Home > 19th Century, Gogol Nikolai, Russian Literature, Short Stories, Translations > The story of the man who puts his nose where it doesn’t belong

The story of the man who puts his nose where it doesn’t belong

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol. 1836

In The Breast, Philip Roth refers to The Nose by Gogol and you’ll understand why when I write the review of the Roth. As it is a short-story, I decided to read it. The Nose is the story of the a barber who finds the nose of his client Assessor Kovalev in his breakfast bread one morning, while Assessor Kovalev wakes up and his nose is gone: 

Collegiate Assessor KOVALEV also awoke early that morning. And when he had done so he made the “B-r-rh!” with his lips which he always did when he had been asleep — he himself could not have said why. Then he stretched, reached for a small mirror on the table nearby, and set himself to inspect a pimple which had broken out on his nose the night before. But, to his unbounded astonishment, there was only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been! Greatly alarmed, he got some water, washed, and rubbed his eyes hard with the towel. Yes, the nose indeed was gone! He prodded the spot with a hand — pinched himself to make sure that he was not still asleep. But no; he was not still sleeping. Then he leapt from the bed, and shook himself. No nose!

It is a terrible drama for him who is seeking social ascension. He needs to find a good position as a civil servant, he wants to socialize with the high society and he hopes to marry Alexandra Potdochina’s daughter. All this cannot be achieved without a nose!

Even loss of hands or feet would have been better, for a man without a nose is the devil knows what — a bird, but not a bird, a citizen, but not a citizen, a thing just to be thrown out of window. It would have been better, too, to have had my nose cut off in action, or in a duel, or through my own act: whereas here is the nose gone with nothing to show for it — uselessly — for not a groat’s profit!

The poor man will try anything to catch up with his nose. Once he meets his Nose on the street – a most funny encounter and chases him. He goes to a newspaper to advert and have someone bring his nose back. He tries to find a reason to this disappearance and ends up thinking Alexandra Potdochina is responsible for his loss. It’s surreal, absurd and really funny. I’ve read that Gogol’s aim was to point out all the rules we need to abide by to be part of some social circles. Here, in this society, it would have been admitted to have only one leg but not to have a nose, unless you can be proud of the way you lost it. It questions our identity and how our physical appearance matters when it comes to relationships. The need to look “normal” is powerful and poor Kovalev carries a handkerchief to hide the place where his nose should be, in a vain attempt to keep nosy people away. Gogol isn’t really introspective here, Kovalev has no real internal turmoil and he doesn’t linger on the effects this event have on his inner mind. He emphasizes more on the social consequences and the risk to be an outsider.

The French translation includes play-on-words related to noses and other parts of the face. For example: The Nose says Je n’y comprends goutte and it was translated into English as I cannot apprehend your meaning, which is the same meaning, except that in French, avoir la goutte au nez means to have a runny nose. Well, in French, it’s rather witty. A moment later, when Alexandra Potdochina writes him a letter, the French version says “Vous me parlez d’une histoire de nez. Si vous entendez par là que vous avez essuyé un pied de nez, en d’autres termes que vous avez essuyé un refus de ma part, laissez-moi vous dire que c’est précisément le contraire.” and the English version is “You speak, too, of a nose. If that means that I seem to you to have desired to leave you with a nose and nothing else, that is to say, to return you a direct refusal of my daughter’s hand, I am astonished at your words, for, as you cannot but be aware, my inclination is quite otherwise.” Does that mean that the original is also full of nose-related play-on-words? I heard that Russian grammar can be bent – much more than the French one – and I can only assume that Gogol’s prose is witty too. I also enjoyed the comic effects such as the advertisements clerk offering some snuff to Kovalev to comfort him: the poor man has no nose for it! Or the moment when Kovalev tries to fix his nose back in the middle of his face. Btw, in French we say, “ça se voit comme le nez au milieu de la figure”, literally, “it’s visible like a nose in the middle of a face”, ie it’s obvious. This story is a gold mine for play-on-words.

I really enjoyed this short-story and I’m glad I read it as it is indeed useful to understand the Roth.

PS: I have a question. When Kovalev meets Madame Potdochina and his daughter on the street, he think je n’épouserai pas la gamine… si ce n’est de la main gauche, which means he won’t marry the daughter but might have an affair with her. The English translation says “I’m not going to marry the daughter, though. All this is just — par amour, allow me.” Does “par amour” have a negative connotation and actually means an affair? If yes, fortunately I didn’t read the English version, I would have thought it was a love marriage i.e., the exact opposite.

  1. October 7, 2011 at 10:09 am

    One year (not this one!) I must have a Russian lit challenge because I am woefully badly read in this area. I’ve got through about 150 pages of Anna Karenina and read one Chekov story (that was good, though). This short story sounds entertaining in a zany way! As for the quotation and the ‘par amour’, I would read it simply as ‘for love’. So you get the inference from the context – he won’t marry her, this is just a matter of indulging in love. The implication is that it will be only ‘an affair’ but it isn’t exactly perjorative. You might well roll your eyes at his ethics, though. But I have to say the sentence in English sounds a little odd, mostly because of the weird ‘allow me’ tacked on the end.

