Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol' (Russian: Никола́й Васи́льевич Го́голь; Russian pronunciation: [nʲɪkɐˈlaj vɐˈsʲilʲjɪvʲɪtɕ ˈgogəlʲ]; Ukrainian: Микола Васильович Гоголь, Mykola Vasylovych Hohol) (April 1, 1809 – March 4, 1852) was a Russian writer  of Ukrainian ethnicity and birth . Often called the “father of modern Russian realism,” Nikolai Gogol was one of the first Russian authors to criticize his country's way of life. Although his early works were heavily influenced by his Ukrainian upbringing, he wrote in Russian and his works belong to the tradition of Russian literature. The novel Dead Souls (1842), the play The Inspector-General (1836, 1842), and the short story The Overcoat (1842) are among his masterpieces.
Provenance and early life
Gogol was born in the Cossack village of Sorochyntsi, Poltava guberniya (now Ukraine). His father was Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, a small squire and an amateur Ukrainian playwright who died when the boy was 15 years old. Some of his ancestors culturally associated themselves with Polish szlachta.
In 1820 Gogol went to a school of higher art in Nezhin (currently Nizhyn) and remained there until 1828. It was there that he began writing. He was not very popular among his school-fellows who called him their "mysterious dwarf", but with two or three of them he formed lasting friendships. Very early he developed a dark and secretive disposition, mingled of painful self-consciousness and boundless ambition. Equally early he developed an extraordinary mimic talent which later on made him a matchless reader of his own works and induced him to toy with the idea of becoming an actor.
In 1828, on leaving school, Gogol came to Petersburg, full of vague but glowingly ambitious hopes. He had hoped for literary fame and brought with him a Romantic poem of German idyllic life — Hanz Küchelgarten. He had it published, at his own expense, under the name of "V. Alov". Unfortunately it was met by the magazines with deserved derision. He bought all the copies and destroyed them, swearing never to write poetry again.
Gogol was one of the first masters of short prose, alongside Pushkin, Mérimée, Hoffmann, and Hawthorne. He was in touch with the "literary aristocracy", had a story published in Delvig's Northern Flowers, was taken up by Vasily Zhukovsky and Pyotr Pletnyov, and (in 1831) was introduced to Pushkin.
In 1831, he brought out the first volume of his Ukrainian stories (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka), which met immediate success. It was followed in 1832 by a second volume, and in 1835 by two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod, as well as by two volumes of miscellaneous prose entitled Arabesques. At this time, Gogol developed a passion for Ukrainian history and tried to obtain an appointment to the history department at Kiev University. Despite the support of Alexander Pushkin and the Russian minister of education Sergey Uvarov, his appointment was blocked by a Kievan bureaucrat on the grounds that he was unqualified. His fictional story Taras Bulba, based on the history of Ukrainian cossacks, was the result of this phase in his interests. During this time he also developed a close and life-long friendship with another Ukrainian then living in Russia, the historian and naturalist Mykhaylo Maksymovych. Indeed, throughout his life Gogol maintained close contact with his fellow countrymen. According to the poet Nikolai Berg, in his interactions with fellow Ukrainians Gogol demonstrated a joyfullness and passion that contrasted with usual morose and quiet demeanor.
In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which "he had no qualifications. He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories. After an introductory lecture made up of brilliant generalizations which the 'historian' had prudently prepared and memorized, he gave up all pretense at erudition and teaching, missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth and displayed small photographs of classic monuments. At the final examination, he sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, simulating a toothache, while another professor interrogated the students." This academic venture proved a failure and he resigned his chair in 1835.
Between 1832 and 1836 Gogol worked at his imaginative creations with great energy, and though almost all his work has in one way or another its sources in these four years of contact with Pushkin, he had not yet decided that his ambitions were to be fulfilled by success in literature. It was only after the presentation, on April 19, 1836, of his comedy The Government Inspector (Revizor) that he finally came to believe in his literary vocation. The comedy, a violent satire of Russian provincial bureaucracy, was able to be staged thanks only to the personal intervention of Nicholas I.
