousness, where every detail is where it is for a reason, and one can always ask the question, as he does often in the book, usually to good effect, “What is this doing here?” Saunders refers to this as a “rather hard-ass model of a story [that] says that every part of it should be there for a reason” (91), an idea of the form that is consistent throughout the book — except for in the chapter on Gogol, where it falls apart.

Notions of rationality and efficiency anchor this approach to writing, which some have critiqued as the “workshop model” or, in Mark McGurl’s formulation “program era” fiction, a sort of institutionalized high Modernism whose best precursors include writers like, well, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. This approach is on display in Saunders’ attempts to read “The Nose,” which comprise the only twenty pages or so of the 400 plus in the book that seem to ring false. He asks many perfectly reasonable and rational questions about how and why things are the way they are here — “How did [the nose] get out of the river?” “Why does the nose feel the need to leave town?” “Why is Kovalyov thwarted [at the newspaper office]?” “What caused [the nose’s] reversion to nosehood?” And so on. Much of this is the sort of questioning that would take place in a workshop, where, as Saunders notes, “one of the first critiques that will be made about a story is that it doesn’t make sense.”

This story, says Saunders, again in a perfectly rational comment, “doesn’t add up.” All this is fine and correct enough, but by comparison with the nuanced analyses of the formal aspects of Chekhov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy that we might have got used to in the earlier portions of the book, here one could easily lose patience. The amount of time spent on this somehow does not seem worth it, such that when he notes, about a short segment in the newspaper office, that it is “not essential to the action of the story,” I even grow a bit frustrated: What in the world is essential to the action of this story? The question, which comes out of the particular method of writing short stories, has completely overtaken the manner in which we read short stories, and with this story it is inadequate and mismatched.

The method of reading we’ve grown accustomed to in earlier portions of the book, where we analyze pieces and see how they fit, does not work well here, and Saunders is left making grand generalizations about how Gogol is a “supreme realist,” but for no demonstrable reason other than that, for example, “‘The Nose’ suggests that rationality is frayed in every moment, even in the most normal of moments.” Well, yes, that could be, but the person making the claim hasn’t offered evidence of the same quality as that used for the other big claims regarding Chekhov and the others. The basic problem here is that this story doesn’t align with the conception of the short story introduced in this book. It doesn’t fit.

And when Saunders tries to make it fit by attempting to make “sense” of the irrational in Gogol’s story, he essentially makes the rather sweeping argument of Vissarion Belinsky regarding the stretching of reality via the grotesque, which, Belinsky claimed (in the 1840s), was a way of making a social critique that reached into the everyday and reflected its distortions. Life was so out of whack (because of serfdom and the other deformations of humanity produced by the Russian autocratic state) that everything in the world was distorted, and Gogol was simply describing that distorted reality: he was a “supreme” realist. While Saunders updates this idea of what it all means to include the horrors of the mundane in the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and Stalinist purges, it is still a version of Gogol as a social satirist who uses the grotesque in ordinary life as his primary tool.

This could be a reasonable way to make sense of Gogol’s work — others have used it — but it is just one way, and the narrowing of Gogol’s rather open-ended verbal slapstick, nonsense, lyricism, sloppiness, caricature, absurdity, sound painting, and sometime carnival wackiness down to this one idea is unfortunate. The strengths of other parts of the book, moreover, come from the closeness of the connection between the manner of reading, the specifics of the details analyzed, and the claims about the overall effects of the stories, their broader meanings, expressive richness, and emotional impact. That connection is largely lost in these twenty some pages, I think, because there’s no real way to do it well without delving into the language.

But then, just as I find myself giving up hope that Saunders might have anything new to tell me about Gogol’s story, he has an afterthought (No. 5), and in the course of the six pages that follow, a bit like a Bach chorale in the St. Matthew Passion, he gathers up the loose threads and launches me into the next section. It is almost not even about Gogol, at least not ostensibly, and feels more like a set of free associations on his own writing practice, where he “follows the voice.”

An idea for a voice appears, and off you go. You just ‘feel like’ doing that voice. (And you find that you can.) Sometimes the inspiration for that voice might be a real person. Sometimes it’s a tendency in myself that I’ll exaggerate […]. Sometimes it’s a fragment of language that came from elsewhere” (306).

Here I’m making associations with things I know about Gogol’s writing practice: his tendency to keep lists of unusual words and expressions; his notoriously entertaining readings, where he would do the voices of his characters; his inability to come up with plots of his own, imploring his friends to give them to him — all he needed was a start and off he would go. And I’m waiting, for three pages of this afterthought I wait, and there’s no mention of Gogol, only reflections on Saunders’ own practice, on stories he’s written through this method, until he gets to this:

So, one way to get a story out of ‘the plane of its original conception’ is to try not to have an original conception. To do this, we need a method. For me, (and, I like to imagine, for Gogol, when he was in skaz mode) that method is to “follow the voice.” (p. 308)

This little remark, in a parenthetical aside no less, seems the strongest part of the entire analysis of Gogol’s “The Nose,” a story so clearly rooted in voice that structurally it would not hold up in workshop. Because it does not make the right kind of sense or exhibit the typical coherence, measure, and balance of the workshop’s models or pristine products.

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