It takes a nineteenth-century Ukrainian author like Nikolai Gogol (author of the novels “Taras Bulba” and “Dead Souls” and stories “The Overcoat” and “The Nose”) to put a Slavic turn on the title “The Night Before Christmas, ” which conjures merry yuletide memories for Americans.
Here, instead of St. Nicholas, it is the devil who appears on Christmas Eve: “It was only from the goat-beard under his chin, from the little horns sticking upon his forehead, and from his being no whiter than a chimney-sweep, that one could tell that he was not a German or a district attorney, but simply the devil, who had one last night left him to wander about the world and teach good folk to sin.” The moon disappears; enter a witch; Cossacks are about. Into the breach comes the decent, strong village blacksmith Vakula, hopelessly smitten by a snowflake of a young beauty. Did we mention that the witch is Vakula’s mother? Human follies ensue.
The skinny on translator Constance Garnett is that she introduced English-speaking readers to many Russian authors around and just after the turn of the twentieth century. Many of their classics have benefited from more nuanced retranslations, but she does no harm to the charms of this village tale. This diminutive volume, a New Directions “Pearl,” would make a handsome literary stocking stuffer, further leavened by pairing with a bit of chocolate or, better, a pint of vodka. Z Rizdvom Khrystovym! (Martin Northway)
“The Night Before Christmas”
By Nikolai Gogol; translated by Constance Garnett
A New Directions Pearl, 80 pages, $10