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Like a bear and a chair and a thrush

June 27, 2014

The “too much information” simile and the “not enough information” simile are my two favorite new bits of literary jargon, from Greta Matzner-Gore on Gogol’s “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich” (Повесть о том, как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем, 1835). Here are some of her examples:

[…] early in the story the narrator insists that the effect Ivan Ivanovich’s pleasant speech has on its listeners can only be compared to one thing. But then he goes on to compare it to three: “The sensation can only be compared to when you’re having your head deloused, or when someone runs a finger gently over your heel. You listen and listen — and you hang your head. How pleasant! Extremely pleasant! Like sleeping after a bath.” (2: 226; 8). The first two comparisons — being checked for lice and getting tickled — at least describe similar physical sensations, but how could either possibly resemble a post-bath nap? In the car chase of this comparison the narrator has switched “vehicles” so many times that the “tenor” has been lost entirely, left behind somewhere in the dust. (25)

In a footnote she remarks that there’s a tradition of criticizing this aspect of Gogol’s comparisons as a flaw. An example of the opposite kind of simile is the last of a list of carriages, which “wasn’t like anything [byla ni na chto ne pokhozha], representing some strange being, utterly formless and extremely fantastical” (25). So a Gogolian narrator sometimes compares one thing to several things that are arguably mutually incompatible, and sometimes declares it impossible to compare a thing to any other thing at all.

So far, so good; I think the terms “too much information” and “not enough information” simile are what’s new here, since I think I remember Judith Deutsch Kornblatt making much of the “not enough information” simile in her course on Gogol, especially w/r/t a woman’s face in Dead Souls, and I suspect the phenomenon is well known to Gogol readers and scholars. It’s certainly an important technique worth drawing attention to and defining. At one point I thought Matzner-Gore was going to lose me, when she brought the landowners from Dead Souls in as examples:

Gogol’s “too much information” simile, exemplified by the description of Sobakevich [who is likened to just about every animal and object in his house], and his “not enough information” simile, exemplified by the incomparable Pliushkin, are two sides of the same coin. Both landowners, the one who looks like so many different things (a bear and a chair and a thrush), and the one who looks like nothing at all (neither man nor woman, like nothing you have ever seen), the one who can be exchanged for anything and the one who can be exchanged for nothing, have equally indeterminate identities. They are both impossible to visualize. Splintering and shattering, or simply melting away, they disappear into the ever-fluctuating landscape of Dead Souls.

Pliushkin from Dead Souls (illustration by A. A. Agin)

Pliushkin from Dead Souls (illustration by A. A. Agin)

Here’s where I started to argue with the article in my head. Surely the landowners aren’t hard to pin down — in my reading they’re centuries-old stereotypes, jokes that ought to be lifeless but have life breathed into them by the bizarreness of Gogol’s narrative techniques, including the two types of similes Matzner-Gore singles out. But then I had one of those satisfying moments when I turned the page and all my objections were anticipated and dealt with, as Matzner-Gore shifts the emphasis from the supposedly unstable landscape and indeterminate characters to the way these similes — and other techniques like lists that, midway through, swerve away from what we expect them to be a list of — affect our perception of the narrator’s voice (28-30). It is not that Mirgorod is a particularly magical, mysterious, kaleidoscopic place to direct your gaze at, but this pair of eyes would make anything seem crazy, even a miser that belongs in Molière.

Pliushkin from Dead Souls (illustration by P. M. Boklevskii)

Pliushkin from Dead Souls (illustration by P. M. Boklevskii)

The whole article is enjoyable, and one last part I want to highlight here is Matzner-Gore’s overview of how different scholars take the ending of “The Two Ivans,” the passage up to “Скучно на этом свете, господа!” (“It’s dull in this world, gentlemen!”) when the storyteller’s voice shifts. Robert Maguire says the change is so extreme that the narrator at the end can’t possibly be the same person as the narrator at the beginning; Christopher Putney says that the “demonic boredom and restlessness” that caused the two Ivans to quarrel has infected the town and even the narrator; and Donald Fanger says that the “theme introduced by the closing line is the instability of the comic attitude” (30-31).

Read the whole thing! You can find it here: Greta Matzner-Gore, “Gogol’s Language of Instability: ‘The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich’ and the Problem of Identity,” Slavic and East European Journal 58.1 (2014): 19-32. (No link as of now, but it should eventually be on JSTOR.)

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