A great Russian novelist, dramatist, satirist, founder of the so-called critical realism in Russian literature, is best-known for his novel Мертвые Души I-II (1842, Dead Souls). Gogol's prose is characterized by imaginative power and linguistic playfulness. As an exposer of grotesqueness in human nature, Gogol could be called the Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)1 of Russian literature.
"The moon is made by some lame cooper, and you can see the idiot has no idea about moons at all. He put in a creosoted rope and some wood oil; and this has led to such a terrible stink all over the earth that you have to hold your nose. Another reason the moon is such a tender globe it that people just cannot live on it anymore, and all that is left alive there are noses. This is also why we cannot see our own noses - they're all on the moon." (from Diary of a Madman, 1835)
Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was born in Sorochintsi, Ukraine, and grew up on his parents' country estate. His real surname was Ianovskii, but the writer's grandfather had taken the name 'Gogol' to claim a noble Cossack ancestry. Gogol's father was an educated and gifted man who wrote plays, poems, and sketches in Ukrainian.
Gogol started writing while in high school. He attended Poltava boarding school (1819-21) and then Nezhin High School (1821-28). In 1828 Gogol, an aspiring writer, settled in St. Petersburg with a certificate attesting his right to 'the rank of the 14th class'. In an effort to support himself, Gogol worked at minor governmental jobs and wrote occasionally for periodicals. Although he was interested in literature, he also dreamed of becoming an actor. However, the capital of Russia did not welcome him with open arms and his early narrative poem, Hans Küchelgarten (1829), turned out to be a disaster.
Between the years 1831 and 1834 Gogol taught history at the Patriotic Institute and worked as a private tutor. In 1831 he met Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) who greatly influenced his choice of literary material, especially his "Dikinka Tales", which were based on Ukrainian folklore. Their friendship lasted until the great poet's death. Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka was Gogol's breakthrough work. It showed his skill in mixing the fantastic with the macabre and, at the same time, saying something very essential about the Russian character.
After failing as an assistant lecturer of World History at the University of St. Petersburg (1834-35), Gogol became a full-time writer. Under the title Mirgorod (1835) Gogol published a new collection of stories, beginning with 'Old-World Landowners', which described the decay of the old way of life. The book also included the famous historical tale Taras Bulba, which showed the influence of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). The protagonist is a strong, heroic character, not very typical of the author's later cavalcade of bureaucrats, lunatics, swindlers, and humiliated losers. One hostile critic described his city dwellers as the "scum of Petersburg". In his short stories, Gogol fully utilized the St. Petersburg mythology, in which the city was treated "both as 'paradise', a utopian ideal city of the future, the embodiment of Reason, and as the terrible masquerade of Antichrist." (Yuri Lotman in Universe of the Mind, 1990) Gogol was also the first to publish an extended literary comparison between Moscow and St. Petersburg, concluding, "Russia needs Moscow; St. Petersburg needs Russia."
"I am destined by the mysterious powers to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes," wrote Gogol once, "viewing life in all its immensity as it rushes past me, viewing it through laughter seen by the world and tears unseen and unknown by it." St. Petersburg Stories (1835) examined social relationships and disorders of mind; Gogol's influence can be seen among others in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) and The Crime and the Punishment (1866). Gogolian tradition continued also among others in the stories of Franz Kafka (1883-1924).
The Nose from this period was about a man who loses his nose, which tries to live its own life. Gogol himself had a long nose, but the motifs in the story were borrowed from other writers. According to V. Vinograd's study (1987), these kind of surrealistic images were popular the 1820-1830s. It is still a puzzle since there no explanation has been found to explain why Collegiate Assessor Kovalev's nose transforms into civil servant and back into nose. The central plot circles around Kovalev's quest to recapture his runaway organ – he has arrived in Moscow to climb up the social ladder, but without a proper face it is impossible. Without an arm or leg it is not unbearable, thinks the Major, but without a nose a man is, the devil knows what...'In the outwardly crazy story lurks a serious idea: what matters is not the person but one's rank.’
In 'Nevsky Prospect' a talented artist falls in love with a tender poetic beauty. She turns out to be a prostitute and the artist commits suicide when his romantic illusions are shattered. The Diary of a Madman asked why is it that "all the best things in life, they all go to the Equerries or the generals?" 'Пальто' (1842, The Overcoat), one of Gogol's most famous short stories, contrasted a person’s humility and meekness with the rudeness of the 'important personage'. The central character is Akakii Akakievich, a lowly government clerk. When winter begins he notices that his old overcoat is beyond repairing. He manages to save money for a new, luxurious coat. His colleagues at the office arrange a party for his acquisition. However, his happiness proves to be short-lived. On the way home he is attacked by thieves and robbed of his coat. To recover his lost possession, Akakievich asks help from an Important Person, a director of a department with the rank of general. He treats Akakievich harshly and Akakievich dies of fright within three days. One night when the Important Person is returning home, he is attacked by a ghost, the late Akakii, who steals his overcoat. The stealing of outer garments continue, even though now the ghost is a big man with a moustache and enormous fists.
In 1836, Gogol published several stories in Pushkin's journal Sovremennik, and in the same year appeared his famous play, The Inspector General. It told a simple tale of a young civil servant, Khlestakov, who finds himself stranded in a small provincial town. By mistake, he is taken by the local officials to be a government inspector, who is visiting their province incognito. Khlestakov happily adapts to his new role and exploits the situation. His true identity is revealed, but then the real inspector arrives. Gogol masterfully creates with a few words people, places, things, and lets them disappear into the flow of the story. Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) wrote: "Who is that unfortunate bather, steadily and uncannily growing, adding weight, fattening himself on the marrow of a metaphor? We never shall know – but he almost managed to gain a footing."
