NABOKOV’S INFLUENCE ON GOGOL
Published in The Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2 (July, 1986), p. 251-66.
(The article has been slightly revised in the text presented here. Footnotes from original article are in brackets within the text.)
Original title: Nabokov’s Gogol and Nabokov’s “Nabokov”
I am following Gogol through the dismal maze of his life and have selected as basic rhythm of my book the en passant move of the Pawn. (Nabokov letter to Edmund Wilson, Nab.-Wilson Letters, 68).
Затем начал он слегка поворачивать бричку, поворачивал, поворачивал и наконец выворотил ее совершенно на бок. (Gogol, Dead Souls) Trans.: Then he began slowly turning the britzka; he kept turning it and turning it until, finally, he flipped it right over on its side (na bok).
In an article published in 1836 Nikolai Gogol set down some principles that could serve as an introduction to the “rather frivolous little book” [Nabokov’s own description of his Gogol book, Vladimir Nabokov, Eugene Onegin, 4 vols, Bollingen Series (Pantheon Books), 1964, II, 314.] that V. Nabokov wrote about him roughly one hundred years later [Unless otherwise specified, all references in my article are to the corrected edition of Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol (New Directions, 1961). Subsequent page citations are given in the text.]:
“Criticism based on depth of taste and intelligence, criticism by a man of great talent, is worthy of comparison with any other original creative work: in it one sees the writer who is being analyzed; in it one sees still more the analyzer himself. Criticism penned by a man of talent survives the ephemerality of its journalistic existence. Its value for the history of literature is inestimable” (my emphasis, RB) [N. Gogol, Collected Works in Seven Volumes (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaja literatura, 1966-1967), VI, 187.]
Gogol himself would have found Nabokov’s book about him something less than inestimable [In a 1969 interview Nabokov commented on Gogol: “He would have been appalled by my novels and denounced as vicious the innocent, and rather superficial, little sketch of his life that I produced twenty-five years ago.” Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (McGraw-Hill, 1973), p. 156.], as did many who reviewed the book when it was published in 1944. Only those who knew Nabokov’s Russian fictional works could have understood what he was doing with Gogol, but even in the forties most sensed that the book “reveals much more about Mr. Nabokov than about Gogol” and that, at least to some extent, Nabokov had created his own Gogol. [J.A. Posin, rev. of Nikolai Gogol, Books Abroad, XX (Spring, 1946), 204-05. See also the reviews by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, New Republic, 25 Sept. 1944, p. 376, Edmund Wilson, New Yorker, 9 Sept. 1944, p. 73, and Stanley Edgar Hyman, “The Critic as Narcissus,” Accent, VIII (Spring, 1948), 191.]
In spite of Nabokov’s tendency to disparage his book in later years, B.G. Guerney, one of the most perceptive of the early reviewers, may have been right to call it the best work on Gogol in English. [Guerney, p. 376. Of course, a number of excellent books have appeared since 1944. Donald Fanger’s The Creation of Nikolai Gogol (Harvard University Press, 1979) is one of the best.] Even more to the point is Andrew Field’s declaration that this book (“half criticism and half artistic prose”) is the first to be given to one “who knows no Nabokov.” [Field, Nabokov: His Life in Art (Little Brown and Co., 1967) pp. 289-90.] As these remarks imply, the most brilliant achievement of the book lies in the ability of the conjuror-contortionist Nabokov to present sometimes valid and always sparkling insights into Gogol’s art and, simultaneously, to place emphasis on himself. Now, after the appearance of a considerable body of literary criticism on Nabokov’s works, I would like to return to his “rather frivolous little book” and attempt a fresh evaluation. The present article treats primarily the way Nabokov wrote a book about himself while ostensibly writing a book about Gogol. It also deals with the semi-fictional quality of this critical biography and the revisions made in a new edition that appeared late in Nabokov’s life.
Nikolai Gogol reveals a lot about Nabokov’s attitudes toward literature, literary criticism, and biography. In the playful eccentricity of its tone, it rebels against the turgid academese of so much literary criticism. Furthermore, the book could almost have been written with the blunt admonishments of H.L. Mencken in mind:
“The assumption that it may be scientific is the worst curse that lies upon criticism. It is responsible for all the dull, blowsy, ‘definitive’ stuff that literary pedagogues write, and it is responsible, too, for the heavy posturing that so often goes on among critics less learned. Both groups proceed upon the theory that there are exact facts to be ascertained, and that it is their business to ascertain and proclaim them. That theory is nonsense. There is, in truth, no such thing as an exact fact in the whole realm of the beautiful arts. . . . The critic survives, when he survives at all, mainly as artist. His judgments, in the long run, become archaic, and may be disregarded. But if, in stating them, he has incidentally produced a work of art on his own account, then he is read long after they are rejected, and it may be plausibly argued that he has contributed something to the glory of letters. [Cited in Field, p.8, this quotation comes from “The Critic and His Job,” Prejudices: Fifth Series (London: Jonathan Cape, 1926), p. 202, 207-08. In both the opinions he expresses on belles-lettres and the tone of voice he uses, Mencken has much in common with Nabokov.]