From 1836 to 1848 he lived abroad, travelling throughout Germany and Switzerland. Gogol spent the winter of 1836-1837 in Paris, where he spent time among Russian expatriates and Polish exiles, frequently meeting with the Polish poets Adam Mickiewicz and Bohdan Zaleski. After having chosen Rome for his headquarters, he became enamoured with the Eternal City, which answered to his highly developed sense of the magnificent, and where even the visions that always obsessed him of vulgar and animal humanity assumed picturesque and poetical appearances that fitted harmoniously into the beautiful whole.
The death of Pushkin produced a strong impression on Gogol. His principal work during years following poet's death was the great satirical epic (poema, or an epic poem, as the Russian subheading goes) — Dead Souls. Concurrently, he worked at other tasks — recast Taras Bulba and The Portrait, completed his second comedy, Marriage (Zhenitba), wrote the fragment Rome and his greatest short story, The Overcoat.
In 1841 the first part of Dead Souls was ready, and Gogol took it to Russia to supervise its printing. It appeared in Moscow in 1842, under the title, imposed by the censorship, of The Adventures of Chichikov. The book instantly established his reputation as the greatest prose writer in the language. Nobody could have expected that it would be the last work of fiction published during his lifetime.
Creative decline and death
After the triumph of Dead Souls, Gogol came to be regarded by his contemporaries as a great satirist who lampooned the unseemly sides of Imperial Russia. Little did they know that the 33-year-old author viewed himself primarily as a prophet and preacher, for whom Dead Souls was but the first part of a modern-day counterpart to The Divine Comedy. The first part represented the Inferno; the second part was to depict the gradual purification and transformation of the rogue Chichikov under the influence of virtuous publicans and governors — Purgatory.
From Palestine he returned to Russia and passed his last years in restless movement throughout the country. While visiting the capitals, he stayed with various friends such as Mikhail Pogodin and Sergei Aksakov. During this period of his life he also spent much time with his old Ukrainian friends, Maksymovych and Osyp Bodiansky. More importantly, he intensified his relationship with a church elder, Matvey Konstantinovsky, whom he had known for several years. Konstantinovsky seems to have strengthened in Gogol the fear of perdition by insisting on the sinfulness of all his imaginative work. His health was undermined by exaggerated ascetic practices and he fell into a state of black melancholy. On the night of February 24, 1852, he burnt some of his manuscripts, which contained most of the second part of Dead Souls. He explained this as a mistake — a practical joke played on him by the Devil. Soon thereafter he took to bed, refused all food, and died in great pain nine days later.
Gogol was buried at the Danilov Monastery, close to his fellow Slavophile Aleksey Khomyakov. In 1931, when Moscow authorities decided to demolish the monastery, his remains were transferred to the Novodevichy Cemetery.
His body was discovered lying face down, which gave rise to the story that Gogol had been buried alive. A Soviet critic even cut a part of his jacket to use as a binding for his copy of Dead Souls. A piece of rock which used to stand on his grave at the Danilov was reused for the tomb of Gogol's admirer Mikhail Bulgakov.
The first Gogol monument in Moscow was a striking Symbolist statue on Arbat Square, which represented the sculptor Nikolai Andreyev's idea of Gogol, rather than the real man (picture). Unveiled in 1909, the statue was praised by Ilya Repin and Leo Tolstoy as an outstanding projection of Gogol's tortured personality. Stalin did not like it, however; and the statue was replaced by a more orthodox Socialist Realism monument in 1952. It took enormous efforts to save Andreyev's original work from destruction; it now stands in front of the house where Gogol died.
D.S. Mirsky characterized Gogol's universe as "one of the most marvellous, unexpected — in the strictest sense, original — worlds ever created by an artist of words". The enormous potency of his imagination stands at a strange contrast (or complement) to his physical sterility. He seems to have never had a sexual contact with a woman (or a man). Woman was to him a terrible, fascinating, but unapproachable obsession, and he is known never to have loved. This makes the women of his imagination either strange, inhuman visions of form and color that are redeemed from melodramatic banality only by the force of the rhetoric they are enshrined in, or entirely unsexed, even dehumanized, caricatures.
