Petersburg Tales is a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol published in 1842 that unites a previous one entitled Arabesques with two other tales, “The Overcoat” and “The Nose.” The scene where the barber finds the nose in a loaf of bread, or the ghost of Akakij Akakievič, who died of cold, going around the city to rob people of their coats after he lost his own, belong to collective imagination.
Gogol’s works inspired more than 135 films, most of them Russian and ex USSR productions. Still, there have been adaptations worldwide, such as The Overcoat by Alberto Lattuada, or J.Lee Thomson’s Taras Bulba.
Although known as a Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol had Ukrainian origins, like Eugene Hütz, actor in Everything is Illuminated and lead singer of Gogol Bordello: a musical example of the American melting pot, from the multiculturality of the members to their style that blends punk, rock, dub, folk with gypsy sounds of violins and accordion.
There are two things that most strike the imagination in the Gogol stories: inanimate, irrelevant objects that all of a sudden come to life, deforming an otherwise perfectly normal context, and the characters. Gogol’s characters wander in a twilight atmosphere; they’re crazy and alone, ghosts and presences, miserable, surreal figures: but they cannot be ignored, out of tune characters for an out of tune world. Indeed, in his works, Gogol portrays the vices and idiosyncrasies of Russian society, with irony and a sense of the grotesque, which brings him closer to the popular comedy and the literary tradition that dates back to François Rabelais, as Mikhail Bakhtin claimed.
Between fantasy and a brutal encounter with reality, the short stories bewitch the reader with the charm of nineteenth-century Russia, except then striking him or her with contradictions and brilliant inspiration. Gogol is caustic, funny, sometimes even violent. He paved the way for the other Great Russian Writers, including Fëdor Dostoevsky: after all, it was Dostoevsky himself who said: “We are all children of Gogol’s overcoat”.
A curiosity: Tommaso Landolfi, ingenious baroque writer and poet, translated the Italian edition for the Einaudi types.