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    • October 7, 2011 at 10:26 am

      I’m not well read in Russian literature. This one was great and terribly funny. I want to read Dead Souls now.
      I’ve read Anna Karenina when I was a teenager and I found her obnoxious. I have little patience with that kind of characters (I don’t like Scarlett O’Hara for the same reasons)
      I loved War and Peace and The Idiot. I’ve read some Chekov (and seen Uncle Vanya with Philippe Torreton, wonderful.) I suspect I’ll like Father and Son. and I want to read more Dostoeyvsky. The Lermontov I’m reading is excellent.

      You can find excellent reviews on Russian literature on Guy’s blog (His Futile Preoccupation), he’s well read in that area. Sarah (A Rat in the Book Pile) has been on a Russian literature binge this year, there are good reviews on her blog too. According to your blog, I think you’d like Novel with Cocaine by M Ageyev. There’s a review on my blog and on Guy”s too.

      Thank you for the explanation on the last quote. I see it’s confusing. I wonder how it has been translated in a more recent translation.

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      • October 7, 2011 at 8:44 pm

        In that context “for love” sounds like a euphemism

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        • October 7, 2011 at 8:57 pm

          I would even say irony or sarcasm.

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  2. October 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    I read a few of Gogol’s short stories and also Dead Souls. I thought that Dead Souls was suprisingly funny. I didn’t expect it to be funny at all when I started it. Black humour of course. I have not read this one though but I got it in a collection. I will read it one day but maybe not right now.

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    • October 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm

      I should look for his other short stories too.

      Like

  3. October 7, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    “The Overcoat” is one of the greats of the century, and is sort of the partner of “The Nose.” “Diary of a Madman” is quite funny, but neither it nor any of Gogol’s other stories can match “The Nose” and “The Overcoat.”

    For what any of that is worth.

    Like

    • October 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm

      Thanks, I’ll get The Overcoat and Diary of a Madman.

      Like

  4. October 8, 2011 at 4:40 am

    To quote Lady Gaga: I don’t speak German, but I can if you like.

    In Russian:
    приговаривая про себя: “Вот, мол, вам, бабье, куриный народ! а на

    дочке все-таки не женюсь. Так просто, рar amour, – изволь!”
    (Gogol uses the French)

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    • October 8, 2011 at 11:43 am

      Excellent ! you’re awsome.

      OK, so the English is faithful to the original. I suppose it has something to do with the reputation of adultery in France. I understand why the French translator changed the words: if he had left the “par amour”, the French reader would have heard something quite romantic and that’s obviously not what Gogol meant.

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      • October 8, 2011 at 6:30 pm

        I came across a great quote the other day about the French and love. Can’t remember where it was but when I find it, I’ll post it here.

        Like

        • October 8, 2011 at 10:46 pm

          Yes please, I’m sure it’s going to be funny.

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  5. October 9, 2011 at 2:47 am

    I love Gogol! I’m with Tom, The Overcoat is the best! I thought I’d read “The Nose” as well, but it doesn’t sound familiar. I have an awful memory. Will have to look it up now and have a read.

    Like

    • October 9, 2011 at 12:38 pm

      I’ll read The Overcoat.
      There is something in his prose and theme that lets me think he hugely influenced my beloved Romain Gary. (who, lucky him, could read it in the original)

      Like

  6. October 9, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    I agree with Amateur Reader about “The Overcoat” and “The Nose”, but would a.so like to put in a word for ” How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich”. Gogol had a very odd sense of humour!

    Some of his plays are also well worth reading. “the Government Inspector” is justly famous, but just as funny is “Marriage”.

    As for reference to noses, translator Ronald Wilks tells us in a footnote that “Russian is rich in idioms referring to the nose, most of them derogatory”. He doesn’t in general try to find English equivalents of these. Nabokov, on his rather idiosyncratic book on Gogol, spends a long time talking about noses!

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    • October 9, 2011 at 11:13 pm

      Thanks for all the recommendations, I really enjoyed The Nose.
      I think that most French expressions with “nose” are derogatory too, except “avoir du nez”.

      Like

  7. October 30, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    I enjoyed this story too, although I admit it puzzled me. I read it in the context of a fantastic work, and found his choice of nose as supernatural entity most startling! Your take is very well reasoned, and I loved the way you bring out the humour of the French translation. The English translation doesn’t seem to lend itself to similar wordplay.

    As others have said both The Overcoat and Dead Souls are excellent, although Dead Souls was never completed, which is disappointing.

    Do try Anna Karenina again! I didn’t like it when I read it as a young woman, but as a wife and mother it is quite different.

    Like

    • October 31, 2011 at 9:01 am

      Thanks. I need to read your review.

      Like

  1. December 23, 2011 at 1:52 am
  2. September 24, 2012 at 12:17 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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