The Portrait of a Lady
David Stuart Davies looks at what many consider to be Henry James' finest work. ...
An Italian woman who teaches American literature in an English university walks into a bar…no, a bookshop, to get hold of a Russian short-story. If there’s a punch-line to round off this opening statement, I haven’t found it yet. The joke is absolutely on me: I am haunted by the most famous of Nikolai Gogol’s Petersburg tales. ‘The Overcoat’ (1842) is my literary obsession du jour – actually du many a jour. I am writing this blog as an act of exorcism, in the hope that jotting down my thoughts will help me put this fixation to rest. This piece is also a homage to fearless, charismatic teachers with a contagious love for books, and a note-to-self and plea to fellow readers to step out of our literary comfort zone every now and again.
Confession time: I am fascinated and intimidated by Russian literature in equal measure. My track record in the field includes a fair share of readerly false starts, the greatest of them caused – I can say this with the benefit of hindsight – by my attempt to scale some serious literary heights before I knew what I was doing. I blame my brilliant high-school Italian literature teacher. Brilliant and utterly terrifying. She suffered no fools, took no prisoners. She bridled at the strictures of the curriculum, and got us to read widely and wildly beyond the set texts, photocopies of her latest literary discoveries (or old favourites who hadn’t made the editors’ cut) supplementing the pages of our anthology with the work of amazing writers whom – we all knew – would never come up in our final exams. Not a chance.
It was the last year of high-school, crunch-time to get ready for the Italian equivalent of the A-levels, when one day she walked into the classroom, not so much annoyed as affronted, bemoaning the fact that she had had to leave Prince Andrei, Natascha and Pierre back home to come and talk to us about “the old trombone” (an Italian poet of the Risorgimento who shall remain nameless to spare everyone’s blushes). And so it was that, exams under my belt, I spent the entire summer, at the seaside, 35 degrees in the shade, grappling with the Russian winter and War and Peace, all two volumes and 1,400 pages of it. I can honestly say that it went straight over my head, not least because my translation – from a really prestigious publishing house which shall also remain nameless – had dealt with the question of what to do with the considerable chunks of French text in the Russian original by leaving them in French in the Italian edition. The summer ended, and so did my leisure time. I’m not proud of it: I shelved the novel having reached page 1,350 or thereabouts. So near and yet so far! My bookworm-y ego never quite recovered from that debacle of, erm, Napoleonic proportions.
I’m not exactly at home on Russian soil, then. I have read a handful of other classics, but my literary studies have taken me elsewhere. Until recently: I have made my way to Gogol-land via a circuitous cultural route, guided by Jhumpa Lahiri, the London-born Bengali American author of Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), two of my favourite collections of short-stories. Gogol crops up in her first novel The Namesake (2003): it is the eccentric given name of the main character, a second-generation immigrant from Calcutta to New England. Gogol struggles to come to terms with his unusual moniker and, for the best part of the novel, is not privy to exactly why he is a living tribute to the Russian writer. Readers, instead, know that Ashoke, the protagonist’s father, survived a horrific train crash because he had been reading ‘The Overcoat’ at the time of the accident. It is the fluttering of a page of the book, still held in his hand, that attracts the attention of the rescue team. From this cataclysmic beginning, The Namesake weaves together the momentous and the mundane, the particular and the universal, in a beautifully observed account of the existential anxiety that is our shared plight, whether we have experienced the migrant’s cultural displacement or not.
Intertextual allusions turn literary scholars into bloodhounds: one sniff and we’re off, following the scent of the reference, tracing connections and hunting down new interpretative possibilities. Lahiri encourages this pursuit when she reminds us that, according to Dostoyevsky, “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat”. In the context of Ashoke’s remark to his son – he has just given the fourteen-year-old boy a volume of Gogol’s short stories as a birthday present – Dostoyevsky’s pronouncement about Gogol’s towering influence on Russian literature acquires a wider resonance: “What’s that supposed to mean?”, says the teenager, otherwise unmoved by the gesture and impervious to its significance. “It will make sense to you one day”, replies his father. It’ll take young Gogol the best part of the novel to develop an interest in his namesake. Not me. I get my hands on ‘The Overcoat’ and try it on for size at the earliest available opportunity.
In its bare facts, it’s a simple enough tale, about one Akaky Akakyevich Bashmatchkin, a humble clerk the entire circumference of whose life seems to begin and end with his job as a copyist for an unspecified government department. That he should be perfectly content with the unceasing monotony of his occupation is signposted by the repetitiveness written in his name, not merely in the customary Russian patronymic (Akaky Akakyevich stands for “Akaky son of Akaky”), but in the meaning of kak (“like”). On the other hand, his family name belies the prospect that things might not necessarily match their designation: as the narrator explains, it “is evidently derived from ‘basmak’ (shoe); but when, at what time, and in what manner, is not known. His father and grandfather, and all the Bashmatchkins, always wore boots”.
