By Paul E. Richardson
Nikolai Vassiliyevich Gogol was born, appropriately for a satirist, on April 1, 1809, in the Poltava Gubernia of Maloros (“Little Russia,” later officially named Ukraine). His parents were mid-level landowners and his father was an amateur playwright. Gogol was well-educated in the arts and showed a particular proficiency in acting – later in life, his dramatic readings of his stories would be widely renowned.
Gogol had a very healthy ego and feared obscurity. At the age of 18, he wrote to an uncle: “Cold sweat drenches my face at the thought that I may perish in dust without becoming famous for any extraordinary accomplishment. Living in this world would be terrible if I failed to make my being beneficial.” At first, he dreamed of a legal career. So, in 1828, when he finished his studies at a gymnasium in Nezhin, he set off to make his name in St. Petersburg. But he quickly became discouraged by the monotony, emptiness and pitiful remuneration of a bureaucratic career (so tellingly described in his masterpiece, The Overcoat). Thankfully, he focused his creative energies on writing.
Gogol’s first three years in Petersburg were filled with economic hardship and creative disappointment. His first work (the self-published poem Hanz Kyukhelgarten), written under the pseudonym V. Alov was pretentious and insubstantial. It was not until 1831 that his fortunes changed. On May 20, 1831, Gogol met Alexander Pushkin for the first time. He brought to that meeting a collection of stories about life in Maloros (one of which, St. John’s Eve, had been published the year before). Pushkin liked them very much and urged Gogol to get them published.
The collection of stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, published that same year, was met with almost universal critical praise. Written in an earthy, realistic style, the tales are introduced by a fictitious beekeeper, Rudy Panko, as if to impart legitimacy upon them. Drawing on Gogol’s upbringing in Maloros, the stories evoke all the color, superstition and flavor of Ukrainian folklore. They are highly descriptive and romantic, with just a taste of the fantastic.
The following year, Gogol published a second volume of stories (which were actually promised by beekeeper Panko: “if, please God, I live to the New Year”). This collection was equally successful, but it contained a story different from anything Gogol had yet published. Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt was a hint of Gogol’s future masterpieces. In Shponka, he creates a series of hilarious, extraordinary events out of seemingly normal circumstances; he shows how the world may look orderly and benign on the surface, but once one looks at things in detail, excruciating detail, underneath it all is poshlost.
Without grasping the idea of poshlost, one cannot hope to understand and appreciate Gogol. Any Russian dictionary will tell you poshlost means “vulgarity” or “banality.” But of course there is more to it than that. Poshlost is the decadence and petty schemes that entangle the lives of provincial bureaucrats; it is the slothful self-centeredness of the landed gentry (so lusciously detailed in Gogol’s later story Old World Landowners); it is the smarmy rot of scandal and corruption that lies stinking beneath the conventions of proper society and inherited wealth.
The Gogolian portrait of poshlost became richer with the publication of his Arabesques and Mirgorod stories in 1835, followed by short stories such as The Nose. But it reached perfection with his masterpiece play The Inspector General.
On January 18, 1836, Gogol read his play, The Inspector General, to Pushkin, Zhukovsky, Vyazemsky and others. It was such a success that it was rushed into production and premiered on April 19 in St. Petersburg and May 25 in Moscow. To this day, this story of Khlestyakov, a scheming imposter who took bribes from poshlost-ridden locals (the idea for the story was given to Gogol by Pushkin, who based it on real events), is part of the standard repertoire of nearly every Russian theater.
As his fame rose, Gogol became increasingly eccentric. A tendency toward hypochondria turned to obsession and he convinced himself that he must travel abroad to seek a cure. In June of 1836, he set off for Europe, where he would spend most of the next 12 years of his life, moving from place to place, rarely staying in any one place for more than a few months.
In February 1837, while in Paris feverishly working on Dead Souls (another story suggested to Gogol by Pushkin), Gogol heard of Pushkin’s death. It shook him to his core and he came to see Dead Souls as a “sacred testament” to the poet.
