by Jean-Thomas Tremblay
Published by Granta Books, 2012 | 435 pages
In a bed in Moscow in March of 1852, his nose covered by leeches, his backbone palpable through his shrunken stomach, attempting – as ordered by a fanatical priest – to starve the devil within him, a mad Gogol perishes of inanition at the age of 42. Ten days earlier, he had burned – also at the priest’s suggestion – the manuscript of the second volume of his final, masterful Dead Souls, which he had been composing for the last decade. This was not Gogol’s first burning. In 1829, his first non-anonymous (but still pseudonymous) poetic foray – a Romantic German idyll titled Hans Küchelgarten – fell stillborn upon the Muscovite literati, and in his shame, Gogol and a servant rushed between booksellers, gathering and incinerating in a rented hotel room the unsold copies of a printing he had personally financed.
The flames that bookend the Gogolian canon are reiterated in its diegeses. Hellfires lap at the edges of what editors Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky term his “Ukrainian Tales” – neither a chronological nor geographic distinction, but an order of Gogol’s subject: the majesty of bucolic life under the old, weird weltanschauung (worldview) of Russian Orthodoxy. Devils are not mere murky superstitions; they are solid and familiar as church-bells. Gogol’s heroes – not, in any event, heroines – generally pious, paternalistic Cossacks, run these devils through a gambit of pious retributions: trapped and jostled in coal sacks, swung by their spade-like tails, or hectored into the personal service of Christians, as in “The Night Before Christmas” (the devil flies the blacksmith Vakula to the Tsaritsa’s palace). Certainly, as “The Terrible Vengeance” shows, Gogol’s devils also win – spectacularly:
The [ghostly] rider seized the sorcerer with a terrible hand and lifted him up in the air. Instantly the sorcerer died and opened his eyes after death. But he was now a dead man and had the gaze of a dead man…He rolled his dead eyes in all directions and saw dead men rising from Kiev, from the land of Galicia, and from the Carpathians, their faces as like his as two drops of water.
Beset by spirits, Jews, and “Mohammadians,” Gogol’s Christians – often unwittingly – slip past moral perils, or, just as often, spring their traps.
Catalyzed by the young Pushkin, who would become Gogol’s literary idol, Russian literature’s “Golden Era” produced the patriarchal canon remembered today: Turgenev (1818-1883); Dostoevsky (1821-1881); Tolstoy (1828-1910); Chekhov (1860-1904). Chronologically and aesthetically, Gogol (1809-1852) preceded them all, perishing thirty years before others began laying down their pens. Affirming the durability and value of Russian nationhood, Napoleon’s 1812 routing at Kaluga (Russians remember the conflict as the Patriotic War) jibed with Romanticism’s acknowledgement of traditional folk art as a seminal form of untrammeled artistic perception (in his 20s, Gogol sought, unsuccessfully, a professorship in Ukrainian history at the university in Kiev). Later depicted in Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), new Slavophilic movements, critical of both Western individualism and Russian oligarchy, insisted upon the sociopolitical efficacy of localized collectivism within the Russian mir, or village community. Nihilism, defined by Turgenev as the rejection of imposed authority and faith-based principles, and whose propagation owed much to his Fathers and Sons (1862), developed dialectically with Anarchism and Marxism, two political philosophies emphasizing the fallacious industrial structures foisted upon workers and their work (in 1861, Alexander II abolishes Russian serfdom). Such debates lacked codified vocabularies – let alone publications, which Nietzsche would later supply – in the productive intervals of Gogol’s earlier career, but appear throughout in nascent forms. The celebration of pedestrian detail, the absurd minutiae subsumed bureaucratic and orthodox systems, the call for political foment without offering a concrete ideology: these are Gogol’s richest, deepest veins.
