Gogol was a writer at odds with his own genius. What he did well-the comic and strange-he did not value. What he strove to do-save souls-did not succeed.
Nikolai Gogol was a Russian writer, with a wonderful sense of the grotesque and the comic, who desperately wanted to be remembered as chronicler of the sublime and the beautiful.
Nikolai Gogol was born to a landowning family in the Ukraine on March 20, 1809. Sent to boarding school at age 10, he impressed his schoolmates as small, sickly, and dirty. When he was 17, his father died. Nikolai was the only surviving male of his family, but he had no intention of returning home to help his mother with the estate. He convinced her that it was his calling to work in government service in St. Petersburg. She lent him many rubles to accomplish this dream, but faced with the horrors of bureaucratic work Gogol moaned: “Must I then sell my health and precious time for a sum that will not even suffice to pay my room and board? What an absurdity!”(Troyat)
The Failed Poet
In order to avoid this fate, Gogol borrowed more money, while laboring, in secret, on a romantic epic called Hans Kuechelgarten, then waited for critical accolades. Instead, critics suggested that it might be better if the poetry of this young writer had never seen the light of day.
Devastated, Gogol bought all copies of the offending volume and burned them. He also found the palliative for anxiety that he would count on for the rest of his years—travel.
When he returned he was, as usual, broke, and reluctantly accepted another government post. As a writer, he began exploring Ukrainian folklore, and produced his first critically successful book: Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Pushkin (Gogol’s idol) wrote of it: “An astounding book! . . . . What poetry!”(Nabokov)
Gogol’s success inspired a grandiose scheme. He would write a nine volume history of the world. This project never achieved fruition, but Gogol’s assertions were enough to get him appointed to the history department at the University of St. Petersburg—although he had no college degree. His first lecture, about the Middle Ages, was well-crafted and dramatic, and, unfortunately, set a performance standard never to be matched. Ill-prepared, Gogol would either cancel his lectures, or show up and not lecture. For the final class, he tied a scarf around his jaw, and claimed a toothache. He resigned, declaring that nobody at the university was able to hear the luminous truth that he spoke.
Tne Inspector General
And then his Inspector General was successfully produced, and Gogol was horrified to be praised for showcasing a luminous truth that he had never intended. The Inspector General is a rambunctious and funny play about what happens when a group of backwater bureaucrats are visited by a young dandy, whom they mistake for an Inspector from the government.
The liberals were ecstatic; here was a play that exposed the corruption of the Tzar’s government! Oh, no, said Gogol, his play was supposed to set a moral example for individuals; in his opinion, the Tzar was God’s earthly representative. People liked his play for all the wrong reasons! He went traveling again, ending up in Rome, and began the work that would occupy the rest of his brief life: Dead Souls.
The first volume of Dead Souls came out in 1841. “Dead souls” refers to the serfs who have died between one government census and the next. The unfortunate owner must continue to pay taxes on his human property until the next polling. Along comes Chichikov, offering to buy these worthless “souls.” The picaresque novel follows Chichikov as he travels from one estate to another, encountering a wealth of meticulously drawn comic types. Gogol diverges from his narrative to rhapsodize about the pleasures of travel, nature, the state of the Russian soul, etc.
Once again, the public’s reaction, mostly positive, distressed the author. The liberals thought it was social criticism and the conservatives were offended by the satirizing of landowners. Gogol took to the road, trying to outrun his distress. People didn’t understand the true merits of his work. In Dead Souls, Gogol had collected everything that was bad about Russia, but not to criticize the institution of serfdom. Once again, he was modeling bad behavior, in order to get the Russian people to improve themselves.
Still, Gogol took heart. Part II, which he was still writing, would surely reveal the “untold riches of the Russian soul.” However, writing about the “untold riches of the Russian soul” was excruciating. To paraphrase Henri Troyat, here was a man with Bosch’s talents and sensibilities who wanted to paint like Raphael.
Dead Souls II: Burn the Manuscript, or Burn in Hell
As he struggled against writer’s block, Gogol was also striving for spiritual regeneration. He begged his acquaintances to send him detailed lists of his faults so that he could make reparations, at the same time angering many of them by sending unasked for spiritual advice.
It was during this time that Gogol met Father Matthew Konstaninovsky. Although Father Matthew has been characterized by many as a dogmatic, uneducated priest, Gogol made him his spiritual advisor.
Father Matthew did not encourage frivolous, artistic pursuits. On February 4, 1852, Gogol had his final audience with his spiritual advisor, and was told he would have to renounce literature in order to be saved.
The next day, Gogol began a fast. He stopped writing. In the middle of the night on February 11, he put the manuscript of Dead Souls II into the fire, and watched it turn to cinders.
Afterwards, Gogol refused to leave the house or to eat. Doctors were summoned, but their attempts to save his body were useless. Gogol died on February 21, 1852, less than a month before his 43rd birthday.
- Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls. Trans. David Magarshack. New York: Penguin Books, 1961.
- Gogol, Nikolai. Inspector General and 3 Other Plays. English version by Eric Bentley. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1992.
- Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol. New York: New Directions, 1944.
- Proffer, Carl R., ed. Letters of Nikolai Gogol. Ann Arbor (MI): University of Michigan Press, 1967.
- Troyat, Henri. Divided Soul: The Life of Gogol. Trans. Nancy Amphoux. Garden City (NY): Doubleday, 1973.