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How do you begin to make sense of The Nose?

Audiences and academics have long tried to understand the Gogol tale that inspired Shostakovich's opera – is it satire taken to extremes, or is it something else entirely?

By Alex Laffer (Former Editorial Assistant)

1 November 2016 at 12.15pm | Comment on this article

‘On 25 March an unusually strange event occurred in St Petersburg.’ So opens Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist masterpiece The Nose, first published by Alexander Pushkin in 1836. Talk about an understatement! The event in question is the discovery of a nose in a loaf of bread – an appendage belonging to one Major Platon Kuzmitch Kovalov, a mid-ranking official in Imperial Russia. It is found by Ivan Iakovlevitch, his barber, but no one seems to know how it got there. What does the missing nose mean? Does that even matter?

One way to understand The Nose is as a satire, full of critiques of class, rank and society. Shostakovich, who adapted the work into an opera, seemed to think so, calling it ‘a remarkable satire on the era of Nicholas I’, with the events and characters seen ‘against the background of a bureaucratic, police era’. During his life Gogol experienced frustration with overzealous bureaucracy and censorship. A small but telling example in The Nose was the enforced shifting of a scene from the Kazan Cathedral to a marketplace (Shostakovich restored the setting in his adaptation). This frustration is something Shostakovich would have been well familiar with a century later; and it still resonates today.

The Nose, The Royal Opera © ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper

But The Nose is a box of bizarre treats which are not easily contained by satire. Its inherent absurdity is certainly an indictment of needless bureaucracy and socio-political pressure – but Gogol goes much further than that. Logic has no home here, and the story unfolds through a bizarre series of escalating absurdities that resist interpretation.

Kovalov attempts to explain his situation as the result of alcohol, or as a terrible dream. Gogol seems to ask the same question. In early versions of the text there is no question that Kovalov is dreaming, but by the time it was published all that was left were playful allusions and ambiguous references. In Russian the title The Nose is Nos; spelled backwards this is son, meaning dream. Gogol tells us Kovalov loses his nose on 25 March and has it restored on 7 April, with 12 days of noselessness in between: at his time the Western Gregorian calendar and traditional Julian calendar were separated by 12 days, suggesting the story might take place over just one night.

Is Gogol teasing us? Things start and finish in a fog of uncertainty. He defies attempts to ascribe meaning to this world where the bonds of cause and effect have been loosened. What are we to make of these strange goings on? Should we stand bewildered by the absurdity and faulty logic? Or just be swept along with Kovalov in his desperate search for his missing appendage? We’re not alone in not knowing how to respond. There have been many attempts to try and make sense of The Nose: in addition to those emphasizing the satirical elements, others see proto-surrealism, allegory, a nightmare/dream, a distorted fairytale – even the manifestation of a castration complex.

Gogol himself was uncertain of how to present The Nose, and initially resisted publishing his ‘jest’. Luckily for us, Pushkin ‘found in it so much that is unexpected, fantastic, amusing and original’ that he persuaded Gogol to ‘share with the public the pleasure which his manuscript has afforded’. It became hugely influential, not least on a young Shostakovich who began composing The Nose at the age of just 20.

In The Nose, Gogol pushes the absurd to grotesque and hilarious ends. He lambasts authority figures and pricks the follies of hierarchies, toying with and entertaining his audience in equal measure. This is matched in Shostakovich’s score, where the traditional is juxtaposed against the avant-garde and the serious becomes the ridiculous. All of this is magnificently enacted in Barrie Kosky’s production, in the peculiar interactions of the characters and choreographed chaos of the St Petersburg crowd – including a chorus line of tap-dancing noses! Story, opera and production all delight in nonsense.

So leave logic at the door, come wander through St Petersburg and get ready for an evening of hilarious absurdity.

The Nose runs until 9 November 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production will be livestreamed on YouTube on 9 November 2016

The Nose is a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and Opera Australia.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Hamish and Sophie Forsyth, The Tsukanov Family Foundation and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

By Alex Laffer (Former Editorial Assistant)

1 November 2016 at 12.15pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged absurd, absurdism, Alexander Pushkin, Barrie Kosky, books, by Barrie Kosky, Dmitry Shostakovich, Literature, Nikolai Gogol, Production, satire, The Nose

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