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||Nikolai (Vasilyevich) Gogol (1809-1852)|
Great Russian novelist, dramatist, satirist, founder of the so-called critical realism in Russian literature, best-known for his novel Mertvye dushi I-II (1842, Dead Souls). Gogol's prose is characterized by imaginative power and linguistic playfulness. As an exposer of grotesque in human nature, Gogol could be called the Hieronymus Bosch 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 any more, and all that's 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 was born in Sorochintsi, Ukraine, where he 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 write while in high school. He attended Poltava
boarding school (1819-21) and then Nezhin high school (1821-28), where
he produced plays for the student's theatre and acted in some
productions. However, he was not very highly esteemed by his school and
he found it difficult to open up to his schoolmates, who regarded him
as the "mysterious dwarf," a secretive individual. To his mother he
wrote: "At home I am considered willful; here I am called meek . . . in
some quarters I am so very quiet, modest, polite; in others –
sullen, pensive, uncouth . . . for some I am intelligent, for others I
am stupid" (March 1, 1828).
When he showed to his classmates his first attempt at prose fiction,
the verdict was: "You'll never make a fiction writer, that's obvious
right now." (Gogol by V.V. Gippus, 1981, p. 17)
In 1828 Gogol, an aspiring writer, settled in St. Petersburg, with a certificate attesting his right to "the rank of the 14th class". 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 Aleksandr Pushkin 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 from 1831-32, Gogol's breakthrough work, showed his skill in mixing fantastic with macabre, and at the same saying something very essential about the Russian character.
After failure 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. 'Viy,'
about a female vampire, was allegedly folktale. "The name is applied by
people in Little Russia to the chief of the gnomes, whose eyelids reach
to the ground," Gogol stated. "The whole story is a popular legend. I
did not wish to change it in any way and tell it almost as simply as I
heard it." (The Media Vampire by Andrew M. Boylan, 2012, p. 147)
Viy only appears at the end of the tale; mostly if focuses on a student
named Khoma and an old woman, a witch, who turns into a beautiful
girl. Mario Bava's La Maschera del Demonio
(1960), which created a wave of Gothic films in Italy, was loosely
based on 'Viy'. Georgi
Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov's version from 1967, co-written by
Aleksandr Ptushko and produced by
Mosfilm, was more faithful to Gogol's original story. However,
Soviet period filmmakers were not encouraged to take an interest in
horror movies. As a part of a celebration of the author's bicentennial,
'Viy' was remade in 2009 by Oleg Stepchenko.
Mirgorod also included the famous historical tale 'Taras Bulba', written
under the influence of Walter Scott. The
protagonist of the novel is a strong, heroic character, not very typical for the
author's later cavalcade of bureaucrats, lunatics, swindlers, and
humiliated losers. One hostile critic descibed Gogol's city dwellers as the
"scum of Petersburg". The radical literary critic Vissarion Belinskii declared that Taras Bulba
"is a fragment, an episode in a grand epic of the life of a whole
people. If the Homeric epic is possible in our time, then here you have
its highest example, its ideal, its prototype." (Gogol's Afterlife: The Evolution of a Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia by Stephen Moeller-Sally, 2002, p. 87)
It has been claimed that the work was an implicit critique of Gogol's
own time. Some critics have called attention to antisemitic
attitudes in Gogol's writings, mostly due to the negative
portrayal of Ukrainian Jews. Leon Poliakov has argued, that "The
"Yankel" from Taras Bulba
indeed became the archetypal Jew in Russian literature. Gogol painted
him as supremely exploitative, cowardly, and repulsive, albeit capable
of graitude. " (The History of Anti-Semitism, Volume 4: Suicidal Europe, 1870-1933 by Leon Poliakov, 2003, p. 75) Inspired by Gogol's themes of rebellion and
freedom, the Czech composer Leoš Janáček used the novel as the
frame-work for his orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba (1918).
In his short stories, Gogol fully utilized the 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 Petersburg, concluding, "Russia needs Moscow; 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.
'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: no key 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 proper face it is impossible.
Without an arm or leg it is not unbearable, thinks 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. Dmitri Shostakovich, who based his avant-garde opera The Nose
on Gogol's tale, turned Kovalev into a tragic hero: "Really, when you
think about it, what's so funny about a man losing his nose . . . "
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?" 'Shinel' (1842, The Overcoat), one of Gogol's most famous short stories, contrasted 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 over coat is beyond repairing. He manages to save money for a new, luxurious over coat. His colleagues at the office arrange a party for his acquisition. But his happiness proves to be short-lived. On the way home he is attacked by thieves and robbed of his coat. To recover his loss, Akakievich asks help from an Important Person, a director of a department with the rank of general. He treats harshly Akakievich, who develops a fever, and 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 now steals his overcoat. The stealing of outer garments continue, even though now the ghost is a big man with a moustache and enormous fists.
