Translated by Hugh Aplin
So before someone asks in a comment: “Have you read Dead Souls?” — the answer is “no, I haven’t, but I intend to”. On the other hand, while perusing the Hesperus Press site recently, I came across a version of Nikolai Gogol’s The Squabble and swallowed the baited hook immediately — I’d heard about the novella before and a growing affection for Hesperus volumes supplied the rest of the motivation.
Even for those of us who like nineteenth century Russian writing, Gogol is a bit of an enigma. He died young at 43 and his work pretty much comes down to three sets: the aforementioned Dead Souls (intended to be volume one of a trilogy), the Petersburg tales (including his best known work, “The Greatcoat”) and the Mirgorod (four stories, three of which are included in this volume), which develop the theme of a Little Russian town, in the Ukraine. And before anyone points out that Gogol is Ukrainian, not Russian, I do know that.
The Squabble is a wonderful novella; for this reader, a prototype for the genre. For those readers who have been entranced by “The Greatcoat” (that would include KfC), this is a story that confirms Gogol’s ability to turn the particular into the universal, in both an engaging and significant fashion. Two aging, and increasingly reclusive, neighbors — Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich — have for years visited and conversed with each other. Indeed, their interaction with each other is pretty much their interaction with the rest of the world. Here is how Gogol introduces Ivan Ivanovich:
Ivan Ivanovich has a glorious coat! Quite excellent! And what lambskins! They’re grey-blue with a touch of frost! God knows how much I’d bet that nobody can be found with any like them! Just look at them, for God’s sake, especially if he starts talking to someone, look at them from the side; what a feast for the eye. Indescribable: velvet! silver! fire!
All those exclamation marks would seem to presage a story of action — not so. Rather, an introduction to the concept that in a world where not much happens, a minor dispute can turn into a lifelong pursuit. Ivan Ivanovich visits his good friend and neighbor, Ivan Nikiforovich, and, absent anything else to talk about, they fall into the exchange that will become the centrepiece of “the squabble”. Ivan N’s servant has been airing out his old military garments, including his old gun (even Gogol wonders about the propriety of “airing out” a gun, but he needs the conceit for the plot). Ivan I wants the gun and heads off for a visit, offering a pig and two sacks of oats as a barter in exchange for the weapon. Ivan N doesn’t take to the proposal:
“What’s that! Two sacks of oats and a pig for the gun?”
“Well, isn’t that enough?”
“For the gun?”
“Of course it’s for the gun.”
“Two sacks for the gun?”
“Not two empty sacks, but sacks of oats; and have you forgotten the pig?”
“You can go and kiss your pig, or if you prefer it, then the Devil!”
“Oh, you’re so touchy! You’ll see in the other world you’ll have your tongue studded with hot needles for such blasphemous words. After a conversation with you, people need to wash their hands and face, and fumigate themselves.”
“Allow me, Ivan Ivanovitch. A gun is a noble thing, the most curious amusement, and, what’s more, a nice decoration in the room…”
“You, Ivan Nikiforovich, are fussing over your gun like a bear with a sore head,” said Ivan Ivanovich in annoyance, because he was truly beginning to get angry now.
“And your, Ivan Ivanovich, are a real goose.”
That is about as quick a summary of pointless conflict escalation as you could ever ask for — and it is that last statement, with its reference to being “a goose”, that sets off the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce conflict that dominates the rest of the novella. Both Ivans swear complaints; while all of Mirgorod (which translates as “Worldtown”, according to translator Hugh Alpin) want the conflict to end and the friends to be reconciled, they foolishly decide instead to pursue the squabble in the courts, where it languishes without decision (“it will come tomorrow”) for more than a decade. You can start to imagine the consequences — Dickens would certainly have no problem on that count. If you don’t already know the outlines of the story, the pig does play a major part and real geese (well, at least a goose coop) play a major factor.
The Squabble has much to recommend it. A pointless dispute escalates, bureaucracy takes over (Patrick McCabe in his introduction to this volume makes reference to both Franz Kafka and Monty Python as comparisons and both are valid) and disaster, of a sort, ensues. For this reader, the work fits a definition of the “perfect” novella: You spend much more time thinking about it after reading it, than you spent in the reading. That for me is the ideal definition of the genre.
This Hesperus volume contains two other stories from the Mirgorod series: Olde-Worlde Landowners and The Carriage. The first is Gogol’s version of the Philemon and Baucis myth, an extremely old couple who when offered a reward by Zeus ask only to be allowed to die at the same time — it is a very charming story. The Carriage is slight but worthwhile — an examination of how ego and the desire to move above your station sometimes provide a disastrous result.
I think most avid readers would agree that there are days when you would like to pick up a volume, knowing that in only a few hours (this book is about a two hour venture the first time through, but you want to read it more than once) you will have finished it and be able to put it down, saying “that was more than worthwhile”. And many days later, you are still thinking about that experience.
The Squabble perfectly fits that description. I’m not sure when I’ll get to Dead Souls but this diversion ensures that I eventually will.