Nabokov was a natural scientist who apparently never had any illusions about the possibilities of the scientific method. Life and art are incomprehensible:
“In point of fact, the greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery. Moreover, I don’t believe that any science today has pierced any mystery . . . the situation remains as hopeless as ever. We shall never know the origin of life, or the meaning of life, or the nature of space and time, or the nature of nature, or the nature of thought (Strong Opinions, 44-45).
There are no “exact facts,” no “great ideas” to be expressed in literary criticism.
“He [Nabokov] makes no claim for the scientific validity of either his own literary opinions or for any all-embracing ‘theory of literature.’ . . . What we can learn from him, however, is precisely the dangers inherent in fanciful generalizations and in any fatuous allegiance to one or another ‘school’ of literary interpretation. We also learn from him the importance of exact knowledge and scrupulous attention to detail.” [R.H. Stacy, Russian Literary Criticism: A Short History (Syracuse University Press, 1974), pp.253-54.]
What does a reader who “knows no Nabokov” learn about him from reading his Gogol? Above all the reader is indoctrinated in Nabokov’s views on the art of literature. Although Nabokov ascribes to no all-embracing theory, he discusses his own artistic principles extensively in this small book:
(1) The important thing in art is not the what but the how. “The prodigious artistic merit of the final result is due (as with all his masterpieces) not to what is said but to how it is said.” “His [Gogol’s] work, as all great literary achievements, is a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas” (56, 150).
(2) Art has no religious, social, moral, political obligation or purpose. “I have a lasting grudge against those who like their fiction to be educational or uplifting, or national, or as healthy as maple syrup and olive oil.” “Fancy is fertile only when it is futile” (42, 76).
(3) Art is independent of life and even superior to life. The writer creates “as God creates, perfectly imaginary people.” “It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a ‘true story.’” “Impressions do not make good writers; good writers make them up themselves in their youth and then use them as if they had been real originally.” “This vulgar imitation of artistic fiction on the part of life is somehow more pleasing than the opposite thing” (40, 40, 10, 41).
(4) Plots are of little importance. “The plot of The Government Inspector is as unimportant as the plots of all Gogol books.” “In Gogol’s books the real plots are behind the obvious ones. . . . His stories only mimic stories with plots” (39, 152).
(5) Great writers cater to the creative reader and attempt to create him anew in their own image. “Give me the creative reader; this is a tale for him.” “Even in his worst writings, Gogol was always good at creating his reader, which is the privilege of great writers” (140, 41).
(6) True art does not describe real life since the term “real life” is senseless, indefinable. “All reality is a mask.” Art may provide at least some intuitive perception of the mysteries of the irrational. “By poetry I mean the mysteries of the irrational as perceived through rational words.” “The diver, the seeker for black pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in The Overcoat shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes which we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception” (148, 55, 145).
This refutation of “real life” is directly related to the treatment of biography, which is central in many of Nabokov’s fictional works. In novels as diverse as The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Pale Fire the very essence of biography is called into question. In Sebastian Knight a central theme is “the utter impossibility of recording the true biography of any writer.” [Iris Barry, rev. of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, New York Herald Tribune Books, 25 January 1942, p. 12; reprinted in Norman Page, ed., Nabokov: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), p. 68.] The biographer, Sebastian’s half-brother, is engaged in “a quest that turns out to be a quest for himself.” [Dabney Stuart, Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody (Louisiana State University Press, 1978), p. 27.] as is Kinbote in Pale Fire; both of these commentators alter the original and fill in its gaps with their own imaginings. [Lucy Maddox, Nabokov’s Novels in English (University of Georgia Press, 1983), p. 35.]
Accuracy in biography is, therefore, near impossible: “Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.” [Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New Directions, 1941), p.52.] There are no “exact facts” to be ascertained in belles-lettres or biography. For example, Gogol’s Lubeck trip in 1829 “has never been and never will be adequately explained by his biographers.” One biographer asserts that he never even made that trip (12, 25). Nabokov accepts as his starting point the assumption that Gogol’s life as a man is inscrutable. He has little sympathy for the Gogol the man anyway, as illustrated by his reply to an interviewer who assumed that “Gogol found a most congenial biographer in you”: “This congeniality is another illusion. I loathe Gogol’s moralistic slant, I am depressed and puzzled by his utter inability to describe young women, I deplore his obsession with religion” (Strong Opinions, 156). Biography is an iffy business, but one thing is sure: when an unsympathetic biographer takes up his pen, the subject of his biography has good reason to fear for his life.
In another interview Nabokov once was asked, “What are the possibilities of literary biography?”
