book of a lifetime
Books aren't like assassinations: even with the most exhilarating, it can be hard to recall where you were when they happened. I'm not sure exactly how I came to read 'The Overcoat' by Nikolai Gogol, though it was definitely several years before I went to live in Moscow. I do remember that Gogol's dizzying short story about Akaky Akakiyevich, a St Petersburg clerk who buys and loses a new coat with a cat-fur collar, was a revelation.
I'd previously read and loved Herman Melville's story 'Bartleby, The Scrivener', about a New York copyist who abdicates his life. 'The Overcoat' was published in 1842, 11 years before 'Bartleby', and in many ways anticipates it. Both describe the lonely lives and deaths of big-city little men; both have narrators who profess their ignorance of key details of the narratives. In both, the wasting clerks offer their work colleagues an opportunity to be kind, which they mostly decline. But Gogol, it seems to me, goes further and deeper.
There's a lot in 'The Overcoat' that is as scathingly true in modern Britain as in 19th-century Russia: about the impersonality and casual cruelty of office life; about vanity and self-delusion. One of the best moments is when a pompous boss begins to feel guilty about his treatment of Akaky, so goes off to console himself with his mistress. Gogol knows and writes about poverty - to save a few kopecks, Akaky forswears candles and his evening tea - and the way dreams, even very small ones, can be life-supporting. As I …