‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol translated by Ronald Wilks

A writer once told me that most people believed the ‘The Overcoat’ was about nothing. Really? A story about poverty, of our dreams of escaping our economic situations, and the sad but somehow comforting ending? How could someone be so arrogant, and certain, to sweep away ‘The Overcoat’? I’ve never spoken to that writer since.
Another Gogol anecdote. During the summers that I was a student I worked for the city of Toronto cleaning subway cars. The job was eight hours a day but there was really only work for four hours. The rest of the time I spent reading. One day this co-worker who I’d never met before, saw me reading a collection of Gogol short stories and said, “Gogol. A great Ukrainian writer.”
“Isn’t he Russian?” I asked.
“He was born in Ukraine.” He got up close to my face. “What’s your last name?”
“Popowich. A pure Ukraine name. Not Popovich? Popowich?”
“Right. Popowich.”

For the rest of the summer he would come by every day to see me and tell me about my last name. About Gogol. About Ukraine. Like many Canadians whose families came from elsewhere, our Ukrainian roots were forgotten by the time I was born. Except, of course, what our last names spoke of our pasts. I’ve thought about that man often since late 2021, his passion for Gogol, and especially his Ukrainian pride.

First published in Russian in 1842. First translated, as ‘The Cloak’, by Isabel Hapgood in St. John’s Eve, and Other Stories, Crowell, 1886. This translation available in Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector & Selected Stories, Penguin Classics, 2005

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