“They are great fun to write, generally less fun to read. Sometimes the thing becomes a kind of double paper chase: first, the biographer pursues his quarry through letters and diaries, and across the bogs of conjecture, and then a rival authority pursues the muddy biographer” (Strong Opinions, 67).
The rival authority who pursues the muddy biographer is really the controlling force, Nabokov himself, who is writing a book about the original pursuit. The pattern is apparent in Sebastian Knight and in Pnin, and there are grounds for asserting that it also applies in Gogol. For this is a book about a biographer (Nabokov’s representative) who pursues his subject throughout the book, simultaneously distorting him and expressing some brilliant insights about him, then, paradoxically, usurps his subject’s identity in the end. “Every work of art is a deception,” [Vladimir Nabokov, Despair (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966), p. 188.] and the deception in Nikolai Gogol involves, primarily, the magic trick of making Gogol disappear in a book about Gogol.
Before discussing the biographer, the representative, as a semi-fictional personage in Nikolai Gogol, I would like to develop the topic of pursuit and capture. The pattern become clearer if one considers Clarence Brown’s article on the essential structures of Nabokov’s works and the relationships of characters. Professor Brown finds that the structural basis for many of Nabokov’s works is the same, a poem and a commentary on the poem: Nabokov’s translation of the Igor Tale and of Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time (“where Nabokov collaborates with Lermontov almost as exasperatingly as Kinbote collaborates with Shade”), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, The Gift, The Defense, Pale Fire, and, finally, the Onegin translation. “In every case the included poem, the base or source work in this peculiarly Nabokovian structure, is inferior to the commentary.” [Clarence Brown, “Nabokov’s Pushkin and Nabokov’s Nabokov,” in L.S. Dembo, ed., Nabokov: The Man and His Work (University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), pp. 204-05.] In other Nabokov works the structural pattern may be at variance with the pattern Brown illustrates. For example, there is no poem and commentary in Pnin, but there is a life (Pnin’s) being commented upon and a prominent, even importunate, commentator. Brown’s ideas about how characters connect in Nabokov are also percipient:
“In these character relationships we begin, typically, with an apparent duality, which is then reduced to unity—two men who in the course of the novel strangely coalesce. “The only real number is one, the rest are mere repetition.” The central position in the novel is usually occupied by the charismatic figure of some poet or novelist of genius. The other figure is the person in the foreground, usually the narrator, whose entire function consists in surrounding the genius at the middle. He researches this genius, seeks him out, comments upon him and in fact draws his existence from him. We know the character at the center only through the efforts of our narrator and guide, who is himself a sympathetic but a less interesting, less gifted, and somehow flawed, incomplete figure” (Brown, 201-02; my emphasis).
Brown uses Pale Fire as an illustration of this pattern; he also mentions Sebastian Knight and The Gift. If one considers works that do not exactly fit his scheme, one comes upon narrator-representatives who are definitely flawed but by no means sympathetic (Pnin, Laughter in the Dark, Bend Sinister). In essence, however, Brown’s insights into the relationships between Nabokov’s characters are correct even in works that he leaves outside his scheme, for example, in Pnin and Gogol. In these two works the idea of apparent duality reduced to unity is central. At the end of Pnin the rather vulgar and smug narrator may be destined to become a Pnin himself, as Jack Cockerell already has. But the coalescence of the central characters could also be an illusion. For in Pnin, as well as in Gogol, one of the main points is that by the end of the book the narrator has usurped the position of the man about whom he is writing. Pnin is forced to flee the novel itself; he drives out of the book named after him and appears to escape into some better world.
In Gogol the biographer does in a sense “draw his existence” from Gogol; that is, he draws (extracts) Gogol’s existence from Gogol and replaces him with himself—the only real number, once again, is one. Here is the relevant citation from the works of Sebastian Knight:
“All things belong to the same order of things, for such is the oneness of human perception, the oneness of individuality, the oneness of matter, whatever matter may be. The only real number is one, the rest are mere repetition” (Sebastian Knight, 105). Elsewhere Nabokov has stressed that he is “an indivisible monist” (Strong Opinions, 85; see also 124).
Just as Brown makes a convincing argument for the Onegin translation and commentary as analogue to Pale Fire, one could argue that Gogol is an analogue to Pnin. Nabokov, who always remembered his future works, [Brown, pp. 200-01; the passage is cited from Nabokov’s Gift.] possibly had Pnin already in mind while writing his creative biography of Gogol. You could even speculate that the puppies who appear in the “Commentaries” chapter of Gogol (153) are being groomed in Nabokov’s menagerie for their future roles in Pnin (Pnin’s little white dog and Cockerell’s cocker spaniel Sobakevich—the name comes from a character in Gogol’s Dead Souls). The most salient resemblance between these two books lies in the pursuit theme, culminating in the disappearance of the main character and the ascendancy of his pursuer.
