“He was a weakling, a trembling mouse of a boy, with dirty hands and greasy locks, and pus trickling out of his ear. He gorged himself with sticky sweets. His schoolmates avoided touching the books he had been using.” Thus is a young Nikolai Gogol (pronounced Gaw-gol, with a soft Russian “l” at the end) described by Vladimir Nabokov in his idiosyncratic (always) book about the idiosyncratic Russian writer.   Aspiring to art and probably fame, Gogol departed provincial Ukraine for St. Petersburg, where Pushkin lived and worked, a city as devious and tyrannical as its creator, Peter the Great, a literary center where Gogol could leave his fawning mother behind and seek his fortune after borrowing money from her to get started with a new, foppish set of clothes. According to Nabokov, a “rather desultory” job search followed along with additional requests to his mother for more money. Not quite real, Petersburg with its yellowish snowfalls and bilious fogs, its Grand Avenues down which pranced nobles and paupers alike (on different sides of the street, of course), had been built upon the bones of slaves now buried in the bogs, the flooding Neva taking its mythical revenge on the city’s many “petty officials”, burgeoning factory class, and clods like Gogol whose own “perverse perseverance” left him walking on the wrong side of the street, wearing his right shoe on his left foot and emitting barnyard sounds in the middle of the night. According to Nabokov, Petersburg’s “mumbling pedestrians” telescoped into Akaky Akakyevich of “The Overcoat”, in which the symbolic mutterings of the literate but poor man in an opulent crowd revealed secret longings forbidden for the most part by the “Bronze Tsar”, the wilderness of streets, the official literature and its hegemonic critics, and of course, the ever-present “weather” Nabokov so vividly describes (from personal experience)—“an eerie medley of objects put to the wrong use, things going backwards the faster they moved forward, pale gray nights instead of ordinary black ones and black days—the black day of a down-to-heel clerk.” (Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol, New Directions, 1944).

At worst, this is the reading life revealing to itself the truth of early adulthood, dropping the curtain on freedom, autonomy and inner peace, only to see the curtain rise quickly on yet another struggle, this one ominous and disheartening. Gogol, the “young man shivering in the mist of St. Petersburg, so dismally cold and gray in comparison with his Ukraine, he could hardly have felt happy.” Get a job! Behave! Dress for success! You’ve had your fun! Just as the child’s reading life reveals a timeless realm of adventure and discovery, so the young adult’s reading life reveals a new panorama of black days (amid the skyscrapers of New York perhaps, or in a cork-board pre-fab cubicle surrounded by screens, trudging down Wal-Mart’s aisles, sunless insurance offices where Kafka is a desk-mate) and gray nights (at home in the suburbs, dinner with the wife and kids, TV noise, surfing the internet for hours). Gogol’s clerk borrowing money to finance the purchase of a new overcoat out of sumptuary necessity, and then losing it to a sneak thief becomes the first in a long line of Bearers of Bad Tidings in the reading life. We think of Bartleby; we ponder the many Dickensian pauper clerks of good cheer, and mourn the haunted, alcoholic suburban men of John Cheever and their myriad frustrating codas. The myths of youth become the realities of early adulthood, morphing into spectral realities conforming to everything one tries to avoid lest authenticity be lost forever. Akaky Akakyevich is ME, with a tremor or two missing.

“Great literature skirts the irrational”, observes Nabokov, calling “The Overcoat” a grotesque and grim nightmare making black holes in the dim pattern of life. Neither the comedy of a beetling buffoon nor a burst of social protest against Russian bureaucracy (no more than is, say, Kafka’s “The Castle” a cannonade against Hapsburg bureaucracy), and certainly not a “book that makes one think!” (ha, ha), the tale is instead one for a creative reader—more, as Nabokov again observes, “the wild dream of a neurotic scholar.” Here we youthful but almost adult readers in the life confront the meek little clerk who embodies the spirit of that secret but real world wherein some kind of “absurdly logical force keeps them in their futile jobs.” Somewhere out there, our reading life says, is a world of utter futility, futile humility and futile domination that “both tailors and customers adore on their knees.”

Here, somewhere in the reading life’s early adulthood, absurdity is unveiled, an absurdity that does not promote a chuckle or a shrug but an absurdity “in (which) less weird worlds are linked up with the loftiest aspirations, the deepest sufferings, the strongest passions—then of course, the necessary breach is there, and a pathetic human, lost in the midst of Gogol’s nightmarish, irresponsible world would be “absurd” by a secondary kind of contrast. The clerk is absurd because he is pathetic, because he is human and because he has been engendered by those very forces which seem to be in such contrast to him.” The clerk, robbed of his expensive new coat on a dark street, dies of grief. His ghost haunts the city. More than a century later, Joseph Heller in “Something Happened ” (1966) evokes the groan of an office worker in a downtown tower: “I am afraid of the dark now. I have nightmares in strange beds, and in my own. I have apparitions underneath my bed waiting to stream out. I have spirits in my bedroom closets. I am anxious as a four-year old child. I am afraid of the light. I am afraid I will open my eyes someday and it will still be dark. And no one will come.” Reading Heller at age 20, one is paralyzed by what’s ahead.

Our youthful reading spirits us away on wanderings that give vent to our oldest, unconscious genetic urge. Our mind is given wings. Our happy days fly by in the timeless pursuit of adventure, Oh My! In July 1829 Gogol, using money borrowed from his mother, “bolted abroad”. Thereafter, his wanderings never ceased, a feverish flight that some scholars “psychiatrically” characterize as a persecution mania. Gogol’s clerk, Gogol’s double, is our own Double as well, the mainly citified job-keeper, stool-sitter, apple-polisher, screen-stooge, staring into the mirror of Another Day.

The reading life threatens us with extinction. It warns of oblivion just beyond school that was, itself, enough of a test. We leave the comic books behind, abandon our Jack London and our cowboy sagas, put aside even our Hesse and Hemingway, in order to confront the Janus-armed straight-jacket of career, marriage, children and failed romantic love. Even the Latin root for “wander” is also the root for English words like “vagabond” and “vagrant”, evil-smelling, forbidden and wholly disgraced as adult pursuits. Don’t be a Villon! Straighten-up and fly right! Books, once friends and companions in childhood, become guillotines, chopping off the heads of our illusions.