Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (Russian: Никола́й Васи́льевич Го́голь) (April 1, 1809 — March 4, 1852) was a Russian writer. Although his early works were heavily influenced by his Ukrainian heritage and upbringing, he wrote in Russian and his works belong to the tradition of Russian literature. The novel Dead Souls (1842), the play Revizor (1836, 1842), and the short story The Overcoat (1842) are counted among his masterpieces.
Gogol was born in the Cossack village of Sorochintsi, Poltava guberniya (now Ukraine). His father was Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, a small squire and an amateur Ukrainian playwright who died when the boy was 15 years old. Some of his ancestors culturally associated themselves with Polish szlachta. For instance, his grandfather Afanasiy Gogol wrote in census papers that "his ancestors, of the family name Gogol, are of the Polish nation". However, his great-grandfather, Jan Gogol, after studying in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (a deeply Ukrainian and Orthodox Christian educational institution), moved to pro-Russian Left-bank Ukraine (Malorossia) and settled in Poltava region. Gogol himself did not use the second part of his name considering it an artificial Polish addition.
In 1820 Gogol went to a grammar school in Nezhin and remained there until 1828. It was there that he began writing. He was not very popular among his school-fellows, but with two or three of them he formed lasting friendships. Very early he developed a dark and secretive disposition, mingled of painful self-consciousness and boundless ambition. Equally early he developed an extraordinary mimic talent which later on made him a matchless reader of his own works and induced him to toy with the idea of becoming an actor.
In contemporary scholarship, there is a great deal of speculation and controversy over whether Gogol was a repressed homosexual and, if so, to what extent this accounts for his later creative and spiritual crises. The question is legitimate, but probably unanswerable, in part because sexual identity is highly culturally mediated, and thus can be applied retrospectively only at great risk of misrepresenting the subject. There appears to be little evidence that Gogol himself, consciously at least, identified as homosexual.
In 1828, on leaving school, Gogol came to Petersburg, full of vague but glowingly ambitious hopes. They were at once cruelly frustrated. He had hoped for literary fame and brought with him a Romantic poem, very weak and puerile, of German idyllic life — Hanz Küchelgarten. He had it published, at his own expense of course, under the name of "V. Alov". It was met by the magazines with deserved derision. He bought all the copies and destroyed them, swearing never to write poetry again.
In this state of disillusionment he suddenly went off abroad, with the intention, as he said to his friends, of going to America. But he went only as far as Lübeck. After a few days' stay there he returned to Petersburg and once more tried his fortune, this time with better patience. He entered the civil service, still hoping to become a great administrator, and he began writing prose stories.
He came in touch with the "literary aristocracy", had a story published in Delvig's Northern Flowers, was taken up by Vasily Zhukovsky and Pyotr Pletnyov, and (in 1831) was introduced to Pushkin. He was well received in this most select of literary sects and, with his usual vanity, became enormously proud of his success and very self-confident. Thanks to Pletnyov's good offices, he was appointed teacher of history at a young ladies' institute and at once began to imagine that the way he was to become great was by writing history.
In the meantime (1831), he brought out the first volume of his Ukrainian stories (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka), which met with immediate success. It was followed in 1832 by a second volume, and in 1835 by two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod, as well as by two volumes of miscellaneous prose entitled Arabesques.
In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, though he had little qualifications for the chair. This academic venture proved a signal failure. Turgenev, who happened to be one of Gogol's audience, has left a record of the painful impression his showy rhetoric produced. Gogol soon realized his failure (though he does not seem to have acknowledged his inadequacy) and resigned his chair in 1835.
While Pushkin and Zhukovsky encouraged his literary career, there was never any real intimacy between the poets of Pushkin's circle and Gogol. They liked him and appreciated his comic talent but refused to idolize him. While the "aristocracy of letters" gave him qualified admiration, it was in Moscow that Gogol met with the adulation and entire recognition sufficient to satisfy his ambitions. The young Westernizing idealists, with Vissarion Belinsky at their head, carried him to the skies, but it was not with them he made friends. The set that became his principal sanctuary was the nascent circle of the Slavophiles (especially the family of Sergei Aksakov), in which he was compared to Homer and Shakespeare.
Though between 1832 and 1836 Gogol worked at his imaginative creations with great energy, and though almost all his work has in one way or another its sources in these four years of contact with Pushkin, he had not yet decided that his ambitions were to be fulfilled by success in literature. It was only after the presentation, on April 19, 1836, of his comedy Revizor (traditionally translated in English as "The Inspector General") that he finally believed in his literary vocation. The comedy, a violent satire of Russian provincial bureaucracy, saw the stage owing only to the personal interference of Nicholas I. It was met by enthusiastic praise and virulent obloquy.
