Welcome to Part Two of The Mark Steyn Club's latest Tale for Our Time, and the second half of our January double-bill of frosty fiction. The first was Jack London's classic To Build a Fire. This second is from across the other end of the Northern Hemisphere - St Petersburg, the true Russian capital, and the tale of a minor clerk in its vast Tsarist bureaucracy. Gogol's The Overcoat is as simple as its title - a garment, its utility, and its broader transformative powers. It prompted Founding Member Robert Bresca to offer a fragment of outerwear anecdotage that surely has its own short story in it:
A distant relative of my mother's used to work at a goldsmith's in Poland I think. He would gather up small bits of gold dust in the workshop and put it into the lining of his coat and after a time it was starting to get quite heavy. Unfortunately one especially cold winter, someone took the coat - not because of its contents but because it was freezing. I wonder if they ever found out what was inside.
Robert's fellow member Fritz Geiger adds a note on language:
Mark, just FYI:
(1) "Akakiy" means the *opposite* of "caca"; I believe it's from the Greek "Akakos," where "kakos" means "bad, evil" and "a-" means "not."
(2) In "Petrovich," the stress is on the second syllable. ... I'm hereby offering to collude with you on all things Russian, should you ever feel like it.
Thanks for that. Re 1): I like that theory in the sense of the anglo equivalent names I was positing - Notbad Notbadson. Re 2): I do know that Russians stress the second syllable in Petrovich, but the English don't, and I chose, not being an expert in Russian class accents, to transpose the voices into English equivalents, and the names likewise (so like saying "Pariss" rather than "Paree"). Our rule here is: If the story's written in English and there's a Russian or French character we give him a Russian or French accent (as in The Secret Agent or The Tragedy of the Korosko). But, if the thing was originally written in Russian or French and all the characters are foreign, I try to find equivalent English voices for each character's social status. I think I got this distinction from the BBC. So, along with the accents, certain other things get anglicized, including Petrovich. But, if there are objections, we may rethink it in time for our next foreign novel.
On to tonight's episode. In Part Two Akakiy considers whether he can scrape together enough to afford a new overcoat:
Akakiy Akakievitch had a habit of putting, for every ruble he spent, a groschen into a small box, fastened with a lock and key, and with a slit in the top for the reception of money. At the end of every half-year he counted over the heap of coppers, and changed it for silver. This he had done for a long time, and in the course of years, the sum had mounted up to over forty rubles. Thus he had one half on hand; but where was he to find the other half? where was he to get another forty rubles from? Akakiy Akakievitch thought and thought, and decided that it would be necessary to curtail his ordinary expenses, for the space of one year at least, to dispense with tea in the evening; to burn no candles, and, if there was anything which he must do, to go into his landlady's room, and work by her light. When he went into the street, he must walk as lightly as he could, and as cautiously, upon the stones, almost upon tiptoe, in order not to wear his heels down in too short a time; he must give the laundress as little to wash as possible; and, in order not to wear out his clothes, he must take them off, as soon as he got home, and wear only his cotton dressing-gown, which had been long and carefully saved.
And, if nothing else, Akakiy is a man of great self-discipline. To listen to the second episode of The Overcoat, please click here and log-in.
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