In September of 1839, Gogol traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg for a reading of the first six chapters of the novel. It was received with great acclaim. As one contemporary, Yuri Samarin, put it: “Indeed, we can call ourselves lucky that we were born contemporaries of Gogol. Such people are not born every year, but once in a century.”
The following spring, Gogol returned to Italy, to complete the first volume of Dead Souls. But at the end of 1840, while in Vienna, he suddenly fell victim to a serious nervous disorder. He quickly recovered, but he was never quite the same. The event seems to have heightened his awareness of mysticism and fanatic religiosity. He began to see messianic purposes in his book, Dead Souls, and in his own life. In his personal relations, he became increasingly dogmatic and self-righteous. “My labor is great, my deed is redemptive, I am now about life’s petty things,” he wrote in a letter about this time.
This psychological turn did not, however, seem to negatively affect the creative quality of the latter part of Dead Souls. By August of 1841, he had completed the book and in October returned to Russia. Although he desperately feared the book would be banned, it was in fact passed by the censor with relatively few changes and published in May of 1842. The book was received by some at the time as equal to the classic epics, yet by others as an insult to the Russian nation. But Gogol was not around to be engaged by the debate. Within a month of the book’s publication, he had returned to Italy.
Gogol worked himself to exhaustion trying to force out the second volume of Dead Souls. But he could not satisfy his own striving for perfection. By 1845, he had plunged into a new spiritual crisis and verged on an emotional breakdown. He began traveling from one spa to another in Germany, seeking a cure and a restoration of his strength. In June, in a nervous fit, he burned the manuscript so far completed of the second volume of Dead Souls.
In 1847, Gogol published Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. This infamous book was intended in part as an explanation for the absence of a second volume of Dead Souls. But, more importantly, it was a self-righteous homily brimming with wide-ranging ideas on literature, morality and social reforms – his attempt to show the masses the right and true path. Needless to say, the writer was out of his element and the work was met with almost universal disdain and venom, particularly from the liberal critic Vissarion Belinsky. Understandably, the self-centered Gogol was unprepared to have his heartfelt ideas so soundly mocked. “My health,” he wrote, “has been shaken by this distressing history surrounding my book ... I am surprised that I have lived through it.”
He sought to rededicate himself to Dead Souls, while at the same time he fell under the influence of a cleric named Father Matvey, who pushed Gogol on a path of still greater moral rigor and self-improvement, arguing that the author needed to renounce his earlier work. After some further travels around Europe, Gogol toured the Holy Lands, returning to Russia in 1848. By the middle of 1849, he was sufficiently confident in his work on Dead Souls to read some completed chapters to his friends.
On New Year’s Day 1852, Gogol told a friend that the second volume of Dead Souls was “completely finished.” But by month’s end, the writer was in the depths of another psychological breakdown as a result of losing a dear friend. It was at this point that Father Matvey happened by for a visit and, the evidence seems to show, urged Gogol to destroy part of the second volume, for fear of its potential “harmful effects.” Gogol, for his part, may have taken this as an omen that the book might not be well received. In February, he burned the manuscript (an incomplete manuscript of five chapters survives) and began a Lenten fast. He refused all food and medical aid and starved himself to death, breathing his last on February 21.
Gogol’s legacy in Russian literature is much debated. Whether a new realism in Russian literature spawned because of or in spite of Gogol, his literature stands almost alone in the pantheon of Russian writers. There really was no singular precedent for his work and there clearly was no direct descendant. Gogol’s art consisted of his ability to examine universal themes through the excruciating details of life. He demonstrated the extraordinary which lies hidden beneath ordinary textures of life. He catalogued the poshlost that underlies human existence, and did so with a wit and satire best described as laughing through tears. On his gravestone is inscribed: “With my bitter words, I laugh.” (Gorkim slovom moim posmeyusya).
© 1999, Russian Life magazine