Gogol’s tales often employ the “riddle plot,” in which a cryptic story or riddle (zagadka) is disentangled by a brief, concluding key. From its inception, “Vengeance” is incoherent “Noise and thunder”: a sorcerer appears amidst wedding revels, only to vanish without a word. A multiplicity of disturbances follow – enormous, skeletal men arise from their graves and sink back down; a Pollack army amasses near the border; incestuous dreams haunt a young bride – but only with minimal explanation or coherence. At the center of these dark portents – threats of invasion, of incest, of “unclean” magic – the haunted bride’s husband, a Cossack warrior, discovers the sorcerer is his father-in-law (Gogol is fond of placing witches and wizards in the immediate families of his Christian protagonists) and duels and captures him. Through various means, the sorcerer escapes and precipitates the deaths of husband, wife, and their infant son, only to be killed himself by an unknown rider in the passage block-quoted above. The tale’s “key,” appropriately, is delivered by a blind bandore player in the form of a folk legend: the sorcerer’s evil nature comes from the rider’s curse upon his evil ancestor, of which his (the sorcerer’s) death is the completion. The giant skeletons that rose from the ground, it turns out, were stalking rather than serving the sorcerer. Evil afflicts and is afflicted in turn.
A second, bureaucratic evil – the type Kafka would later explore so masterfully – operates in the “Petersburg Tales,” in which people occupy the roles elsewhere held by devils. Historically, in the virulent social hierarchy Gogol depicts, civil servants (chinovnik), “well-born” (blagorodyne) by virtue of their service, sought to surpass the rank of “titular councilor,” at which point the nominal nobility became actual (Pevear and Volokhonsky helpfully provide a guide to the stratifications in their introduction). Gogol relishes these liminal rankings, for he saw the potential for deepest pathos and gloom in the lives of those individuals struggling on the cusp of advancement. In “The Diary of a Madman,” the mad Poprishchin’s very name (poprishche roughly translates as ‘career’) signals the pathology of Russian civil ambition, while Akaky Akakievich of “The Overcoat” endlessly, joyfully, copies official documents, incapable of creative interpretation, unable even to “chang[e] some verbs from first to third person” (Poprishchin and Akaky, we might note, are both titular councilors).
“The Overcoat” provides a class framework for readers’ judgment only to invalidate that – or any – purportedly transcendent moral system by which we may weigh its characters. Akaky, whose nearly invulnerable tranquility amidst his ambitious coworkers is undone in the theft of a new overcoat, inhabits a world of tilting moral and “rational plane[s].” Fearing the torments of a Russian winter in his threadbare “housecoat” (a fear the young, impoverished Gogol knew well), Akaky spends dreamy, abstemious months envisioning his new garment. Returning, newly-coated, from a co-worker’s office party (even celebration assumes a bureaucratic aspect), he is robbed of his coat by several dim mustachioed figures appearing in an unlit square. But when Akaky appeals directly to a general (a rank penultimate only to the commander-in- chief) for recourse, his hierarchical disruption is unforgivable – “Do you not know the order?” the general asks – and, crushed by his reprimand, Akaky thereafter uneventfully withers and perishes. Rumors spread of Akaky’s ghost wandering the streets of Petersburg, “pulling from all shoulders, regardless of rank or title, various overcoats,” and though the general privately repents his harsh dealings, the clerk’s specter appears only to rob him in turn. Gogol’s closing razgadka (“unriddling”) opens into bleakness: “The phantom, however, was much taller now, had an enormous moustache, and…vanished completely into the darkness of the night.” Akaky’s mythos, or afterlife, is ultimately condemned to ghosthood; he is re-animated but, we realize, by the very man and social order that led to his undoing.
