The Reading Life: Nikolai Gogol and New York Real Estate


For a month, I’m living in the second bedroom of my aunt’s apartment in Cobble Hill. She’s not my aunt, and it’s not in Cobble Hill, but these things are easier to say than “my family friend who’s so close that she’s family” and “the Columbia Waterfront District.” I needed a place to stay, and she needed a subletter for the month of March. She has a cat; I have a cat. It works.

I’ve lived with her before: my first summer in New York. I drove with a friend from California to New York in five days (we’ve since done the same trip in four), and I arrived at my aunt’s doorstep with bags and sunburnt shoulders. Before that, I had stayed with her whenever I visited the city, so the room itself and the walk from the subway were familiar. (This didn’t keep me from taking the wrong train and having to run crosstown on my first day at work, but whatever.) It felt like home.

That summer was a milestone for some obvious reasons. I was on my own, but not really on my own, in my first apartment, which wasn’t really my first apartment, living and working in the city. I am seven years older than I was then, and it’s like I’ve returned to my elementary school and found myself taller than the playground fence. Everything is the same, but not as overwhelming.

You can sleep in this second bedroom better than you’ve ever slept, and we’re not sure why. My aunt once called it womb-like, and I can’t really argue. This fact, however, doesn’t help my insomnia, brought on by the stress of finding a new place to live. The other night, distracted and wide awake, I was looking at the books my aunt keeps in the room, and I noticed the collected stories of Nikolai Gogol, as translated by the married couple that translates all the Russians. I remembered: I bought this book and left it when I moved out seven years ago. I reread Gogol’s best-known story, “The Overcoat,” and I fell asleep.

Gogol is funny and weird, and “The Overcoat” is where, as Nabokov once put it, he really lets himself go. If you’re not familiar: this is the story of a lowly clerk named Akaky Akakievich, his name an everyman poop joke in Russian. (“Obkakat” in Russian means “to smear with excrement,” which is more graphic, wouldn’t you agree, than just excrement on its own.) Akaky is respected by no one and is mocked for having a ratty coat. He decides to get this coat repaired, and the tailor convinces him that he will have to buy a new one instead. Akaky has no money, but he saves up and buys a new overcoat anyway. Everyone at work treats him differently, and he is in the best of moods.

The coat gets stolen by street criminals. Akaky brings his complaint to the police. Rather, in Gogol’s Petersburg, Akaky brings his complaint to an “important person,” who then chastises Akaky for bothering him. This causes Akaky to feel faint and awful, and he later dies, only to come back as a ghost stealing people’s overcoats. It’s a fairly relatable dark comedy with lots of wonderful sentences, and it’s one of the most influential stories in Russian literature. No big deal.

Your baseline takeaway from the story should be the symbolism of the overcoat, as it relates to Akaky’s expectation of social ascendance. He hopes he can rise up in the world, only to have this hope dashed far more easily than he acquired it. Once the overcoat goes, so goes Akaky’s new identity and his will to live.

I hope I’m not being too glib when I say that this very basic reading resonates with me while I look for an apartment in New York. I can relate to obsessing over something you believe will fix all your problems. This is what any good Jungian would call “transference.” I do this all the time, like we all do, and almost always with stuff that has to do with apartments.

For instance, I was so obsessed with the idea that I had bed bugs (this was in apartment number one, in Bed-Stuy) that I set my alarm for three in the morning, every night for a week, so that I could wake up and shine a flashlight on my mattress, to catch the bugs in the act. I got this idea from the internet. Turns out I just had mild mosquito bites and I was really stressed about something else entirely.

While living in apartment number three, I decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my parents, my boyfriend, and his mother. But I had nothing to serve any of the dishes in; I didn’t even have a full set of pots. I spent hours biting my nails over prices, calculating what size casserole dish I’d need, wagering how little I could spend on a plain white platter. One day, testing out a risotto recipe that called for putting the dish in the oven (this now seems idiotic to me, too), the dish exploded and broke into several pieces. I wept over the remains.

At apartment number two, I didn’t have a shower curtain. This was ridiculous as well as messy. When I finally decided to get my act together, I spent hours on websites looking for what I thought would be the best shower curtain. Never mind that “the best shower curtain” is like “the best spoon” in its utter nonsense. In the end, I had narrowed it down to two choices, and I moved before settling on one.

An apartment itself is worth some agony, much more so than a shower curtain at least. Right now, my reaction is proportionate to the situation. And, anyway, I’m lucky. My aunt’s building is nicer than any other building in New York that I’ve lived in. The door is heavy and tall. The awning is made of glass. My key is magnetic. On her roof, you can see all of Manhattan. You can see the Statue of Liberty.

“That’s my book,” I say to my aunt about the Gogol collection as we are walking home from breakfast.

“I was wondering about that,” she says. She recently got rid of fifty books. She likes purges like that every once in a while. It makes her feel lighter, more productive. “It’s strange I kept that one,” she says of the Gogol.

“I wonder how many books of mine you sold,” I joke.

My aunt and I do not like the same sorts of literature.  There is overlap—Dinesen, classic young adult novels, Persepolis—but more often than not we stray far from each other’s preferences. She hasn’t read the Gogol, and I haven’t read Life of Pi. She reminds me, not that I needed reminding, that she kept all seven Harry Potter books. They sit on the shelf near the foot of my bed. My cat knocked one over and scared herself.

“I sold,” she says, “Jesus: The Myth. Books I got from a book club. It’s like, when am I going to read this crap? What’s it there for? Who am I trying to impress?” Before laughing, she says, “I sold The History of the Jews.” I laugh, maybe too hard, at the sound of that.

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