Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Detail in Fiction – Gogol’s Overcoat

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 12, 2018

“Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it”                                                   

——- James Wood in “How Fiction Works”

I do not know about others but in my case this exactly how it has worked on my reading and is working even to this day with respect to noticing detail in the fiction I read… I used to be a fairly fast reader but this attention to detail has slowed me down considerably.  In return it has enhanced my reading pleasure. These days, I stop many a time while reading to marvel at instances of brilliant focus on detail and also to pause and wonder about a writer’s ability to spot and outline detail.

The other day and on a friend’s recommendation, I read Gogol’s famous story “The Overcoat” (- no doubt it is a great story but I have read better ones). Here is a fine example of detail which Gogol hurls at his readers:

The first thing that struck Akaky was his familiar big toe, with its deformed nail, thick and hard as a tortoiseshell”

It is a “big toe” – but how big is it? – we do not know… “deformed nail” – but what sort of deformation is it or how ugly it is – we do not know… thick and hard as a tortoiseshell” – ah! now everything starts to fall in place.. imagination starts to concretize the toe and the deformed nail in my own way… ten years back, I would have just rushed past this sentence looking to find what transpired in the end and where Akaky ends up with his overcoat… but now it is different… I know I will reach the end in due course, but I slow down to think and marvel at this kind of rich detailing.

Here is another one:

” To this he was blind as well; and only when he happened to bump into a policeman who had propped his halbred up and was sprinkling some snuff he has taken from a small horn onto his ” wart covered” fist did he come to senses at all….”

… the warts on the fist act as speed breakers and I begin to wonder what was the need for Gogol to highlight the policeman’s fist with such a simple but striking detail and slow me down considerably in what otherwise would have been a smooth flow of page turning…………………………….. Looks like and as Mr.Wood says, I have read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it…or am I assuming things?

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