Yesterday was Nikolai Gogol’s birthday, born 1809. When he was about 20, the Russian writer spent his time running around St. Petersburg trying to land a civil service job. But he dreamed of writing poems and stories. So he self-published a piece he had worked on for years.
It was met with ridicule, derision: a real panning. Gogol bought back every copy he could and burned them all in one big fire. He left Russia for Germany. He said he wasn’t coming back.
But Gogol did come back, and he came out swinging with a collection called Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanki. Pushkin stood up and said Hello everyone, please pay attention to this guy. He’s a big deal. Gogol began to be referred to as a “sensation”.
Then came his best-worst, post-discovery: “In 1834, Gogol was given a position as assistant professor of medieval history at St. Petersburg University, a position he was utterly unqualified for. He lectured by regurgitating a list of historical facts, or mumbled unintelligibly, or didn’t show up at all. During final exams, he wrapped his head in a handkerchief and pretended to be disabled by toothache.” (The Writer’s Almanac).
How often I, too, in my now new yet recurring life as a teacher, have tried to work a handkerchief around my head, to lie flat-out and prone before the class, begging a lesion of some kind, a hemorrhage or slip of the tongue, a papercut, even, that has rendered me incapacitated, incomprehensible. I am here but I am not. I adore a good Gogol impersonation and I have tried my level best this year in the Bronx. I believe I have tried hard.
A few years ago I worked for the Met Opera. I was an odd sort of addition with no clear joints or fixture– a hired yet floating, pen-grasping ghost in pencil skirt and pinstripe who drafted through the House gazing for stories. I sketched interviews with conductors and supernumeraries, the occasional soprano. But I had no good sense of how to do this, how to really do this, with equal energy and place for my own ideas even as I worked all day to write other people’s passions. I hid out in the cafeteria a lot. And I now know, I really know, how to pull the fedora of Constant Work and Very Busy Right Now and No No No down over my eyes when the boss walks in. I sometimes wear this hat during off hours, even now, when I am all alone. I keep it spruced up and in fine, fine condition. I am good at this.
When I was assigned coverage of the Met’s production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, a strange and, at points, confrontational operatic interpretation of one of Gogol’s best short stories, I walked around. I was looking for the man behind the production, the South African artist William Kentridge, or the glorious high flying Paulo Szot. Or even just the nose itself, a masterwork in foam and leather and spit and industry: a piece of art that also served for function. It remains my definition of the aesthetic.
I found them in a rehearsal room deep beneath Lincoln Center. “There were a lot of false worries at the start,” Kentridge was telling a group of theater students ahead of his March 5 opening. “The nose largely has its existence in the projections. But then we began working with the physical, 3D nose as well, and we were wondering—would the audience be able read both? Are both a credible nose? And what is the grammar of it? When you pick up the nose and are inside, how do you walk? How do you move?”
Kentridge. He was focused, eager, moving. The artist spoke about lists, “lots of lists being made now. Just small things from the lighting designer, the costume designer.” He was busy in New York, everything coming at the same time: a retrospective at the MoMA, a piece of performance art he delivered in a MoMA studio. A crop of goodies for the Schwartz Gallery Met. He called the Met Opera presentation of The Nose his “culmination of study.”
In the run-up to opening night, conversation drifted and wandered. It made a ghost like me feel at home. I took notes: “If you’re working with computer animation and with algorithms, or with fuzzy felt that you’re ripping up, you explore different effects,” Kentridge said. “Through it all, we’re constantly looking for meaning. We’re constantly trying to find the narrative of what we do.”
To put it together– and it remains a work, full of whole-horse projections and eager ministrations of light and sound, discipline and rigor, tied by Gogol’s own loose-teether of human impulse for bureaucracy that, I think, the writer treasured even as he rejected– Kentridge delved into archival film and materials. “Watching (footage of) Shostakovich play piano while we listen to the percussive section of the opera was one of the transformative moments for me,” he said. “I didn’t want just the tragic Shostakovich—Shostakovich the party follower or Shostakovich the secret dissident.”
The production asked politely for, required, and then flat-palmed on the table its demand for a series of inversions and its commitment to the upside-down. We are all at our best on our heads.
“We knew we wanted the nose dancing and we had the footage of Anna Pavlova,” Kentridge explained. “But in the film (the ballerina) is a white figure against a black background. So we inverted the image so she becomes a negative, a dark figure against a white background. We animated that with the nose on top of her, and then re-inverted the image.”
Students in the room were getting restless. Lunch, or some kind of meal, the next thing anyway, plus all our plans, devices, things in our hands, our heads, all of it hovered and loomed. People stood up. They stretched. No one ever needs to stretch, really. Not in a public way, anyway. But people stretched. They made a show of stretching. They glanced to the doors. They heaved bags onto shoulders, took long pulls of water. People got ready to leave.
Kentridge looked at me. “Seeing the final rehearsal yesterday, it’s so much faster than I thought,” he said. “The whole thing goes by so fast.”