Its first stage production was in St Petersburg, given in the presence of the tsar. The tsar, as he left his box after the première, dropped the comment: "Hmm, what a play! It gets to everyone and, most of all, me!" Gogol, who was always sensitive about reactions to his work, fled Russia for Western Europe. He visited Germany, Switzerland, and France, and settled then in Rome. He also made a pilgrimage to Palestine in 1848.
While in Rome Gogol wrote his major work, Dead Souls. "The prophet finds no honor in his homeland," he said. Gogol claimed that the story was suggested by Pushkin in a conversation in 1835. Wishing to embrace the whole Russian society in the work, Gogol regarded the first volume merely as 'a pale introduction to the great epic poem which is taking shape in my mind and will finally solve the riddle of my existence'. The story depicted the adventures Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who arrives in a provincial town to buy 'dead souls', dead serfs. As a character, he is the opposite of starving Akakii Akakievich. By selling these 'souls' with cheaply-bought lands, Chichikov planned to make a huge profit. He meets local landowners and departs the in a hurry, when rumors start spread about him. During the last decade of his life, Gogol struggled to continue the story and depict Chichikov's fall and redemption.
Except for two short visits to Russia in 1839-40 and 1841-42, Gogol was abroad for twelve years. The first edition of Gogol's collected works was published in 1842. It made him one of the most popular Russian writers. Two years before his return, Gogol had published Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847), in which he upheld the autocratic czarist regime and the patriarchal Russian way of life. The book brought about disappointment among radicals who had seen Gogol's works as examples of social criticism. In the play ZHENITBA (1842) nearly everybody lies and the protagonist, Podgolesin, cannot make up his mind about marriage. He hesitates, agrees, then withdraws his promise. Life is full of cheating, but when people jeer at each other, they actually tell the truth. Игроки (The Gamblers), a play about professional card-sharps, was first staged in 1843; Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) based his unfinished opera upon this comedy.
In his later life Gogol came under influence of a fanatical priest, Father Konstantinovskii, and burned sequels for Dead Souls, just 10 days before he died on the verge of madness on the 4th of March 1852. Gogol had refused to take any food and various remedies were employed to make him eat – spirits were poured over his head, hot loaves applied to his person and leeches attached to his nose. Rumors arise from time to time that Gogol was buried alive, a situation familiar from the story 'The Premature Burial', of the contemporary writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).2
It was not until Bernard Guilbert Guerney's 1942 translation, a century after the novel's first publication, that English-language readers acquired Dead Souls that took the full measure of Nikolai Gogol's satire, with its linguistic playfulness and phantasmagoric invention. In Vladimir Nabokov's idiosyncratic 1944 study of Gogol, he forever linked Dead Souls to the Russian word poshlost, a noun that defies easy translation but suggests the vulgar and commonplace -- ''the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, and the falsely clever.'' In this regard, Dead Souls is a novel that has less to do with Russia than with the defects of human character.3
In The Nose and Diary of a Madman, Gogol addressed the issues of St. Petersburg bureaucracy. These are interesting stories. In The Nose, the main character attempts to confront his nose which had taken on a life of its own. In Diary of a Madman, the main character slowly descends into madness and becomes convinced that he is the reigning king of Spain. By the end of his life, Gogol appears to have also slowly descended into madness. This can easily be seen as an example of art imitating life.
In both of these stories, we meet two men who are rather insignificant. They are pieces in a machine and have lost their own identity. In Dead Souls he has the main character say, “They don’t listen to me, they don’t hear me, and they don’t see me.” This is very sad commentary. He is an insignificant person whose job is sharpening pencils. Is it surprising that they don’t listen to, hear, or see him?
Gogol is considered one of the greatest Russian authors, but he was also dedicated to keeping his Ukrainian culture alive. These two nations have many common factors before and after the rise of the Soviet Union; however, they also have their own histories. In his novels, he spends a great deal of time describing life in Ukraine. His father even changed his surname in order to reflect the family’s Ukrainian Cossack background.
He was buried at the Donskoy Monastery, close to his fellow Slavophile Aleksey Khomyakov (1804-1860). In 1931, when Moscow authorities decided to demolish the monastery, his remains were transferred to the Novodevichy Cemetery. His body was discovered lying face down, which gave rise to the story that Gogol had been buried alive. One of the Soviet critics even cut a part of his jacket to use as a binding for his copy of the Dead Souls. A piece of rock which used to stand on his grave at the Donskoy was reused for the tomb of Gogol's admirer Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940).4
Gogol’s impact on Russian literature was astounding. After writing Poor Folk, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was referred to as “the next Gogol” by Nikolai Nekrasov, editor of A Petersburg Collection.5 He was a product of the same generation as Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) and Alexander Pushkin, and made an equally valuable contribution to literature. He certainly was a Ukrainian in Russian society and his stories will be read for generations to come.
1) “Hieronymus Bosch” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hieronymus_Bosch (accessed 5/27/12)
2) “Nikolay Gogol” http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/gogol.htm (accessed 5/27/12)
3) “Nikolai Gogol” http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/g/nikolai_gogol/index.html (written 8/4/96, accessed 5/28/12)
4) “Nikolai Gogol” http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Nikolai_Gogol (accessed 5/28/12)
5) “The Poor Will Always Be With Us” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2012/05/poor-will-always-be-with-us.html (accessed 5/28/12)