The pattern is more subtle in Pnin, where the narrator sticks his nose into the novel only briefly in the earlier parts. At first an inattentive reader easily misses his importance, but this is not likely in Gogol, where the opinionated biographer is a dominant voice right from the start: “Frankly speaking I am sick of reading biographies in which. . . “I find pleasure in following the outlines of. . . “I have never been able to see eye to eye with people who. . .” “I have a lasting grudge against those who. . . “ (13, 25, 31, 42). The importance of this biographer in his own right is frequently substantiated, sometimes by direct reference to Nabokov’s (or his proxy’s) art: “I shall have occasion to speak in quite a different book of a lunatic who constantly felt that all the parts of the landscape and movements of inanimate objects were a complex code of allusion to his own being” (59). Nonetheless, the reader may still be under the impression that this book is concerned primarily with Gogol until he reaches the chapter on Gogol’s “Overcoat” (titled “The Apotheosis of a Mask”). Here is where Nabokov sets off a “wild display of nightmare fireworks” (142), making a brilliant show of his critical acumen in remarks that are applicable to Gogol’s art but equally valid in reference to his own: “It gives one the sensation of something ludicrous and at the same time stellar, lurking constantly around the corner.” “Allusions to something else behind the crudely painted screens” (142). “The absurd has as many shades and degrees at the tragic has, and, moreover, in Gogol’s case, it borders upon the latter” (141). “If parallel lines do not meet it is not because meet they cannot, but because they have other things to do” (145). “We did not expect that, amid the whirling masks, one mask would turn out to be a real face, or at least the place where that face ought to be” (141).
Nor did the reader expect that the wild fireworks in this chapter would be used as a diversionary maneuver for the spiriting of Gogol out of Gogol, much as the “conjuror’s patter” at the end of Dead Souls (Part One) is used (according to Nabokov) to make Chichikov disappear (113). The same device is used to usher Pnin out of Pnin. He drives out of the book on its last page in a gust of lyricism and pathos (See Maddox, pp. 95-99). In the final subdivision of this chapter (#6, 149-50) Gogol is gone and the biographer is revealing his purpose “in jotting these notes on Gogol” (149) and welcoming the “right sort” of readers to Gogol’s (and implicitly his own) works. Hand on heart he solemnly affirms that he has not imagined Gogol (150), but of course he has imagined, that is created the Gogol of this book. The final chapter (“Commentaries”) is something like the anticlimax tacked onto “The Overcoat.” Nabokov is finished with Gogol and now the “Nabokov” of this book appears in a fictional dialogue with his publisher. [“The imaginary interview with the publisher provides a neat illustration of Gogol’s own method of anchoring fantasy with circumstantial details.” Marjorie Farber, rev. of Nikolai Gogol, New York Times Book Review, 5 November 1944, p. 29.]
Just as in Pnin, the narrator has now become one of the book’s main characters. He worries his publisher, the semi-fictitious James Laughlin, by suggesting a picture of a huge nose for the cover art and referring to his propensity for inventing titles and authors when he gets bored. This final chapter of the book on Gogol is concluded with a comment about Nabokov himself: “Desperate Russian critics, trying hard to find an Influence and to pigeonhole my own novels, have once or twice linked me up with Gogol, but when they looked again I had untied the knots and the box was empty” (155). Nabokov has “reversed the order of natural evolution” (86) by exerting his literary influence on the life and works of a dead author.
Nikolai Gogol could also be interpreted as a strange sort of translation. Just as hostile biographers traduce an author’s life, so do hostile translators traduce his art. As biographer and (in a philosophical sense) translator Nabokov does both. At the moment he is welcoming “creative readers” to the world of his art with a devious smile [He calls them “my brothers, my doubles” (149-50), echoing Baudelaire’s famous invocation of the “hypocrite” reader: “Hypocrite lecteur,--mon semblable,--mon frère!” from Les fleurs du mal (the opening poem)], one can almost imagine Gogol’s specter screaming out to him, using the very interdictions Nabokov has invented to warn traditionally minded readers to keep away from his Gogol: Keep off the tracks, high tension, closed for the duration! (149). The traduced author screams in pain, for as Nabokov himself hints, this book details his metaphorical torture and eventual murder of an author, by way of translating that author into himself:
“Old English ‘translations’ are remarkably similar to the so-called Thousand Pieces Execution which was popular at one time in China. The idea was to cut out from the patient’s body one tiny square bit the size of a cough lozenge, say, every five minutes or so until bit by bit (all of them selected with discrimination so as to have the patient live to the nine hundred ninety ninth piece) his whole body was delicately removed (38-39).” [Note the importance of the number 999 in Nabokov’s works. It may indicate the approaching end of one fictional spiral and the beginning of another. Pnin’s final residence before his dissolution or escape from the fiction is 999 Todd Road. In Pale Fire Shade’s poem has 999 lines, and the first line may be identical to the first line in a new spiral.]