When, two months after the first night, he left Petersburg for abroad, he was finally convinced that his vocation was to "be useful" to his country by the power of his imaginative genius. Henceforward for twelve years (1836-48) he lived abroad, visiting Russia for short periods only. Having chosen Rome for his headquarters, he became enamoured with the Eternal City, which answered to his highly developed sense of the magnificent, and where even the visions that always obsessed him of vulgar and animal humanity assumed picturesque and poetical appearances that fitted harmoniously into the beautiful whole.
The death of Pushkin produced a strong impression on Gogol, especially by feeding his conviction that he was now the head of Russian literature and that great things were expected of him. His principal work during these years was the great satirical epic (poema, or an epic poem, as the Russian subheading goes) — Dead Souls. Concurrently, he worked at other tasks — recast Taras Bulba and The Portrait, completed his second comedy, Marriage, wrote the fragment Rome and his greatest short story, The Overcoat.
In 1841 the first part of Dead Souls was ready, and Gogol took it to Russia to supervise its printing. It appeared in Moscow in 1842, under the title, imposed by the censorship, of The Adventures of Chichikov. The book instantly established his reputation as the greatest prose writer in the language. Nobody could have expected that it would be the last work of fiction published during his lifetime.
After the triumph of Dead Souls, Gogol came to be regarded by his contemporaries as a great satirist who lampooned the unseemly sides of Imperial Russia. Little did they know that the 33-year-old author viewed himself primarily as a prophet and preacher, for whom Dead Souls was but the first part of a modern-day counterpart to The Divine Comedy. The first part represented the Inferno; the second part was to depict the gradual purification and transformation of the rogue Chichikov under the influence of virtuous publicans and governors — Purgatory.
Gogol began working at the second part immediately, but it proceeded haltingly and was put aside. Instead he decided to write a book of direct moral preaching that would reveal his message to the world. As he had no message to reveal, the book turned out to be a hotchpotch of uninspired religious platitudes, sprinkled by a little aesthetic romanticism and served up to justify the existing social order (including serfdom, capital punishment, and so on). The book, entitled Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (though it contained practically no passages from actual letters), appeared in 1847.
Gogol expected it to be received with awe and gratitude, like a message from Sinai. He was cruelly disappointed before long. His best friends, the Slavophiles, were painfully and unmistakably disgusted. Aksakov, the very arch-priest of the Gogol cult, wrote to him a letter of bitterly wounded friendship, accusing him of Satanic pride masquerading in the guise of humility. After this and similar rebukes from people whom he regarded as his own, the violent, vehement, and outspoken letter of Belinsky, which accused him of falsifying Christianity for the profit of those in power, though it hurt Gogol deeply, contributed little to increase his self-disillusionment.
As his inferiority complex rose in a wave of self-disgust, Gogol threw himself on the mercy of religion. But he was not made for religious life, and however despairingly he forced himself to it, he could not succeed. His tragedy entered on a new stage. His religious despair was enhanced by the pilgrimage he undertook (in 1848) to the Holy Land. His incapacity to warm himself up to genuine religious experience in the presence of the Lord's footsteps increased his conviction that he was irrevocably lost and damned.
From Palestine he returned to Russia and passed his last years in restless movement from one part of the country to another. He met a church elder, Matvey Konstantinovsky, who seems to have strengthened in him his fear of perdition by insisting on the sinfulness of all his imaginative work. His health was undermined by exaggerated ascetic practices and he fell into a state of black melancholy. On the night of February 24, 1852, he burnt some of his manuscripts, which contained most of the second part of Dead Souls. He explained this as a mistake — a practical joke played on him by the Devil. It is probably fruitless to speculate whether he was sane at the moment. Soon thereafter he took to bed, refused all food, and died in great pain nine days later. His last words were the old saying, "And I shall laugh with a bitter laugh." These words were carved on his tombstone.
Gogol was buried at the Danilov Monastery, close to his fellow Slavophile Aleksey Khomyakov. 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. A Soviet critic even cut a part of his jacket to use as a binding for his copy of Dead Souls. A piece of rock which used to stand on his grave at the Danilov was reused for the tomb of Gogol's admirer Mikhail Bulgakov.
The first Gogol monument in Moscow was a striking Symbolist statue on Arbat Square, which represented the sculptor Nikolai Andreyev's idea of Gogol, rather than the real man (picture). Unveiled in 1909, the statue was praised by Ilya Repin and Leo Tolstoy as an outstanding projection of Gogol's tortured personality. Stalin did not like it, however; and the statue was replaced by a more orthodox Socialist Realism monument in 1952. It took enormous efforts to save Andreyev's original work from destruction; it now stands in front of the house where Gogol died.
