The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

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Translated by Anna Summers

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Russian author Nikolai Gogol, best known for satirical works like The Nose and Dead Souls, is not a name you would automatically connect with a Yuletide story. Nevertheless, Penguin Classics have just released a beautiful little hardback volume by the writer as part of their series of Christmas Classics, entitled The Night Before Christmas.

Nikolai Gogol is often referred to as the “father of Russian literature” and his tales form an important part of that country’s cultural history. Born in the Ukraine in 1809, his earlier works were influenced by that region and were set there, drawing on its culture and folklore. However, his later stories take place most notably in St. Petersburg, including tales such as The Overcoat and Nevsky Prospect. Gogol was also a dramatist, The Government Inspector being his best known play; however, it was not until he went into exile, living mainly in Rome, that he produced his great work Dead Souls, which satirised Imperial Russia and was, alas, never completed.

The Night Before Christmas comes from Gogol’s early period, being set in the village of Dikanka, and opens on a crisp, snowy Christmas eve. The villagers are beginning to celebrate, none more so than the devout blacksmith Vakula, and the beautiful Oksana, with whom he (and half the village!) are in love. Oksana is young and a little fickle, and it seems that Vakula will never persuade her to love him. However, things are complicated by outside influences…

Vakula’s mother Solokha is a witch, which is bad enough, and she’s not averse to entertaining a number of the local big-wigs when it’s to her advantage. However, she has a companion in evil on this stellar eve, in the form of the devil, who’s come to earth to cause what mischief he can (now that sounds a little familiar….!) First he steals the moon, then visits Solokha, and ends up trying to tempt Vakula. The desperate blacksmith has been given an ultimatum by Oksana, a task to perform if he wants her to marry him. Will he make a compact with the devil or will goodness overcome all?

The Night Before Christmas is an absolutely perfect book on every level. As a tale, it’s compellingly told, funny, atmospheric and moving. The narrative is so involving that you can feel the cold bite of the snowy winter night and hear the singing and laughing of the villagers as they go from house to house, carolling and collecting gifts in sacks. The sacks, in fact, cause much of the humour of the book as several slapstick scenes involve things being put into them that really shouldn’t! Although short (the book runs to 65 pages) it’s packed with action and never feels too brief.

Like all good festive tales, this is a feel-good story with a pleasing resolution which leaves you with a smile on your face. The characters are lively, perhaps painted with a slightly broad brush, but all individual and very memorable, and ones you’d be happy to spend any festive evening reading about. The village of Dikanka and its occupants are vividly portrayed here, with all their loves, hates, happiness, sadness, foibles and kindness.

I feel I must comment on the physical qualities of the book too. Penguin Classics have produced a set of five of these little hardbacks (I suspect most likely for the American market) and they’re objects of great beauty on their own, regardless of the contents. The foiled dust jacket is colourful and beautifully designed; the red boards have gilt lettering on the spine; the book is illustrated with a variety of classical Russian illustrations; there is a little printed bookplate just inside if you want to personalise; and there is background information on the story and the author. Truly, the book is exemplary and the perfect advocate for paper books versus e-books – a real book, produced like this almost as a work of art, enhances the reading experience in a way that an electronic gadget will never be able to.

And the contents, translated by Anna Summers, really do live up to the design. It’s a delight to read something which shows the more playful side of Gogol’s work, and it’s understandable why it’s spawned a number of films and operas. The subject matter, the tone of voice, the way of telling the tale really have influenced later Russian writers and it’s easy to see that the title of “Father of Russian Literature” is well deserved.

Folk tale? Fairy story? Moral fable? The Night Before Christmas is all three really; but it’s also a marvellous piece of storytelling and deservedly a classic in Russia and the Ukraine – it really should be one worldwide!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and finds stories of snowy Russia enchanting.

Nikolai Gogol, The Night Before Christmas (Penguin Books: New York, 2014).  9780143122487, 65pp, hardback.

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