The theme of ontological translation is also suggested by the extensive citation of translated passages in the book. Nabokov’s translations of Gogol’s prose into English (which are deceptively faithful to the original) suggest what is going on at a deeper remove, Nabokov’s translation of Gogol into Nabokov.
In instructing Edmund Wilson to note the en passant move in chess (see the first epigraph to this article) Nabokov was alluding to his expropriation of Gogol and of Gogol’s ostensible reader. That reader may think that he is reading a book about Gogol, but as he passes through that book he is captured in passing by grandmaster Nabokov, who has also captured Gogol “in passing.” Other hints about what is going on abound in the text. For example, the rugby player Obolensky, one of Nabokov’s “secondary dream characters,” kicks the ball on the run, then changes his mind and catches it back (79-80). This suggests that Nabokov may have started writing a book about Gogol but then changed his mind and decided to write one about himself. “I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask” (Strong Opinions, 18).
Nikolai Gogol is a kind of mask haberdashery and workshop, where Nabokov creates his readers and fits them with their Nabokov masks. In his literature classes at Cornell he went about doing the exact same sort of creating and fitting of disciples. He was saying, in effect, to his students: “You are here to learn to read artistic literature creatively, but you must learn to read it my way.” Once, when a rebellious student objected to Nabokov’s total rejection of Dostoevsky as a literary figure, the furious Nabokov went to the dean in an effort to have that student evicted from his class.
Nabokov could have written a creative biography of Gogol by making a Gogolian character of him and having the story told by a Gogolian skaz narrator. [G.M. Hyde, in Vladimir Nabokov: America’s Russian Novelist (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), calls Nabokov’s Gogol book a “remarkable example of skaz” (156).] At first one may assume that this is what he has done. Some of the chapter titles have a kind of backwards logic typical of Gogol, and the index could have been prepared by one of Gogol’s half-witted characters, for example Rudy Panko. But the skaz narrator turns out to be not one of Gogol’s narrators, but one of Nabokov’s. From the beginning Gogol is presented as a “horrible fabricator” (uzhasnyj vydumshchik), inventing his own life, prevaricating, creating legends for posterity. See, for example, p. 31: “There is a legend, also it seems of Gogol’s making, that when, not long before Pushkin’s death, Gogol read to him the first draft of the first chapter of Dead Souls Pushkin exclaimed, ‘God, how sad Russia is!’” I have taken the phrase “uzhasnyj vydumshchik” from Pnin, where at one point (185) it is applied to the narrator by Pnin himself. Taking his cue from this, Nabokov hires another uzhasnyj vydumshchik, an exuberant and often flighty character, to reinvent Gogol’s life for him. The rest of my article is concerned primarily with this narrator-biographer, with his relationship to Gogol and to Nabokov.
Nabokov frequently created his fictional works by using a front man, a stylized Nabokov or proxy figure. Even in works where he seems to be the narrator, it turns out that he is only lending the narrator a semblance of himself (as in Pnin). [Most critics who have written on Pnin discuss the role of the fictional narrator “Nabokov.” The earliest and best treatment is that of Paul Grams, “Pnin: The Biographer as Meddler,” Russian Literature Triquarterly, III (Spring, 1972), 360-69.] The Gogol book advertises itself as nonfiction, and the reader hardly expects to encounter a semi-fictional biographer, engaged in the usual pursuits of a Nabokovian fictional narrator. But a close reading reveals that the proxy figure is certainly in the ascendancy throughout much of the book. At the very beginning one is struck by the way the biographer revels in his description of the leeches hanging from the dying Gogol’s nose, the way he is carried away by his own eloquence. Then he suddenly stops and says that “the scene is unpleasant and has a human appeal which I deplore” (2), a statement belied by the exuberance of his description and by his assertion that “it is necessary to dwell upon it a little longer” (2-3). There is also the puerile delight he takes in misspelling Russian names so as to suggest naughty English words (Pissarev, Vlass). [Dmitry Pisarev was a radical, non-aesthetic critic whom Nabokov despised. Vlas is the innkeeper in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector (Inspector General).] This apparently illustrates the fact that “the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant” (142), but even if Pissarev has a certain irreverent appeal, there isn’t anything cosmic about it or even very comic after it is repeated the third or fourth time. There is something Khlestakovian, a sniff of poshlost’ about the man writing Gogol. In his long description of poshlost’ the biographer writes that it is “so cleverly painted all over with protective tints that its presence (in a book, in a soul, in an institution, in a thousand other places) often escapes detection” (64). Immediately following this statement he makes, in passing, one of his periodic condemnations of the Soviet Union, what Edmund Wilson called “a kind of snapping and snarling on principle about everything connected with the Russian Revolution” (Wilson, 73). The narrator later remarks (in reference to Germany, but it could be applied to the Soviet Union as well, with which Russian émigrés remain “at war” in spirit): “To exaggerate the worthlessness of a country at the awkward moment when one is at war with it. . . means walking dangerously close to that abyss of poshlust which yawns so universally at times of revolution or war” (65).
