Nikolai Gogol: Language as Cinema

For the past month, I’ve been reading through The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). Here are two observations about two literary descriptions, both from “The Terrible Vengeance”.

Description as Invitation

Consider this description from the beginning of “The Terrible Vengeance”:

Fair is the sight from the midst of the Dnieper of the high hills, the broad meadows, and the green forest! Those hills are not hills: they have no foot; they are sharp-peaked at both bottom and top; under them and over them is the tall sky. Those woods standing on the slopes are not woods; they are hair growing on the shaggy head of the old man of the forest. Under it his beard washes in the water, and under his beard and over his hair—the tall sky. Those meadows are not meadows: they are a green belt tied in the middle of the round sky, and the moon strolls about in both the upper and the lower half.

And compare with another:

In the middle of the Dnieper floated a boat. Two lads sat in the bow, their Cossack hats cocked, and the spray from under their oars flew in all directions like sparks from a tinder box.

The first is longer (less concise) and relies on metaphors: the forest is an old man, the trees are his beard, the meadows are a belt, etc. The second also contains a comparison and has a striking image, but it uses a simile: the spray is like sparks from a tinder box. More importantly, the former requires more work from the reader; a quick glance may not reveal the key—that Gogol’s writing about the shore’s reflection in a river. There’s an overload of imagery without the “benefit” of a direct explanation.

Today’s writing style is about short and to-the-point journalism. If it doesn’t advance the telling of the story, as Gogol’s description clearly does not (we could say that Gogol is introducing Nature as a character, but even that could be done in less words), then it needs to be removed. Notice the underlying assumption: that to advance is the sole, or at least most important, goal. I say: a story is not an army!

Often, we feel sad after finishing a book that we enjoyed. We know the full plot and have followed the characters’ lives as far as we can. If we travel together again it will be over the same time and territory. Is this militaristic? No, it is more familial and friendly. The point of friendship and family is not advancement. Rather, it is immersion, understanding, and cooperation. Descriptions like Gogol’s do not advance a story; they immerse us and invite us to help create a story. Interactive fiction is a specific genre of computer game, but the term applies here, too.

Your Mental Cinematographer

Now let’s take a closer look at the second description that I posted:

In the middle of the Dnieper floated a boat. Two lads sat in the bow, their Cossack hats cocked, and the spray from under their oars flew in all directions like sparks from a tinder box.

The first sentence seems functional, and save for one detail it is. It sets the stage for the more elaborate descriptions that follow. Yet notice that there’s something off about it. At least my inclination is to write: “A boat floated in the middle of the Dnieper”. So why would Gogol write it differently?

The key is the order of information. We have (1) a boat and (2) the Dnieper. In my corrected version, we learn first about the boat and then that it’s floating in the Dnieper. I think that creates the following picture in our minds:

gogol-description-boat-1b

Gogol’s original establishes the Dnieper first and only later adds the boat. I suggest that leads to something like this:

gogol-description-boat-1a

Because we tend to interpret what we see first as being the most important (a narrative structural example: the main character is usually introduced at the beginning of a story), the little cinematographer in our head focuses on what’s first. In this case, the boat—so the question becomes how to frame a boat? Let it fill as much of the frame as possible. The background, for now, is blank. Once we learn that the Dnieper is behind the boat, we add it in, but we don’t pull back. We stay tight on the boat.

When the Dnieper is presented first, our cinematographer is forced to move the camera back to show that the water is a river (and not a puddle or bath tub or lake). By the time Gogol plops down his boat, we’re already in long shot.

The next sentence adds in another detail: two Cossacks. That forces us to switch to a closer shot (medium or close, depending on our tastes). However, there’s only a transition if we started with Gogol’s original first sentence. In my corrected example, there’s no need to “cut” because we’re already close enough to simply add the Cossacks to the scene without changing anything.

gogol-description-boat-transition

In that sense, perhaps what seems proper grammar to us is that which keeps our mental editors in check. Our [either natural or learned] preference for my corrected sentence is analogous to what in film jargon is called the long take aesthetic (minimal cutting and camera movements). Gogol is, therefore, imposing editing on us via a simple syntactic decision.