And so the idea that Akaky’s life may not proceed exactly as assumed, in uninterrupted routine, begins to creep into the story – though, “contrariwise” (as another master of the surreal might say), our cautious narrator is also at pains to draw our attention to the role of destiny in Akaky’s appellation and, by extension, in his life: “the reader might see for himself that it was a case of necessity, and that it was utterly impossible to give him any other name”. Akaky is the gift that keeps on giving in hermeneutical terms: etymologically, from the Greek cacos (= bad) and the privative prefix a, it means “not evil”, i.e. good and innocent. To Russian speakers, it brings to mind kakatj, “children’s talk for defecate”, a scatological reference which remains audible in several other languages.
Akaky’s own namesake is St. Acacius of Sinai, a novice monk renowned for his patience, especially in enduring the harsh treatment he suffered at the hands of his superior. According to legend, his meekness brought his tormentor to repentance in a singular fashion, when Acacius replied to the enquiry about whether he was really dead (!) from beyond the grave (!!) by explaining that it is impossible for an obedient man to die. Without giving too much away, let’s say that elements of St. Acacius’s incredible story return in Akaky’s own, while others are turned upside down (compare the two endings in particular).
The pivotal incident in Gogol’s short story follows from the protagonist’s dismayed realization that his overcoat is so threadbare that it won’t be possible to patch it up any more. Akaky will have to have a new one made, a considerable outlay for his meagre finances. Having been forced to face facts – or tempted to give in to a mild form of consumerism? – by his rather devilish tailor Petrovich, Akaky begins to look forward to wearing the titular item of clothing with such intensity that his life is suffused with new zest and purpose: “From that time forth his existence seemed to become, in some way, fuller, as if he were married, or as if some other man lived in him, as if, in fact, he were not alone, and some pleasant friend had consented to travel along life’s path with him, the friend being no other than the cloak, with thick wadding and a strong lining incapable of wearing out. He became more lively, and even his character grew firmer, like that of a man who has made up his mind, and set himself a goal. From his face and gait, doubt and indecision, all hesitating and wavering traits disappeared of themselves. Fire gleamed in his eyes, and occasionally the boldest and most daring ideas flitted through his mind; why not, for instance, have marten fur on the collar? The thought of this almost made him absent-minded.”
This is no mere “Life is short. Buy the overcoat”. The garment stands for – or is it a “stand-in”? (see below on this tension) – enduring love and companionship, and does more than put a spring in Akaky’s step. He is transformed by the promise of what is to come, excited in anticipation, unswervingly determined to achieve his objective and seduced into playing around with the array of sartorial options within his reach. The grey, dull bureaucrat dreams of going to the ball. And go to the ball he shall: the overcoat fits him perfectly, and attracts the compliments of his co-workers to the point that they suggest that Akaky should hold a “christening” party for it, until one of the superiors decides to host the festivities himself. From butt of the office jokes – not least because of the shabby appearance of his previous overcoat, dubbed the “dressing-gown” – Akaky momentarily becomes the object of admiration and even the centre of the department’s social life.
I say “momentarily” because Akaky’s happiness lasts for fewer than twenty-four hours. After an abrupt change of direction, the final section of the story takes us into gothic territory. I’ll leave my readers the pleasure to discover for themselves how the tale of Akaky’s marvellous makeover pans out, though at this stage I should make a couple of (contradictory?) points clear: 1. ‘The Overcoat’ is not a text one reads primarily for its plot; 2. by the time Akaky walks home from the party, Gogol has primed us to expect the unexpected. For me, this is where the paradoxical appeal of the story lies: the minute we think we have got a handle on it, there’s a disorienting shift in the narrative, and we are left clutching at interpretative straws.
One doesn’t have to be an expert in Russian literature to approach ‘The Overcoat’ in the first instance as a critique of the impersonal, faceless, soul-destroying bureaucratic machine, and of the stultifying rigidity inherent in the hierarchical organization of St Petersburg’s society. Then again, early on in the proceedings, a young clerk hears in Akaky’s feeble complaint against his bullies (“Leave me alone. Why do you insult me?”) a much deeper message: “I am thy brother”. This calling for recognition of our fellow humanity jolts the story from contingent socio-political satire into the transcendent realm of a moral parable, with more than a sprinkling of Christian symbolism in Akaky’s ascetic temperament, monastic occupation, and hints of martyrdom.
