I am running behind, because of the holidays, but we are nearing the end of the Christmas reading reviews. This is the second to the last. And though you tire of hearing me say it, I was surprised by this book.
I don’t recall if I’ve read any Nikolai Gogol, though I am certain that I have read some classic Russian literature (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekov, obviously). Nikolai/Nikolay Gogol is the “first” of the famous Russian novelists, famous for Dead Souls and for the short “The Overcoat.” He also paved the way for the other authors mentioned above. Officially Ukrainian and surrounded by Cossacks, Gogol first succeeded in writing and drama at school, but then failed to get a government job or work as an actor or poet. He ran away with stolen money to Germany. The money ran out, he went back to St. Petersburg and got a crappy, government job and ran into some luck with the publication of a short story collection. He was young and suddenly famous, writing in a blend of Russian folktale and current, peasant life in the Ukrainian countryside. (We’re talking early 1800s.) This combo is exactly what you’ll find in “The Night Before Christmas.”
“The Night Before Christmas” is also translated “Christmas Eve,” which at least would keep it from getting confused with the even more famous “The Night Before Christmas” poem by Clement Clarke Moore (which is also called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and comes in a variety of picture books). Gogol’s “Night” is a short story from one of his collections, which tells the story of a handful of colorful 1800s Ukrainian townsfolk on a snowy Christmas Eve. It is full of traditions—caroling, drinking, carousing, and something to do with sacks—and is wrapped around a love story of sorts. One of the characters wants to marry the prettiest girl in town, but she keeps rebuffing him until he subverts a devil in order to fetch for her the Tzarina’s shoes. Yes, there are all sorts of Russian folktale characters and magic elements in this otherwise down-to-earth story: devils, witches, floating dumplings, flying Cossacks…
Which I guess is the part I did not expect. Especially the devils and witches. That, in my limited experience, is the province of Halloween books, unless you are talking Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. But to Gogol and the people who inhabited his place and time, the supernatural and superstitious were wound up tightly with everyday life, which is exactly what is portrayed here. In their tales, it would have been usual for a young man to fight a devil and carry him in his pocket, or something like it, anyways. For me, nearly everything in the story felt new, since Anna Karenina does not include this folktale element. It’s like the beginnings of magic realism.
Did I enjoy the story? Would I recommend it? Well, my copy came as a novella. I think it would be better to buy a copy of all the short stories together, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Also, my copy is clearly some sort of self-published attempt from a fair use translation. Beware. There were all sorts of spelling and grammatical errors in mine, which I find irritating and gives a bad name to self-publishing. I’m sure there are much better copies, but, like I said, you could also go with the Farm Near Dikanka. Better yet–and much easier to find–get yourself a copy of The Collected Tales of Nicolai Gogol and read the whole thing. And that still doesn’t answer whether or not I liked the story. It was… pretty different, especially for a Christmas story. In many ways, it just didn’t register as a Christmas story but rather as a peek into the 1800s Ukraine and regional folktales. On those terms, it was an interesting short story full of hypocritical vice and the same ol’ humanity expressed in a very different time and place. If you are expecting that, perhaps it would make a nice story to read around Christmastime.
Anyhoo, be ready for something different, which could be nice for a change.