Gogol published in 1836 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 arrives the real inspector. Gogol masterfully creates with a few words people, places, things, and lets them disappear in the flow of the story. Vladimir Nabokov 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. As he left his box after the première, The tsar
dropped the comment: "Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of
all at me!" Gogol, who was always sensitive about reaction 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, to pray for inspiration for the part II of Dead Souls. He had burned the manuscript of part II for the first time in 1845.
In Rome Gogol wrote his major work, The 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. Pushkin did not live to see its publication, but on hearing the first chapters read, he exclaimed: "God, how sad our Russia is!"
to embrace the whole Russian society, 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,' Chichikov planned to make a huge profit.
He meets local landowners and departs the town in a hurry,
when rumors start spread about him.
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, the life is full of cheating, but when people jeer at each other, they actually tell the truth. Igrogi (The Gamblers), about professional card-sharps, was first staged in 1843; Dmitri Shostakovich based his unfinished opera on the comedy.
Except for a short visits to Russia in 1839-40 and 1841-42, Gogol
was abroad for twelve years. The first edition of Gogol's collected
works came out in 1842 and 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 tsarist regime and the
patriarchal Russian way of life. The book disappointed radicals who had seen Gogol's works as examples of social criticism.
"The peasant must not even know
there exist other books besides the Bible," Gogol argued. Vissarion Belinskii labelled him as the "apostle of ignorance"
and Sergei Askakov lamented that "the best that can be done is to call
him a madman."
During the last decade of his life, Gogol struggled to continue the
story and depict Chichikov's fall and redemption. Gogol's friends were
exhausted by his arrogance and unreliability. With high hopes, in
search for spiritual enlightenment, he made a pilgrimage to Palestine, but
the "land of milk and honey" he had imagined, was a great disappointment; he saw "five or six olive trees scattered on the
hillside," "a few tufts of grass" and "some tiny Arab huts." (Neither with Them, Nor Without Them: The Russian Writer and the Jew in the Age of Realism by Elena M. Katz, 2008, p. 43)
On 23 February 1848, he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Gogol
found the Sepulchre filthy and vulgar, one night praying beside it was
enough. (Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, 2011, pp. 337-338)
Crushed by the experience, Gogol returned to Moscow, where he came under influence of a fanatical priest,
Father Matthew Konstantinovskii; he urged Gogol to abandon literature
enter a monastery. "I will tell you that never before have I been so
unsatisfied with the
state of my own heart, as in Jerusalem and after Jerusalem," he wrote
to Father Matthew. According to Count V.A. Sollogub, who saw him in
1850, Gogol talked disconnectedly "and entangled himself in such
confused speech that I realized he was past recovery." (Nikolai Gogol, 1809-1852: a Centenary Survey by Janko Lavrin, 1951, p. 174) Gogol burned sequels for Dead Souls,
just 10 days before he died on the verge of madness on the 4th of March
1852. Gogol was buried at the Danilov Monastery. A few chapters of part II have survived.
As the main event of the Gogol Days in 1909, a monument in his honor
was erected on Arbat Square in Moscow. Up to then, Pushkin had been the only writer
honored with a national monument. Leo
Tolstoy praised the Symbolist statue, but Stalin had it replaced
by a more realistic work. When Gogol's coffin was
opened by Soviet authorities in 1931, his body was discovered lying
face down. His remains were transferred to the Novodevichy Cemetery.
Gogol died of self-enforced starvation. 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).
For further reading: Nikolai Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov (1944); Nikolai Gogol, 1809-1852: a Centenary Survey by Janko Lavrin (1951); Gogol: A Life by David Magarshack (1957); Gogol: His Life and Works by Vsevolod Setchkarev (1965); The Smile and Gogol's Death Souls by Carl R. Proffer (1967); The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol by Simon Karlinsky (1976); Gogol's Dead Souls by James B. Woodward (1978); Gogol by V.V. Gippus (1981); Out from Under Gogol's Overcoat by Daniel Rancour-Laferriére (1982); Gogol and the Natural School by Victor V. Vinograd (1987); Nikolay Gogol: Text and Context, ed. by Jane Grayson and Faith Wigzell (1989); Exploring Gogol by Robert A. Maguire (1994); Gogol's 'The Government Inspector' by Michael Beresford (1997); Gogol's Afterlife: The Evolution of a Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia by Stephen Moeller-Sally (2002); Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism by Edyta M. Bojanowska (2007); Neither with Them, Nor Without Them: The Russian Writer and the Jew in the Age of Realism by Elena M. Katz (2008); Gogol's Artistry by Andrei Bely (translated from the Russian and with an introduction by Christopher Colbath, 2009); Economies of Feeling: Russian Literature under Nicholas I by Jillian Porter (2017); Acts of Logos in Pushkin and Gogol Petersburg Texts and Subtexts by Kathleen Scollins (2017) - See also: Lu Xun ; Arkady Strugatski