D.S. Mirsky characterized Gogol's universe as "one of the most marvellous, unexpected — in the strictest sense, original — worlds ever created by an artist of words". The enormous potency of his imagination stands at a strange contrast (or complement) to his physical sterility. He seems to have never had a sexual contact with a woman (or a man). Woman was to him a terrible, fascinating, but unapproachable obsession, and he is known never to have loved. This makes the women of his imagination either strange, inhuman visions of form and color that are redeemed from melodramatic banality only by the force of the rhetoric they are enshrined in, or entirely unsexed, even dehumanized, caricatures.
The main and most persistent characteristic of Gogol's style is its verbal expressiveness. He wrote with a view not so much to the acoustic effect on the ears of the listener as to the sensuous effect on the vocal apparatus of the reciter. This makes his prose ornate and agitated. It is all alive with the vibration of actual speech. This makes it hopelessly untranslatable — more untranslatable than any other Russian prose of the 19th century.
The other main characteristic of Gogol's genius is the extraordinary intensity and vividness of impressionist vision, sometimes skirting expressionism. He saw the outer world romantically metamorphosed, a singular gift particularly evident from the fantastic spatial transformations in his Gothic stories, A Terrible Vengeance and A Bewitched Place. His pictures of nature are strange mounds of detail heaped on detail, resulting in an unconnected chaos of things. His people are caricatures, drawn with the method of the caricaturist — which is to exaggerate salient features and to reduce them to geometrical pattern. But these cartoons have a convincingness, a truthfulness, and inevitability — attained as a rule by slight but definitive strokes of unexpected reality — that seems to beggar the visible world itself.
The aspect under which the mature Gogol sees reality is expressed by the untranslatable Russian word poshlost, which is perhaps best rendered as "self-satisfied inferiority", moral and spiritual. Like Sterne before him, Gogol was a great destroyer of prohibitions and romantic illusions. It was he who undermined Russian Romanticism by making vulgarity reign where only the sublime and the beautiful had reigned. "Characteristic of Gogol is a sense of boundless superfluity that is soon revealed as utter emptiness and a rich comedy that suddenly turns into metaphysical horror". His stories often interweave pathos and mockery, while the most comic of them all begins as a merry farce and ends with the famous dictum: It is dull in this world, gentlemen!
Even before the publication of Dead Souls, Belinsky recognized Gogol as the first realist writer in the language and the head of the Natural School, to which he also assigned such minor or young authors as Aksakov, Turgenev, Dmitry Grigorovich, Vladimir Dahl, and Vladimir Sollogub. Gogol himself seemed to be skeptical about the existence of such literary movement. Although he recognized "several young writers" who "have shown a particular desire to observe real life", he upbraided the deficient composition and style of their works. Nevertheless, subsequent generations of radical critics celebrated Gogol (the author in whose world a nose roams the streets of the Russian capital) as a great realist, a reputation decried by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as "the triumph of Gogolesque irony".
The period of modernism saw a revival of interest in and a change of attitude towards Gogol's work. One of the pioneering works of Russian formalism was Eichenbaum's reappraisal of The Overcoat. In the 1920s, a group of Russian short story writers, known as the Serapion Brothers, placed Gogol among their precursors and consciously sought to imitate his techniques. The leading novelists of the period — notably Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov — also admired Gogol and followed in his footsteps. In 1926, Vsevolod Meyerhold staged The Inspector General as a "comedy of the absurd situation", revealing to his fascinated spectators a corrupt world of endless self-deception. In 1934, Andrey Bely published the most meticulous study of Gogol's literary techniques up to that date, in which he analyzed the colours prevalent in Gogol's work depending on the period, his impressionistic use of verbs, expressive discontinuity of his syntax, complicated rhythmical patterns of his sentences, and many other secrets of his craft. Based on this work, Vladimir Nabokov published a summary account of Gogol's masterpieces in 1944.
Gogol had a huge and enduring impact on Russian literature, but his works were appreciated differently depending on the background of the reader. Belinsky, for instance, berated his horror stories as "moribund, monstrous works", while Andrei Bely counted them among his most stylistically daring creations. Nabokov singled out Dead Souls, The Inspector General, and The Overcoat as the works of genius and dismissed the remainder as puerile essays. The latter story has been traditionally interpreted as a masterpiece of "humanitarian realism", but Nabokov and some other attentive readers argued that "holes in the language" make the story susceptible to another interpretation, as a supernatural tale about a ghostly double of a "small man". Of all Gogol's stories, The Nose has stubbornly defied all abstruse interpretations: D.S. Mirsky declared it "a piece of sheer play, almost sheer nonsense".
This article incorporates text from D.S. Mirsky's "A History of Russian Literature" (1926-27), a publication now in the public domain.