Nabokov would deny that there could be anything reprehensible about excoriation of the U.S.S.R. But does he realize how dangerously close his narrative persona is to the abyss of poshlost’ at several points in the book? Surely he (but maybe not his proxy) realizes the irony implicit in the “scholarly method” of this book. The biographer-narrator blithely admits that most of his facts are taken from only one work, Veresaev’s biography (155). His blatant anti-scholarly bias (the antithesis of Nabokov’s scrupulous scholarship in his Onegin translation and commentary) is self-evident. He is so committed to writing a book about his own private Gogol that he bothers to consult only two or three sources on Gogol’s life and works. Note the casual mention of Andrej Belyj’s opinions on Gogol (76,91) without so much as the title of Belyj’s book, let alone page citations. The chapter on “The Overcoat” owes much to Eichenbaum’s brilliant study, “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ is Made,” but Eichenbaum is never mentioned. As the narrator admits (67), “I select my examples hurriedly and at random.” In one of several denigrating references that he later made to his Gogol book, Nabokov said that he considered his biography of Chernyshevskij (in The Gift) much more successful than that of Gogol “because based on longer and deeper research” (Strong Opinions, 156).
The most characteristic feature of the narrator is his excessive manic exuberance. The giddiness that infuses so many passages could be explained by Nabokov’s deliberate acting out of Khlestakov’s rodomontade in The Inspector General. After all, for each treatment of a particular Gogolian device or artistic method there seems to be a corresponding illustration of it in the style or method of the text. For example, the discussion of Gogol’s “secondary dream characters” is mirrored not only by characters who poke their noses into the book and then disappear immediately (the rugby player, 79-80), but once even by a word that sparkles ephemerally on the page: “beautiful word, stratagem—a treasure in a cave” (59). The book’s critical insights are often brilliant (especially in the chapter on “The Overcoat”), but at times the narrator seems so carried away by his own creative interpretations of Gogol that, like Khlestakov, he loses control and begins “pottering happily on the brink of his private abyss” (140).
In his discussion of Dead Souls he gives a detailed interpretation of Chichikov’s traveling chest as the latter’s innards, including a secret drawer symbolizing Chichikov’s heart. He compares the Korobochka carriage (down to the last detail) to this same traveling chest and even states that “the papers for jotting down the dead souls acquired are weirdly symbolized by the drowsy serf in the speckled jacket” (90-91, 95-96). In letting his fancies run wild the narrator, in the guise of literary critic, sometimes produces an imaginative criticism come unhinged, the equally negative counterpart of the dull academic criticism that this book implicitly refutes. Above all, the ebullient biographer and critic of Gogol lacks a sense of measure.
In terms of a critical interpretation of the Gogol book itself, the central questions are these: to what extent did Nabokov deliberately allow this giddy narrator-biographer to write his book and to what extent is this man identical to Nabokov, a facet of his own personality? I would like to conclude my article by posing two hypotheses concerning Nabokov’s attitude toward certain broad ontological issues in art--in particular, the ontology of fictional characters, including narrators, and the extent to which they are inseparable from their creator, the artist. [It is, of course, beyond the scope of this article to deal thoroughly with the ontology of art in regard to Nabokov. A whole book could be written on Nabokov’s relationship with his fictional characters, his narrators, and the readers of his fiction, whom he attempts to “create.”] My first hypothesis is that Nabokov was able to deal with these difficult issues to his own satisfaction, both in his fictional works and in the semi-fictional biography of Gogol.
“The only real number is one.” In Nabokov’s fictional works the distinction between characters, narrative personas, and creator is often blurred. Nabokov’s narrator blends with Nabokov himself or they both blend temporarily with major characters, as if to emphasize the basic oneness of all human existence. At the end of Sebastian Knight, the half-brother and biographer becomes Sebastian, who is also, in a sense, Nabokov. This blurring of the boundaries between art and life is a hallmark of Nabokov’s fiction. Nonetheless, there is a distinction between the narrative persona (“Nabokov”), usually a flawed, morally tainted artist figure, and the god who pulls all the strings from some point above and beyond the fiction (Nabokov the Compassionate One, who, of course, may be just another front figure). At any rate, my first hypothesis assumes that, despite all the blending and blurring, the flesh-and-blood writer is able to keep himself comfortably discrete, separate from the characters and narrators of his fictional world.
This leads to the next assumption: that Nabokov knew exactly what he was doing when creating his semi-fictional self as narrator of Gogol and that there was an element of self-parody in what he was doing. In the companion work Pnin, a purely fictional construct, the smug “Nabokov” pursues the central character through the book, unaware that the god behind the fictional construction is preparing to “Pninize” him or to dispense with him shortly after he presides at the evaporation of Pnin. [Note the passage near the end of Pnin (190) describing the narrator’s dream about facing a firing squad.] At the end of Gogol, however, there seems at first to be no implication that the flawed artist will have the tables turned on him (155). He has eradicated Gogol and replaced him with impunity. In the “Chronology” that comes next (156-62) the biographer is still romping about merrily. In describing Gogol’s residence in Paris in the winter of 1836-37, he has him taking Chichikov for strolls in the Tuileries on warm days (159). But then comes the index.
