Today marks an important event in Russian literature. Two hundred years ago, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was born in what was known at the time as Little Russia, modern day Ukraine. The casual observer would attach significance to the fact that Gogol, an author of unbounded creativity with a similarly limitless sense of humor, is an April Fool. As Nabokov would remind us, however, the casual observer is an idiot. Particularly the casual observer of Gogol. Born in the Russian Empire, Gogol measured his life according to the Julian calendar.
The irony that perhaps the wittiest author ever to write in the Russian language was born on April Fool’s Day, but actually wasn’t, is pure Gogol. Gogolian reality represents not a parallel universe, but a perpendicular one. The author’s improbable characters act incongruously to almost every situation or suggestion, yet Gogol will takes pains to assure you that everything happening is completely normal. Even though he will admonish you to pay no attention to something, Gogol will then lavish attention on it for pages and pages, giving an inconsequential object more gravity than the plot.
Gogol is kind of a big deal in Saint Petersburg. He found fame here and set his most memorable, macabre short stories—”Diary of a Madman,” “The Overcoat,” “Nevsky Prospekt,” “The Portrait”—in the city. There are two monuments to him in the Northern Capital, one bust and one full statue, one plaque commemorating his former residence, and one nose in honor of the story of the same name. They are adorned with flowers for his anniversary as is the Russian practice, and there are signs all around town reminding people of his birthday. Even Google Russia is honoring Gogol on its homepage today (pictured below*). Yet I say “kind of a big deal” because while most Russians would name the ubiquitous comedy The Government Inspector as their favorite play, Gogol hasn’t a single museum to his name. His former residences have kept their Gogolian qualities. The apartment where he lived in Petersburg is a government office, while the apartment where he died in Moscow is under a sort of permanent renovation only known in Russia.
Part of the reason for the gap in Gogol’s fame and the respect accorded to him as a great author is that he is too often categorized as a humorist. Most academics and teachers do not see any greater merit to humor beyond being good for a few belly laughs. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were humorlessly philosophical and produced major works examining the human condition, great fodder for dissertations and conferences. But Gogol could not help talking about life without adding a few jokes. For some reason being taken seriously means one has to be serious at all times.
Gogol’s humor was a tactic used to cope with the real world, one he used to address its problems quite seriously. The Government Inspector ends with the mayor indicting the laughing cast and audience, “What are you laughing at? You are laughing out yourselves!” Using laughter, Gogol obscured the pain, fear, and sadness of his ethos. Gogol was deeply aware of evil in the world, concerned for the direction in which Russia was heading in the mid-1800s, and had a remarkable disdain for his own talent. He yearned to write something that would be taken seriously, but in that pursuit he only hobbled his own work. Dead Souls, his great epic prose poem (poema), is also his greatest failure. It is unfinished. The first part ends with a troika taking flight with the pleading question, “Whither are you speeding, Russia?” Gogol attempted to answer his question in part two, yet he was frustrated with his own work and his inability to write straight yet meaningful prose.
Separated from his humor, the author’s work became mediocre at best. He burned the manuscript and never wrote fiction again. He did write Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, a book of philosophical essays on religion and government in Russia, but it was met with little enthusiasm from the literary elite. Vissarion Belinsky, the leading critic of the day, wrote a scathing letter denouncing Gogol for abandoning what Belinsky had thought was Gogol’s progressive promise. The letter was so controversial that it was banned, and Dostoyevsky’s part in distributing it earned him exile in Siberia.
I am not so convinced that Gogol was ever a liberal. He loved to fantasize about Little Russia, writing folk tales in Mirgorod and Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka about local fairs, holidays, and the days when the Cossacks would whup up on the encroaching Catholic Poles. These burlesque stories exhibit a nationalist yearning for a simpler time when staunch Orthodox faith could defeat demons and help stand between civilization and chaos. Gogol’s historical lectures from his brief, disastrous tenure as a lecturer at Saint Petersburg State University also promote this vision of the past. Dead Souls does not mock the institution of serfdom and the absurdity that people could be owned even in death. Rather, it satirizes the bureaucracy that taxed landowners even for the dead and the decline of an inept gentry into irrelevance. This theme is explored extensively in Chekhov’s plays, but Gogol remarked on it even before the emancipation of the serfs and the subsequent real decline.
No, Gogol was calling for a society where people were more spiritually interconnected through Orthodoxy instead of bound together by Western-style duties and bureaucracies. The plot of “The Overcoat” illustrates this idea perfectly. Gogol’s humor and fantasy allowed him to escape a world he perceived as in decline and to use the gentle prod of satire in an age where polemics were censored. (Let us not forget that Dead Souls had the title The Travels of Chichikov appended to it due to the censor’s objection that a soul is eternal, and therefore cannot be dead.) Gogol’s inability to write seriously shook him to the core. Deeply religious, he believed he was possessed by demons. He died of hunger in an attempt to starve them. Today let us remember Gogol, but let us also not be afraid to laugh at ourselves occasionally.
-Michael E. van Landingham
*UPDATE, 12 April 2009: Added screen capture of Google Russia’s homepage design from 1 April 2009 and deleted link to http://www.google.ru as the site has since reverted to normal appearance.