William Michaelian

Poems, Notes, and Drawings

The Overcoat

Shall I insert a novel here, as Balzac might have done? Or go off on a vast historical tangent, as Hugo did in Les Misérables? I could even become repetitively religious like Tolstoy — but I should probably save that for my old age, in case I live that long. Cognac and a fine cigar, then a stroll à la Maupassant, along the boulevard, where everything is so beautiful, ironic, and sad — there are so many choices in this world, all of them tempting, all of them grand. Lost Illusions . . . Bel-Ami . . . Gogol, dying in bed among warm loaves of bread . . .


The Overcoat

Last night I was so tired, I went to bed at eight. For several minutes, I tried to read “The Overcoat,” a short story by nineteenth century Russian author Nikolai Gogol. On the back cover of the tiny book, which also contains another of Gogol’s best known stories, “The Nose,” I read, perhaps for the hundredth time, Dostoevsky’s homage to Gogol: “We have all come from under ‘The Overcoat.’”

Right away, I imagined Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Turgenev, and Chekhov emerging from beneath a rumpled overcoat that had been left lying in the street. Paying no heed to the icy wind and the gray Petersburg sky, they began to wave their arms, smoke cigarettes, argue at the top of their voices, and tug on each other’s beards. None of them were angry. They were simply outraged by the blindness and arrogance of the others, and wanted them to see how wrong they were in their ideas, and to set them on the right path before it was too late.

All at once, a gust of wind picked up the overcoat. The coat inflated, and when it finally settled back to earth it landed on top of the writers, who tried without success to extricate themselves. Then there came a laugh — it was Gogol. And he said, “The coat fits you well, gentlemen. You may keep it.”

Beneath the overcoat, another argument erupted. What did Gogol mean by saying, “The coat fits you well?”

“He was talking about you, not me.”

“Ox! You’ve smashed my cigarette.”

“Everyone knows poor Nikolai is not in his right mind. He burnt his manuscript of Dead Souls, remember.”

“Gogol is dead.”

“Nonsense! How can you say he’s dead?”

“It’s a symbol. Our punishment. We must atone for our sins.”

“Stop your coughing. Do you want us all to die of consumption?”

Smiling to myself, I put down the book and turned off the light. Then I drifted off to sleep, grateful literature was in such good hands.

Songs and Letters, March 12, 2006


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