Thursday, August 11, 2011

#11: How the Two Ivans Quarrelled, Nikolai Gogol

How the Two Ivans Quarrelled
by Nikolai Gogol
-born in Ukraine, 1809
-136 Pages
-translated by John Cournos
-more about Gogol (via Goodreads)

Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- Nikolai Gogol sought literary fame in Moscow at 18 by self-publishing an epic poem.  It was so ridiculed he fled the city.
- After finding success with stories based on Ukrainian Folklore, his stories and novels developed a bitter realism and ironic humor.
- In 1836, he feared that one of his plays offended the Tsar and he left Russia for 12 years. When he returned, publishing essays supporting the government he'd previously criticized, he was mercilessly attacked by previous supporters and sank into despondency.
- Gogol ended up renouncing writing as an immoral activity, and in 1852 he burned his last manuscript just days before dying of self-imposed starvation.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
This lesser-known work is perhaps the perfect distillation of Nikolai Gogol’s genius: a tale simultaneously animated by a joyful, nearly slapstick sense of humor alongside a resigned cynicism about the human condition.

In a sharp-edged translation from John Cournos, an under-appreciated early translator of Russian literature into English, How The Two Ivans Quarrelled is the story of two long-time friends who have a falling out when one of them calls the other a “goose.” From there, the argument intensifies and the escalation becomes more and more ludicrous. Never losing its generous antic spirit, the story nonetheless transitions from whither a friendship, to whither humanity, as it progresses relentlessly to its moving conclusion.

My Impressions:
Without a doubt, the largest thing standing in the way of my enjoyment of this book was a conflict of styles of humor.  Have you ever been to a movie, a comedy, and noticed that you are the only one in the crowd not drowning in a puddle of laughter?  That was me in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and that was me in How the Two Ivans Quarrelled.  I can see how it is funny, I understand the humor, it just doesn't make me laugh.

The first paragraph in the synopsis (above) has it right on: Gogol uses humor to illustrate his cynicism, and--especially if your sense of humor matches his--it is brilliantly done.  The excerpt I've quoted below is probably not entirely representative of the humor...just guessing, since it's a passage I actually found funny...but it's the only one I noted, so that's all you get. :)
Where do all these scandals originate? In the same way it was rumoured that Ivan Nikiforovitch was born with a tail! But this invention is so clumsy and at the same time so horrible and indecent that I do not even consider it necessary to refute it for the benefit of civilised readers, to whom it is doubtless known that only witches, and very few even of these, have tails.  Witches, moreover, belong more to the feminine than to the masculine gender.
I love Tolstoy, and I loved Pushkin, so I was starting to wonder if I'd have a similar reaction to other Russian authors.  But it seems that there are some that just aren't necessarily my taste. Gogol was good, but not for me.


  1. Maybe reading all the Russian authors next isn't the way to go. HA! Choosing is hard! I got some birthday money (yeah!) so I may order several of the novellas. OK, so which ones to order? What a great dilemma I have! Congrats on making it to #11 already. Go girl!

  2. That's what I thought too! I had been thinking that I just have a natural compatibility with classic Russian authors, now maybe not so much. :) I'm starting to feel the mid-month read/unread book stacks are still very uneven--I'm totally not going to make it through all of them! Oh well, if I'm still reading them in September that's okay. :)


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