Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gogol the "Satirist"

During the years of the Soviet Union nearly everyone was reading Gogol wrong. He was, so it was thought, the castigator of evil, the "realist" author who presented all that was bad about Russian life and forced his contemporaries to look at it.

Then again, it was not only the Soviets who interpreted Gogol as realist and satirist. During his own lifetime that was the primary interpretation of his works in Russia. Even Gogol himself, who never really understood what he was doing in his most creative fiction, accepted the view, assumed it to be true.

When I was teaching in Novgorod on a Fullbright Scholar Grant (1999-2000) the issue came up with my students, who were puzzled when I scoffed at the idea of Gogol the realist. Their teachers in high school had inculcated the old accepted view, and they fully accepted the received knowledge: Gogol is a realist and a satirist.

So it goes, and probably to this very day teachers of literature in high schools all over the country are still propagating this same old falsehood.

Gogol the realist: a man who wrote a story about a nose escaping from a government official's face; who wrote about another man who married a warm winter overcoat; whose works are populated by phantasms and pigs that are more real than anything realistic.

A satirist excoriates, fulminates in aid of some cause. The works of a satirist often drip with venom. In his greatest fictional works Gogol teaches only the lesson of highly inspired creative art. In his personal letters and his daily life, of course, he is the preacher nonpareil, promoting morality and Russian Orthodoxy to the point of fanaticism. His Selected Letters from Correspondence with Friends is written by an author who is clearly deranged. Not so his fiction. His fiction is lofty, is of the gods. In his fiction Gogol is, above all, an ironist. And a comic genius. The main hero of his best fictions is laughter, but not satirical laughter.

Who was it said it, Nabokov? "Satire is a lesson; irony is a game." And one of the greatest games played in all of human endeavor is the game of high art.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Enigma of Gogol

Nikolai Gogol is the most enigmatic, puzzling, astonishing of all Russian writers. Of the literary figures who associated with him during his lifetime, the great majority of them (Pogodin, Zhukovsky, Pletnyov, etc.) left no written account of their association with him. Why not?

Probably because they simply did not know what to make of him. What was the man really like? Hard to say. How did this man they associated with (the finagler, manipulator, prevaricator) write the great literary works (Dead Souls, The Inspector General, "The Overcoat")? No idea.

Not so surprising, since Gogol himself, the man, had no idea where the wellspring of his talent was. He wrote astonishing literary works, then went about trying to interpret them. His ex post facto interpretations were ridiculous. The Gogol of the mind-boggling talent was a Gogol who had nothing in common with Gogol the man. Amazing.

There is probably no other writer in Russian literature whose creative, dazzlingly brilliant side is more at variance with the side that is the man walking the streets in velvet, baby blue waistcoat.