Gogol - An Essay by William Lyon Phelps

Nikolai Vassilievich Gogol was born at Sorotchinetz, in Little Russia, in March, 1809. The year in which he appeared on the planet proved to be the literary annus mirabilis of the century; for in that same twelvemonth were born Charles Darwin, Alfred Tennyson, Abraham Lincoln, Poe, Gladstone, and Holmes. His father was a lover of literature, who wrote dramatic pieces for his own amusement, and who spent his time on the old family estates, not in managing the farms, but in wandering about the fields, and beholding the fowls of the air. The boy inherited much from his father; but, unlike Turgenev, he had the best of all private tutors, a good mother, of whom his biographer says, Elle demeure toujours sa plus intime amie.[1]

At the age of twelve, Nikolai was sent away to the high school at Nezhin, a town near Kiev. There he remained from 1821 to 1828. He was an unpromising student, having no enthusiasm for his lessons, and showing no distinction either in scholarship or deportment. Fortunately, however, the school had a little theatre of its own, and Gogol, who hated mathematics, and cared little for the study of modern languages, here found an outlet for all his mental energy. He soon became the acknowledged leader of the school in matters dramatic, and unconsciously prepared himself for his future career. Like Schiller, he wrote a tragedy, and called it The Robbers. I think it is probable that Gogol's hatred for the school curriculum inspired a passage in Taras Bulba, though here he ostensibly described the pedagogy of the fifteenth century.

"The style of education in that age differed widely from the manner of life. These scholastic, grammatical, rhetorical, and logical subtleties were decidedly out of consonance with the times, never had any connection with and never were encountered in actual life. Those who studied them could not apply their knowledge to anything whatever, not even the least scholastic of them. The learned men of those days were even more incapable than the rest, because farther removed from all experience."[2] In December, 1828, Gogol took up his residence in St. Petersburg, bringing with him some manuscripts that he had written while at school. He had the temerity to publish one, which was so brutally ridiculed by the critics, that the young genius, in despair, burned all the unsold copies--an unwitting prophecy of a later and more lamentable conflagration. Then he vainly tried various means of subsistence. Suddenly he decided to seek his fortune in America, but he was both homesick and seasick before the ship emerged from the Baltic, and from Lubeck he fled incontinently back to Petersburg. Then he tried to become an actor, but lacked the necessary strength of voice. For a short time he held a minor official position, and a little later was professor of history, an occupation he did not enjoy, saying after his resignation, "Now I am a free Cossack again." Meanwhile his pen was steadily busy, and his sketches of farm life in the Ukraine attracted considerable attention among literary circles in the capital.

Gogol suffered from nostalgia all the time he lived at St. Petersburg; he did not care for that form of society, and the people, he said, did not seem like real Russians. He was thoroughly homesick for his beloved Ukraine; and it is significant that his short stories of life in Little Russia, truthfully depicting the country customs, were written far off in a strange and uncongenial environment.

In 1831 he had the good fortune to meet the poet Pushkin, and a few months later in the same year he was presented to Madame Smirnova; these friends gave him the entree to the literary salons, and the young author, lonesome as he was, found the intellectual stimulation he needed. It was Pushkin who suggested to him the subjects for two of his most famous works, Revizor and Dead Souls. Another friend, Jukovski, exercised a powerful influence, and gave invaluable aid at several crises of his career. Jukovski had translated the Iliad and the Odyssey; his enthusiasm for Hellenic poetry was contagious; and under this inspiration Gogol proceeded to write the most Homeric romance in Russian literature, Taras Bulba. This story gave the first indubitable proof of its author's genius, and to-day in the world's fiction it holds an unassailable place in the front rank. The book is so short that it can be read through in less than two hours; but it gives the same impression of vastness and immensity as the huge volumes of Sienkiewicz.

Gogol followed this amazingly powerful romance by two other works, which seem to have all the marks of immortality--the comedy Revizor, and a long, unfinished novel, Dead Souls. This latter book is the first of the great realistic novels of Russia, of which Fathers and Children, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina are such splendid examples.

From 1836 until his death in 1852, Gogol lived mainly abroad, and spent much time in travel. His favourite place of residence was Rome, to which city he repeatedly returned with increasing affection. In 1848 he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, for Gogol never departed from the pious Christian faith taught him by his mother; in fact, toward the end of his life, he became an ascetic and a mystic. The last years were shadowed by illness and—a common thing among Russian writers—by intense nervous depression. He died at Moscow, 21 February 1852. His last words were the old saying, "And I shall laugh with a bitter laugh." These words were placed on his tomb.

Most Russian novels are steeped in pessimism, and their authors were men of sorrows. Gogol, however, has the double distinction of being the only great comic writer in the language, and in particular of being the author of the only Russian drama known all over the world, and still acted everywhere on the Continent. Although plays do not come within the scope of this book, a word or two should be said about this great comedy; for Revizor exhibits clearly the double nature of the author,—his genius for moral satire and his genius for pure fun. From the moral point of view, it is a terrible indictment against the most corrupt bureaucracy of modern times, from the comic point of view, it is an uproarious farce.

The origin of the play is as follows: while travelling in Russia one day, Pushkin stopped at Nizhni-Novgorod. Here he was mistaken for a state functionary on tour among the provinces for purposes of government inspection. This amused the poet so keenly that he narrated all the circumstances to Gogol and suggested that the latter make a play with this experience as the basis of the plot. Gogol not only acted on the suggestion, but instead of a mere farce, he produced a comedy of manners. Toward the end of his life he wrote: "In Revizor I tried to gather in one heap all that was bad in Russia, as I then understood it; I wished to turn it all into ridicule. The real impression produced was that of fear. Through the laughter that I have never laughed more loudly, the spectator feels my bitterness and sorrow." The drama was finished on the 4 December 1835, and of course the immediate difficulty was the censorship. How would it be possible for such a satire either to be printed or acted in Russia? Gogol's friend, Madame Smirnova, carried the manuscript to the Czar, Nikolas I. It was read to him; he roared with laughter, and immediately ordered that it be acted. We may note also that he became a warm friend of Gogol, and sent sums of money to him, saying nobly, "Don't let him know the source of these gifts; for then he might feel obliged to write from the official point of view."

The first performance was on the 19 April 1836. The Czar attended in person, and applauded vigorously. The success was immediate, and it has never quitted the stage. Gogol wrote to a friend: "On the opening night I felt uncomfortable from the very first as I sat in the theatre. Anxiety for the approval of the audience did not trouble me. There was only one critic in the house--myself--that I feared. I heard clamorous objections within me which drowned all else. However, the public, as a whole, was satisfied. Half of the audience praised the play, the other half condemned it, but not on artistic grounds." ...
William Lyon Phelps


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