One of the most profound, and influential, writers Russia has ever produced, he is also probably the funniest
19th-century portrait of Nikolai Gogol
‘Pottering on the brink of his private abyss’ … 19th-century portrait of Nikolai Gogol. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
In the 1820s, when Gogol was a solitary, rather unpopular Gymnasium student in his native Ukraine, a schoolmate read some of his prose. “You’ll never make a fiction writer, that’s obvious right now,” said the boy, who most likely went on to a glittering reviewing career. Gogol’s reaction – he immediately burnt the offending work – would recur throughout his career.
Gogol’s great subject, like most Russian writers of his period, was Russia itself. His aim, which eventually swelled to obsessive proportions, was to create an idealised Russia towards which his countrymen might be inspired to progress. The problem was that Gogol, a masterful capturer of human failings, couldn’t portray this ideal because he remained incapable of imagining what it would be like; “God, what is our life? Only perpetual discord between dream and reality!” as the artist Piskarev cries in Nevsky Prospect (1835).
Gogol was too acute an observer of his fellow men (his women, disappointingly, are sketchy and marginal) to complete this self-appointed task; he was too gifted at tweaking his flawed characters into outstanding, profoundly memorable grotesques. Essentially, Gogol was much too funny to succeed as a prophet, although this was a joke he was understandably incapable of appreciating.
Following Hans Küchelgarten (1830), a self-published poem in the German Romantic style which received two unfavourable reviews (Gogol tracked down as many copies as he could find and, true to form, burned them), his next book, Evenings on a Farm Near Didanka (1831-2), received near universal acclaim.
Centred on life in Little Russia, as Ukraine was then known, the collection finds several of Gogol’s key stylistic traits already in place. Following Pushkin, whom he idolised and became close to (although letters suggest their affections were not commensurate), these stories are rich in folk idioms. They also display Gogol’s love for the macabre, the intermingling of the fantastic with the mundane, and a pronounced metafictional streak: the reason why Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt – the collection’s most psychologically complex story – ends with the words ” … Auntie had hatched a new plan which you will learn more about in the next chapter” is because, as the narrator explains at the outset, his housekeeper has been using pages of the manuscript as baking paper.
Such touches make reading Gogol a very immediate, stimulating experience. His evocations of scenery and place – not least a forbidding, almost demonic St Petersburg – are justly held up as some of the finest examples of descriptive writing in Russian literature. The distancing of his narratives, through which a sense is imparted that the teller of the story and its author are not the same, is artful, and grew only more sophisticated throughout his career.
Also notable is the fact he had to contend with the state censor. Reading restored, annotated versions of his works makes plain the frustrations he endured. As he wrote in a letter to Pushkin concerning Diary of a Madman (1835), his only first-person narrative: “met with a rather unpleasant little snag with the censor yesterday. But thank God things are a little better today. At least, all I have to do is throw out the best parts.”
This story, set alongside The Nose (1836) and The Overcoat (1842), represents the high point of Gogol’s career as a writer of short fiction. This triumvirate, which all contain pointed condemnations of the dehumanising effects of bureaucracy, are also those which most clearly point towards later work by Dostoevsky and Kafka. A phrase that is often attributed to either Dostoevsky or Turgenev – “We have all emerged from Gogol’s Overcoat” – was more likely said of them, but regardless of provenance it remains apposite. As for the link between Gogol and Kafka, Nabokov expressed it precisely and with great economy in his famous lecture on The Metamorphosis:
“In Gogol and Kafka the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans – and dies in despair.”
Nowhere is this trajectory more clearly and captivatingly traced than in The Overcoat. Its pitiful hero, Akaky Akakievich, presides at the head of a ragged group of fictional copy-scribes that includes Melville’s Bartleby, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet and Kafka’s clerks of the court.
Mocked and derided for, among other things, his threadbare coat, when Akakievich has a new one made he is briefly accepted before calamity befalls him. At once funny, acerbic, surreal and almost intolerably sad, the story operates on an array of levels and lies wide open to interpretation. It is the work of an extraordinary artist working at a level of feverish intensity, and offers proof that, to cede again to Nabokov’s insightfulness, when Gogol “really let himself go and pottered on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced”.