If one reads this index as an integral part of the structure and as the ending of the book, there are grounds for interpreting it as the embodiment of the flawed artist’s defeat. For the index manifests a return to formless chaos and displays the ascendancy of artistic madness; it could even represent Gogol’s revenge on the artist who usurped his creative images and his life. Full of misspellings and misprints, some of which are obviously deliberate, it contains (among other bizarre listings): (1) Zemlyanika from The Inspector General and all his children; (2) God and “Christ, Jesus” (deities, ordinary people, and fictional literary personages are mixed together so as to make them all equal); (3) Lyapkin-Tyapkin (also from The Inspector General) listed as Lyapkin-Tryapkin, making a rag (nonentity) of at least half of a character who is nearly all rag to begin with (tryapka in Russian means “rag” or “nonentity”); (4) “nose, Gogol’s.” In his Onegin commentary (II, 314) Nabokov speaks of “my Nikolai Gogol. . . a rather frivolous little book with a nightmare index (for which I am not responsible) and an unscholarly, though well-meant, hodgepodge of transliteration systems (for which I am).”
If Nabokov was not responsible for the nightmare index, then who was? Was Gogol’s Rudy Panko commissioned to organize this sideshow of Gogolian homunculi, all writhing around and cocking snooks at the book, its reader, and maybe even its narrator? Despite Nabokov’s frequent pose of arrogance, one should not ignore the way he sometimes makes light of himself. This index could be his way of suggesting that such a “frivolous little book” as his cannot really make the great Gogol evaporate as did Pnin. Gogol’s art is eternal and will live on despite the assaults of “Nabokovs,” who will end up gibbering on in the madhouse of an index, playing games with the Lyapkin-Tyapkins and the Lyapkin-Tryapkins and the Tryapichkins.
Although he denies responsibility for the index, there are several indications that Nabokov has participated in its preparation. For example, under the entry for “Lyapkin-Tryapkin” we find a reference to p. 52. On that page there is no mention of Lyapkin-Tryapkin (or -Tyapkin), but there is a brief discussion of another character, Tryapichkin. Here is the twinning and blending of discrete personages so typical of Nabokov’s artistic method. Another example of typically Nabokovian game-playing is the listing of his publisher’s name (James Laughlin) with a reference to p.151ff. There is no footnote on that page, and the name James Laughlin never appears in the text, but it is on p. 151 that “Nabokov’s” fictional dialogue with his publisher commences.
It is noteworthy that the book begins with a citation from Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” and consistently emphasizes Gogol’s eccentricity, which verges on madness. [See, for example, Gogol’s ex post facto interpretations of his own works, “the kind of deceit that is practiced by madmen” (58).] Both in regard to Nabokov’s art and his life, the issue of artistic insanity has been inadequately studied. “Great literature skirts the irrational” (140), but the artist figures in Nabokov’s works, in the process of pottering on the brink of madness, often make a misstep and fall into the abyss. They may begin madly playing around with words, sounds, and fictional characters, as does the narrator of Bend Sinister in Chapter Seven of that novel and as does the index maker of Gogol. “Paronomasia is a kind of verbal plague, a contagious sickness in the world of words” (Introduction to Bend Sinister, ix). In the end result the constituents of the fiction (the sounds, the letters, the characters) take control of the erstwhile controlling force, the writer. Art degenerates into madness. The index of Nikolai Gogol represents the abyss into which the semi-insane critic and biographer falls.
My second hypothesis, which contradicts the first, is that Nabokov may have felt comfortably discrete in dealing with his totally fictional characters but that he never did figure out how to deal with the semi-fictional self that he concocted to be the narrator of Nikolai Gogol. The best evidence of this is the publication in 1973 of a different edition of the work. The three editions are: (1) Nikolai Gogol (New Directions, 1944) (2) Nikolai Gogol, the corrected edition (New Directions, 1961) (3) Nikolay Gogol (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973). Note that the spelling of Gogol’s first name has been changed in the title and text of the 1973 edition, as if to indicate that this is a slightly different book. Although this London publication is more thoroughly revised than the 1961 Corrected Edition, it is not officially called “corrected” or “revised” on its title page or anywhere else. As of 1973 Rudy Panko, it turns out, has been dismissed and the index has been made sane and rational. The writhing homunculi are gone; it is like the index in any scholarly work. Furthermore, “the hodgepodge of transliteration systems” has been eliminated and a standardized system adopted. Pissarev has been corrected to read Pisarev.