Your Mental Director

Here’s an attempt at showing how Gogol’s words draw us a picture of the first description. We begin with the first sentence—or rather the first part of the first sentence:

gogol-01

Fair is the sight from the midst of the Dnieper

We are somewhere out on the Dnieper, looking out…

of the high hills,

of the high hills,

We see high hills. Since they are the first thing we see, we place them in a relatively central position in our frame.

the broad meadows,

the broad meadows,

Meadows are placed lower than hills and, since they are wide, stretch to fill and surpass the edges of our frame.

and the green forest!

and the green forest!

We know there is a forest and that it’s green, but we don’t know exactly where it is: somewhere above the wide meadows and, because trees don’t grow in water or in the sky, somewhere on our hills.

Those hills are not hills: they have no foot; they are sharp-peaked at both bottom and top; under them and over them is the tall sky.

Those hills are not hills: they have no foot; they are sharp-peaked at both bottom and top; under them and over them is the tall sky.

The hills have no foot or base because they are reflected in the water, making the foot the middle of the hills (Gogol treats both tangible hills and their reflections as the object “hills”). It’s possible I could have drawn the hills with softer contours, in which case we might only add sharper contours here. Before now, we didn’t know whether the hills were sharp or dull. In essence, we would have to guess because imagining a hill without a shape is somewhat difficult! And then either keep or correct our assumption.

Note also that I’ve not drawn reflections of either the meadow nor the green forest. So far, all we know is that the hills are reflected. Based on that knowledge we could assume that everything else is reflected, too, but that’s going out on a limb. It’s a likely but defeasible conclusion.

The bit about the tall sky is tricky to render on a picture. In hindsight, I should have added a different colour of blue. Also, because the sky is “tall”, we may be inclined to “zoom out” a little at this point to include more sky in our frame. Or, because our imagination is more versatile than a real film, we could change the shape of our frame to make it taller. My standard frame is 320 x 180 pixels; tallness could make it 320 x 300, for example.

Because we’re now making decisions—and have been ever since we decided on a shape for our hills—thats means that however strict Gogol wants to be about what we see, he cannot have absolute control. Put another way: Gogol as director is pretty specific about what he wants and how he wants it, but our little mental cinematographer is finding room for some improvisation.

Those woods standing on the slopes are not woods; they are hair growing on the shaggy head of the old man of the forest.

Those woods standing on the slopes are not woods; they are hair growing on the shaggy head of the old man of the forest.

We have more details about the forest, which Gogol now calls woods. They are on the slopes of the hills and resemble hair. I’m keeping my intuition in check and still not reflecting anything.

Under it his beard washes in the water, and under his beard and over his hair—the tall sky.

Under it his beard washes in the water, and under his beard and over his hair—the tall sky.

Now we’re told about the reflection of the woods. The bit about the sky is not redundant because there’s been a subtle change: previously, we were told that the sky is both above and below the hills. Here, the beard “washes in the water”. Suddenly, the water’s been restored. The “—the tall sky” restores the sky to its rightful position above and below.

Those meadows are not meadows: they are a green belt tied in the middle of the round sky,

Those meadows are not meadows: they are a green belt tied in the middle of the round sky,

First, we add green to the meadows. Next, we add a green reflection. Why? The belt is tied in the middle of the sky. It we didn’t add a reflection, the belt would be slightly above the middle. The sky is also round, but I couldn’t think of a way to show that in a picture. Perhaps we could bulge the image to give the impression of depth or of our flat image being pasted onto a belly-like sphere.

and the moon strolls about in both the upper and the lower half.

and the moon strolls about in both the upper and the lower half.

The only quirk here is the word “both”. As written, the sentence tells us: (1) that there’s a moon and it’s strolling; (2) that it’s strolling two places or in two ways—”both”; and (3) that, in fact, it’s strolling in two places: above and below. Hence, both moons pop up simultaneously in our frame. Had the sentence been and the moon strolls about in the upper half and the lower half, we’d see the upper moon first and lower moon second.

And so we have our completed picture. It’s a stroke of good fortune that where our second description (first group of pictures) was about editing, this one turned out not to be about editing at all. To continue with the film language, here Gogol is concerned withmise-en-scène (the stuff in a given shot rather than the relationship between shots). We do have a little room to move our camera (e.g. we could treat the forest-hair then cut to the forest-beard), but mostly we add and augment while the camera stands in place. Consequently, our little mental cinematographer has now become a mental director!

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