April 01, 1999

Nabokov on Gogol

Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom have birthdays in April (their 190th and 100th, respectively), were two of the greatest Russian writers of the past 200 years. In many ways, the creative works of Gogol and Nabokov could not be more different. Gogol was a fabulist, a writer famous for building absurd tales full of exaggerated characters and social commentary. Nabokov was a realist. His stories grind no axes; they are peopled by very frail, life-sized characters who live in a world described with poetic precision. To Nabokov, moralizing is anathema. And yet, it is not so simple. Gogol is often credited with giving birth to realism in Russian literature and many of Nabokov’s tales are fabulist morality plays.

There are, however, some specific commonalities. Both Nabokov and Gogol had noble bloodlines (though Nabokov’s was much “richer”); both spent most of their creative lives outside their homeland, as aliens seeking acceptance in a different culture; both had short tenures as teachers; both became famous for writing in a language other than their mother tongue. In their art, there is a common richness, a feeling that every word is chosen for poetic meaning (indeed, Gogol’s Dead Souls is subtitled A Poem), that images constructed of words must be tangible and yet impressionistic — thriving on many layers of meaning.

Regardless of such comparisons, Gogol and Nabokov stand as literary bookends for an incredible century of Russian literature. Gogol, a friend and heir of Pushkin, was a leading light in the Golden Age of Russian literature of the 1840s-1860s. Nabokov stands at our end of this literary century. He was born almost exactly on the centenary of Pushkin’s birth and came of age around the time of Tolstoy’s death. Fleeing Russia with his family after the revolution (his father was a senior member of the Kerensky government), he became one of the last great Russian writers untouched by Socialist Realism. Since he spent most of his life in emigration, and since he wrote in English from 1940 on, he is not often identified as a “Russian” writer. But, before 1940, he created some of the best Russian fiction in emigration, even though his fiction, devoid of archetypal characters and blunt philosophical advocacy, was a break from the prevailing tradition of Russian literature – a tradition which had been set in motion by Nikolai Gogol.

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