My wife’s work has brought our family out to Berlin for two months as she sings in Die Nase (The Nose) by Shostakovich at the Komische Oper: an opera based on the surrealist Russian short story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol. And so, as I pause from making headway with my sequel to The Procurement of Souls, A New Religion, I thought I’d offer this extraordinary tale up to you. I had never heard of this particular satirical story which follows the exploits of Major Kovalyov as he sets about chasing his detached nose around St Petersburg, desperate to reunite it with his face, but after writing my last post On the Importance of Fairy Tales, parallels to this genre occurred to me.
It isn’t strictly speculative fiction as such but upon watching the opera in London (it is a joint production with The Royal Opera House, London; Sydney Opera House; and Teatro Real, Madrid) the magical fairy-tale quality to the narrative stood out and one might see this nonsensical and mad little tale as an allegorical fable of sorts. There are certainly themes that come through which may be read as a warning against the obsession of outward appearance; of status; and of the poor treatment of women – his nose, in fact, seems to enjoy much greater success in mere days, than the major, and is seen dressed in high-ranking civic uniform much to Kovalyov’s embarrassment and jealousy. Barrie Kosky’s production also makes direct reference to this theme of appearance whereby the severing of the nose is likened to castration – Kovalyov has a pair of Groucho Marx style glasses placed on his head at one point (by my wife!) where the replacement nose attached is an enormous penis – and certainly Kovalyov appears to feel emasculated by his missing nose, such as it threatens his chances with women and enhanced social status.
Regardless of how you choose to relate to the story and whether the social commentary of Russia in the 1830s interests you or not, this unique tale is genius in its absurdity. Literary critics have pointed out the importance of the title itself, the Russian word for nose, (HOC; nos) being the word for dream backwords (COH; son), and this summarises it perfectly for me: it is the strangest dreamscape, at turns absurd, comic and grotesque and I urge everyone to check it out, be it Gogol’s story itself, or the opera.