If the latter is indeed the story’s general direction of travel, what are we to make then of Akaky’s transformative preoccupation with his overcoat? Are we meant to cheer him on as he starves himself to save money and finds spiritual sustenance in the thought of his cherished future possession? He had not been discontented with his lot before. In fact, he only had eyes for his copying, seeing “in all things the clean, even strokes of his written lines”. We know that he often used to take his work home and, when he didn’t have any, he’d copy documents for his own pleasure and gratification. (Each to their own, I guess.) Staying with the religious allusions, is the one-eyed tailor Petrovich – the deformed nail of his thumb “thick and strong as a turtle’s shell” – a satanic figure, and Akaky’s metamorphosis a fall of Biblical proportions? Is the story in praise of the common man, as in “the meek shall inherit the earth” (doesn’t quite tally with the conclusion), or is it an exhortation to grab life by the horns, stand one’s ground, challenge the haughty and powerful (doesn’t quite work either)?
Other, secular hypotheses jostle for attention. From the millennial lens of wellness (I am going out on a limb here), we might be tempted to celebrate Akaky’s perked-up persona as testimony to the uplifting power of self-care, though – on second thoughts – he equally reads as a fashion victim, in more ways than one by the time we get to the end. At every turn, with every line of inquiry, ‘The Overcoat’ sends us on a wild goose chase for signification, which may well be the whole point of the story. In this respect, the narrative discontinuity and opacity mirrors Akaky’s own verbal mannerisms: he “expressed himself chiefly by prepositions, adverbs, and scraps of phrases which had no meaning whatsoever. If the matter was a very difficult one, he had a habit of never completing his sentences; so that frequently, having begun a phrase with the words, “This, in fact, is quite –” he forgot to go on, thinking that he had already finished it”.
In its frequent changes in tone and pattern, the story does feel like patchwork. And the narrator’s reluctance in sharing certain details – which department Akaky works for, the names of key characters, for example – is revealing in and of itself, as is the admission that his original source for the story had lost interest in some finer, final particulars of Akaky’s fate. With these evasions and lack of closure it’s almost as if the narrator were asking us to look for holes in the plot. This reminds me that the Italian word for plot (“trama”) also refers to the texture of fabrics, and sends me back to pursuing, in vain and against the closing section of the tale, my hunch that the overcoat – transparent at first, a solid outer garment (a cover-up?) later – might work as a metaphor for pre- and post-lapsarian language: the combination affords us a view of Akaky’s authentic “naked” self getting corrupted by societal trappings with all their fur trimmings.
As I said, ‘The Overcoat’ doesn’t quite fit this interpretation either: it’s too baggy for any one reading, socio-political satire, Christian or humanist parable, reflection on language and literature, not to mention its coda of ghostly retribution flying in the face of a praise of docility. Should this leave us kicking and screaming in frustration? That rather depends on whether we’re a glass half-empty or half-full kind of reader (and human being). I’m with Nabokov when he says that “The gaps and black holes in the texture of Gogol’s style imply flaws in the texture of life itself”, but I do agree with Brombert’s gloss to this statement: “the hollowness of the gaps, the terrifying absence, is also an absence/presence: a void that asks to be filled by the interpretative act”. Over to us, then, to respond to Gogol’s challenge, if we dare.
 The risk was worth it and, anyway, we wouldn’t have dreamt of complaining about it, even if we had wanted to. Of my class of twenty-odd students alone, two of us have ended up as university lecturers, in contemporary literature and cinema respectively. She must have been doing something right, especially considering that our school was a liceo scientifico, which means that our overall curriculum was split fifty-fifty between Humanities and Sciences.
 Lahiri uses this same passage as her epigraph, translated thus: ““The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question”. The absence of context makes the sentence even more tantalizing. I had to go and read Gogol for myself.
 I am indebted for this point to Victor Brombert, who also put me on the tracks of St. Acacius. For his astute argument about the text’s undecidability and why we should embrace it, see ‘Meaning and Indeterminacy in Gogol’s “The Overcoat”’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 135.4 (1991), 569-75.
 The hierarchical structure had been formalized by czar Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks (1722), which lists all the positions in the civil service, the military and the nobility, providing a handy comparative guide to the relative prestige and authority of bureaucrats, soldiers and aristocrats. Interestingly, civil servants above a certain grade were granted the status of personal nobility, and those higher up the food chain were given hereditary rights.
 These complementary interpretative possibilities are present in another famous short story about a mild-mannered copyist, Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby, The Scrivener’ (1853). Here too we have an ascetic, barely articulate protagonist and a cagey narrator, but Bartleby’s retreat from life with his repeated “I would prefer not to” is oxymoronically wilful, particularly when compared to Akaky’s more timid grip on his own destiny.