As in the work of Kafka, or more recently David Lynch, this bleak coda emphasizes neither class consciousness nor redemption, but individual stultification. A fading ripple in the bureaucratic circuitry, Akaky reappears as the living dead through the avatar of the robber, deprived even of his own ghosthood. Whatever proletariat heroics this spirit performs, the misremembered drone Akaky remains very much dead. The resumption of normalcy becomes a form of absurdity, as in “The Nose,” wherein Captain Kovalev’s nose disappears, walks about Nevsky Prospect (the title of another Petersburg Tale), and mysteriously reattaches. Ever seeking “a post suited to his rank,” the captain (who, nevertheless, attributes to himself the higher rank of a major) is horrified to reencounter his newly-vanished nose in the dress of the still higher rank of state councilor, and hence cannot break protocol in his appeal for its return: “My dear sir,” he tells his nose, “you should know your place.” Unable to confront a metonym of his own ambition, Kovalev’s self-respect is in fact utter self-deprecation. (Gogol’s own famously large nose, which he called “a good beast,” frequently animates his other works: noses are “saddled” with glasses; noses search upper lips for residual snuff; a tinsmith accuses his nose of depleting his finances; Akaky is robbed at nose-point). Awakening to find his nose restored, the captain learns exactly nothing, and continues “eternally in a good humor, smiling.” “Perfect nonsense goes on in the world,” our agitated narrator concludes, as echoed by the title’s wordplay: in Russian, the words for “nose” (нoc) and “dream” (сон) are mirror anagrams.
If Gogol’s self-assigned task is to find metaphysical significance in the linguistic forms he threw upon this nonsensical, dreamlike reality, translating his work becomes an exercise in ontology. “Oh, believe my words!” Gogol writes to Danilevsky in 1841; “Everything can disappoint, deceive, betray, but my word will not betray.” Twice awarded the PEN Translation Prize – no less for editions of The Brothers Karamazov (1991) and Anna Karenina (2002) – Pevear and Volokhonsky duly capture in this new edition Gogol’s searching eye, his struggle to decipher the cipher of his countrymen’s poshlost (what Nabokov calls “philistinism in all its phases”), evoking with equal talent the Petersburg underling’s fevered mind and the chilly, devil-plagued towns of the Ukrainian steppes. “But what is strangest,” Gogol writes,
what is most incomprehensible of all is how authors can choose such subjects…I confess, that is utterly inconceivable, it is simply…no, no, I utterly fail to understand. In the first place, there is decidedly no benefit to the fatherland; in the second place…but in the second place there is also no benefit. I simply do not know what it…
Thus ends, mid-sentence, “The Nose’s penultimate paragraph. Gogol’s ellipses reiterate syntactically the flaws he witnessed in bureaucracy’s – and orthodoxy’s – irrational/hyper-rational structure. That Gogol often signed his letters “OOOO” is fact. Whether these only signify the four O’s of his full Cyrillic name, or articulate, like Hamlet’s dying line, a bleaker awareness of the voids buttressing man’s quest for success and meaning, is a question also posed by much of Gogol’s prose.
But his is also the prose of the naturalist, the sociologist, the nationalist, and, accordingly, the Russian Romanticist, each story an act of studied cultural literacy. “Great is the ignorance of Russia within Russia,” he would write to Count Tolstoy; Russia’s proper re-composition, Gogol felt, demanded that a writer observe while “knowing exactly nothing, and travel as though in a new land unknown to [him] up to that time.” Some readers balk at the feverish, or occasionally shrill pitch of Gogol’s characters (even if, as in “The Terrible Vengeance” or “Diary of a Madman,” the characters are themselves quite mad); but for a reader such as Nabokov, the only appropriate analogue to Gogol’s hyperbolic registration of the quotidian and “average” Russian prose was that of the distinction “between human vision and the image perceived by the faceted eye of an insect.” Gogol simply sees more: pike breaking the spring ice with their tails; devils with chef’s hats upon their heads, roasting sinners like Christmas sausages; the dark eyebrows and violet noses of young maids; the “printed duck trousers” and “yellow nankeen frock” of a town raconteur (the very mention of yellows and violets first appears in modern Russian literature under Gogol’s pen).
Taken from “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka,” this last image of the duck-trousered storyteller – “Gogol” (Го́голь) in Russian refers to a species of golden-eyed duck – is likely our author’s cartoonish self-portrait. Only he knows this tale’s conclusion, and indeed, “Shponka” ends utterly in media res, the narrator’s memory “rotten beyond words.” All stories demand falsification, a distortion of the actual (whatever that may be). Some narrators, it seems, simply prefer to stop talking.
Jordan Wingate is a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of California Los Angeles, specializing in the literatures of early America, exploration, and cartography.