Monday, June 30, 2014

Nikosha Gogol Sets Off to Visit Pushkin




Despite letters of recommendation he carried with him from the Ukraine, he had no luck finding a job in St. Petersburg. Most notable among those recommending him was his relative, the grandee Troshchinksy, but his influence was considerably reduced when he died in February, 1829, just at the wrong time. Nikosha’s long-suffering but always doting mother, Marya Ivanovna, kept scraping up money to send on to him, while he eked out a humble existence as best he could. Then one day, only three or four months after his arrival in St. Petersburg, he set off to pay a visit on his idol, the most famous poet in the country, Aleksandr Pushkin, who lived in those days right beside the Moika Canal. Although we have no way of being sure, he probably took along with him the manuscript of a narrative poem that he had written back at the Nezhin school. Here, roughly, is how this visit went.
Wrapping his too-thin winter coat tightly around his person, his long nose leading the way, young Nikosha set out resolutely to meet his idol, somehow convinced in his own mind that the great man would receive and welcome a young nobody from nowhere. Short of stature, unprepossessing, with long blonde hair hanging down over both temples, he walked with that strange herky-jerky gait, composing literary passages in his mind.
Yes, the tall man I just passed, he has enormous moustaches dyed white by the winter frost, or powdered, perhaps, by that relentless dyer of mustaches and heads, He who, ever unbidden, arrives in due time in the world of us all, to sprinkle perforce all earthly denizens with the dying white of agedness. How’s that? Is it all right? No. It will take some work, that passage. I’ll rewrite it at my desk tonight.
The herky-jerky gait became ever more hesitant as the unprepossessing figure approached the Moika, where Pushkin’s apartment was located. Various voices were arguing among themselves now in his head.
--What if he doesn’t want to see me, Pyotr Ivanovich?
--He’ll want to see you, Pyotr Ivanovich. A great pee-eet пиит (poet) will be overjoyed to meet a man with the potential to be another great пиит.
--You think so?
--I know so. As sure as I know that he’s a great пиит.
--All I know is one thing, Pyotr Ivanovich: я не трус, но я боюсь (I’m no coward, but I’m afraid).
--It was me that said that first, Pyotr Ivanovich. About being not a coward who is afraid.
--No, it was me that said that first, Pyotr Ivanovich.
--No, me… There’s the building, right up ahead, Pyotr Ivanovich.
--So it is. Tell you what, Pyotr Ivanovich. See that confectionary shop over there? Chances are we could get a little snort on those premises. What say we drop in?
--What say we do, Pyotr Ivanovich.
So they did. They went through the doors of the shop, the two Pyotr Ivanoviches, they sat down at a small table and each ordered himself a shot of liqueur. They raised high the ryumochki (dram glasses), clinked them the one against the other, proposed a toast (“to our literary future”) and downed the liquid in one gulp. Then they got up to go.
--Maybe, Pyotr Ivanovich, it would do us no harm to have just one more snort.
--You’re right, Pyotr Ivanovich; I’ll buy that.
Once again they raised high the ryumochki, clinked them the one against the other, proposed a toast (“to us and our literary future”) and downed the liquid in one gulp. Then they got up again to go.
--Could be (said Pyotr Ivanovich to Pyotr Ivanovich, taking him by the arm) one more snort would not be amiss.
--You’re right, Pyotr Ivanovich.
Once again they etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera, etc. They threw a ruble coin on the table, took each other by the arm, and, staggering, made their way out of the confectionary shop and back out onto the street. Holding each other up, the one supporting the other, the two Pyotr Ivanoviches reached the imposing door of that imposing apartment in that imposing building on the Moika. At this point they shrunk back out of their double selves and became one person again: a small, humble person in a threadbare coat (шинель), with a bald spot beneath his shapka (winter hat). That small humble person raised a shaking index finger and rang the doorbell. Then, shivering in the cold, he waited.
Finally the door swung open and there before him stood a huge giant of a lackey dressed in gold-brocaded livery. The lackey looked down his nose at the nothing of a nobody standing before him, then sniffed out the most supercilious of questions that could ever be asked within the limits of one word: Da?
--Tell me, please (said the nothing of a nobody, in a voice so faint as to be almost a squeak instead of a voice), is he, that is, I mean like, is the I mean to say, like, master, at home?
--Indeed at home (bellowed out his answer the lackey in the livery, whose name was, incidentally, Vaska Golopupenko). At home. But presently taking his rest.
--He is, that is to say, I mean, resting, like sleeping? Then he must have been working all night (blurted out the nobody of a nothing).
--Working? Ha! (bellowed once more the giant Vaska Golopupenko). Playing cards.

End of scene, describing the ignominious first attempt of not quite twenty-year-old Nikosha Gogol to make the acquaintance of the greatest poet in the history of Russian literature. But the most amazing thing is not that this nobody of a nothing even dared make such a bold move shortly after his arrival in the capital. The most amazing thing of all is that only a couple of years later this nonentity had become more than an entity, had made the acquaintance of the critic Pletnyov, of the great poet and tutor to the tsarevich, Zhukovsky, and then yes, of Pushkin too. Only two years later Nikosha Gogol-Yanovsky was already Nikolai Gogol! How could he have pulled this off? Did the Lord God really have his back?

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