"The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil" by Nikolai Gogol (1832-1842)
"'I can't understand,' he used to say, 'why some artists are so keen on slaving and drudgery. In my opinion a man who wastes several months on a picture isn't an artist at all. He is simply a hack.'"
Nikolai Gogol was a Ukrainian-born Russian writer, known primarily for "The Overcoat," one of his short stories, and "Dead Souls," one of his novels. He is also known as a proponent of literary realism within the Russian school, though many of his stories also contain elements of fantasy. He was a contemporary of Dostoyevsky, and his writings influenced both Bulgakov and Nabokov.
This book includes five stories, and these stories are presented in the order of their publication. The first story is "A Terrible Vengeance," followed by "The Portrait," "Nevsky Avenue," (sometimes referred to as "Nevsky Prospect"), "The Nose," and "The Overcoat," published in 1942, the year that marked both the publication of "Dead Souls" and the end of his writing career. Gogol would die of illness ten years later, plagued by conflicting emotions with regard to his literary output.
The first story, "A Terrible Vengeance," is a bizarre sort of fairy tale. In this story a Cossack chieftain contends with his father-in law over the affections of his new bride. The father-in-law happens to be a sorcerer, and none of the characters in this story come to a happy end. It is a fairly one-dimensional story, and the twist at the end seems rather arbitrary.
"The Portrait" follows the career of a painting as it falls into various hands. The man in the painting is a satanic figure, and the religious overtones present in "A Terrible Vengeance" are also present here, if muted slightly. Gogol has a lot to say about the role of the artist in this piece, and there are perhaps moments where his artistic pretensions get the better of the narrative's pacing.
"Nevsky Avenue" tries to be the story of an avenue, though the digressions into the exploits of two men seem to distract from the author's original intention. Parts of this story show a promise that Gogol would realize in later stories.
"The Nose" is more like something Kafka would have written. A government official wakes to find his nose missing, and and the story paints an interesting portrait of St. Petersburg. It has none of the pacing issues present in the earlier stories, and the conclusion, although strange, is satisfying.
"The Overcoat" is by far the best story here, though the supernatural ending probably won't sit as well with modern readers. Just the same, it is an excellent short story, and it makes me want to seek out Gogol's "Dead Souls."