Opinion

Wednesday 23 August 2017

This Woman's Life: Take up your winter bed and walk, all the way back to Gogol's Russia

St Isaac's Cathedral and Senate Square, St. Petersburg in the 1840s painted by Louis-Pierre-Alphonse Bichebois. Picture: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty
St Isaac's Cathedral and Senate Square, St. Petersburg in the 1840s painted by Louis-Pierre-Alphonse Bichebois. Picture: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty

Rita Ann Higgins

During one of the events at the Cuirt International Festival of Literature this year, where the invited writers were talking about books they loved, writer John Boyne suggested that during question time, before you asked a question, you mentioned the name of your favourite book.

I didn't ask a question at this event but I did wonder what book I'd call my favourite. It's a very hard job as I have a few favourites. One piece of extraordinary fiction that kept coming to mind over the following days was The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol. It is in fact a brilliant short story. It has parable-like qualities stitched into the seams.

The story is set in the very biting cold of St Petersburg in the 1840s. In the story, our man Akaky Akakievich is described as "not a very prominent official" in a certain department. Rank was everything and his correct title was "a perpetual titular councillor". People a little higher up the ladder than Akaky made fun of his name and his rank. No one respected him; the janitor didn't even throw a side eye as he was passing. Our perpetual councillor was nearly invisible. We meet the nearly invisible every day, we walk by them.

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