It is as if Nabokov belatedly took to heart Edmund Wilson’s criticism of the book’s excesses (“in some connections you’ve gone out of your way to be rather silly and perverse about the subject”). [The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence Between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson 1940-71, ed. Simon Karlinsky (Harper and Row, 1979), p. 140.] A few of the games played with sibilants remain (for example, Veressaev [superfluous “s”] and his book Gogol v zhisni [literally Gogol in Life—the “s” should be a “z”]), but even most of this has been cleaned up. Game-playing with letters (in particular sibilants) is characteristic of many Nabokov works. In Bend Sinister, for example, excrescent “s’s” and “z’s” keep popping into words. In a letter to Wilson at the time Gogol was published Nabokov wrote that “Its brilliancy is due to a dewy multitude of charming little solecisms” (Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 139). Such deliberate solecisms appear in all three editions of the book.
As a result of changes made in the 1973 edition an integral part of the book’s fictional structure has been made nonfictional, as if Nabokov came to realize that he had gone too far, had given too much rein to the insanely creative side of his own personality (embodied in the ebullient narrator-biographer who is and is not Nabokov himself). The new edition suggests that Nabokov, with his hypertrophied ego, had no intention of denigrating himself in his semi-fictional biography of Gogol. On the contrary, he was not even aware of the semi-fictional nature of the work at the time he published it, but later he discovered what he had done inadvertently, and he took what steps he could to back away from his own giddy narrator.
For all that, the Gogol book remains in a state somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, and its narrator, the biographer, remains problematic in a way that the narrators of Nabokov’s fictional works never are. If my second hypothesis is correct, the book (especially in its earlier redactions) provides an interesting example of a work in rebellion against its author. Nabokov started out writing what he presumed to be nonfiction; then this quickly transformed itself into a half-fictional work (his own peculiar brand of a critical biography); finally, somewhere in the process of composition, the work and its narrator made a mad dash toward total fictionality and almost succeeded in getting there. This interpretation of Nikolai Gogol pointedly contradicts Nabokov’s contention that he always exercised total control over his characters, who worked for him as “galley slaves” (Strong Opinions, 95).
At some time after the book had been published Nabokov must have realized that he could not allow his narrator to be the sort of fictional “Nabokov” who gets his comeuppance at the end of the book, since this was, after all, a biography of Gogol by the “real” Vladimir Nabokov. He felt, possibly, uncomfortable with the “Nabokov” whom his creative subconscious had hired to write his book for him, the man whose flightiness would reflect badly on his alter ego, the famous writer. A metamorphosis is always exciting to watch (43). Perhaps, along with the metamorphosis of Gogol into Nabokov that this book details, another metamorphosis is occurring. Unbeknown to Nabokov himself, some deep creative neurons in his coruscating brain have been busily at work, re-creating him once again, at the very moment he is composing his work on Gogol. The end result of this metamorphosis (still only in the larval stage with Nikolai Gogol) is the fictional Nabokov who is soon to appear as narrator-biographer of Pnin. The larval biographer of Gogol, however, remains in a literary limbo, somewhere halfway between Nabokov in the flesh and “Nabokov” of Pnin.
The revision of Gogol in the early seventies, especially the sanitization of the index, suggests the picture of a perplexed, now sobered artist going back and tinkering with his original structure, toning down the over-exuberance, making his “Nabokov” into someone closer to the Nabokov whom he wished to present to the world. This portrait of the artist making repairs on his image, one who has been crossed by his own narrator, is not the image usually associated with Vladimir Nabokov. Could the specter of Gogol have played some role in the creation of this book after all? Perhaps it is, ultimately, a book about the influence of Gogol on Nabokov, or a book about how Nabokov tried to influence Gogol and failed. [Nabokov once called Gogol a dangerous teacher and stated that as a writer he was “careful not to learn anything from him” (Strong Opinions, 103).]
It is tempting to conjure up the following scene. Nabokov (“Nabokov”?) has shoved Gogol out of the carriage (britzka) of Russian literature and is comfortably seated there himself, condescending smirk on his aristocratic visage, soaring out of the book called Nikolai Gogol. But he does not realize that the coachman holding the reins is still working for Gogol. He (Selifan) begins slowly turning the britzka, turning it so slowly that the turning is barely perceptible, and then, with one final twist, flipping it all the way over on its side (“sovershenno na bok”—see second epigraph to this article). The usurper-rider finds himself flying through the air like Chichikov, waving his arms, kicking frenetically, and, finally, belly-flopping into a huge Russian mud puddle. So we conclude this piece with the image of the muddied Nabokov crawling out of Gogol’s puddle, having attempted to pin down his prey, to take the great man’s place in the pantheon of Russian Literature, having failed--while Gogol’s specter (in a frock coat, long blond hair falling down to make parentheses around his gaunt face, beady brown eyes squinting) looks down his long nose upon this scene, and grins.