The main and most persistent characteristic of Gogol's style is its verbal expressiveness. He wrote with a view not so much to the acoustic effect on the ears of the listener as to the sensuous effect on the vocal apparatus of the reciter. This makes his prose ornate and agitated. It is all alive with the vibration of actual speech. This makes it hopelessly untranslatable — more untranslatable than any other Russian prose of the 19th century.
The other main characteristic of Gogol's genius is the extraordinary intensity and vividness of impressionist vision, sometimes skirting expressionism. He saw the outer world romantically metamorphosed, a singular gift particularly evident from the fantastic spatial transformations in his Gothic stories, A Terrible Vengeance and A Bewitched Place. His pictures of nature are strange mounds of detail heaped on detail, resulting in an unconnected chaos of things. His people are caricatures, drawn with the method of the caricaturist — which is to exaggerate salient features and to reduce them to geometrical pattern. But these cartoons have a convincingness, a truthfulness, and inevitability — attained as a rule by slight but definitive strokes of unexpected reality — that seems to beggar the visible world itself.
The aspect under which the mature Gogol sees reality is expressed by the untranslatable Russian word poshlost', which is perhaps best rendered as "self-satisfied inferiority", moral and spiritual. Like Sterne before him, Gogol was a great destroyer of prohibitions and romantic illusions. It was he who undermined Russian Romanticism by making vulgarity reign where only the sublime and the beautiful had reigned. "Characteristic of Gogol is a sense of boundless superfluity that is soon revealed as utter emptiness and a rich comedy that suddenly turns into metaphysical horror". His stories often interweave pathos and mockery, while the most comic of them all begins as a merry farce and ends with the famous dictum: It is dull in this world, gentlemen!
Influence and interpretations
Even before the publication of Dead Souls, Belinsky recognized Gogol as the first realist writer in the language and the head of the Natural School, to which he also assigned such younger or lesser authors as Goncharov, Turgenev, Dmitry Grigorovich, Vladimir Dahl, and Vladimir Sollogub. Gogol himself seemed to be skeptical about the existence of such a literary movement. Although he recognized "several young writers" who "have shown a particular desire to observe real life", he upbraided the deficient composition and style of their works. Nevertheless, subsequent generations of radical critics celebrated Gogol (the author in whose world a nose roams the streets of the Russian capital) as a great realist, a reputation decried by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as "the triumph of Gogolesque irony".
The period of modernism saw a revival of interest in and a change of attitude towards Gogol's work. One of the pioneering works of Russian formalism was Eichenbaum's reappraisal of The Overcoat. In the 1920s, a group of Russian short story writers, known as the Serapion Brothers, placed Gogol among their precursors and consciously sought to imitate his techniques. The leading novelists of the period — notably Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov — also admired Gogol and followed in his footsteps. In 1926, Vsevolod Meyerhold staged The Government Inspector as a "comedy of the absurd situation", revealing to his fascinated spectators a corrupt world of endless self-deception. In 1934, Andrei Bely published the most meticulous study of Gogol's literary techniques up to that date, in which he analyzed the colours prevalent in Gogol's work depending on the period, his impressionistic use of verbs, expressive discontinuity of his syntax, complicated rhythmical patterns of his sentences, and many other secrets of his craft. Based on this work, Vladimir Nabokov published a summary account of Gogol's masterpieces in 1944.
Gogol had a huge and enduring impact on Russian literature, but his works were appreciated differently depending on the background of the reader. Belinsky, for instance, berated his horror stories as "moribund, monstrous works", while Andrei Bely counted them among his most stylistically daring creations. Nabokov singled out Dead Souls, The Government Inspector, and The Overcoat as the works of genius and dismissed the remainder as puerile essays. The latter story has been traditionally interpreted as a masterpiece of "humanitarian realism", but Nabokov and some other attentive readers argued that "holes in the language" make the story susceptible to another interpretation, as a supernatural tale about a ghostly double of a "small man". Of all Gogol's stories, The Nose has stubbornly defied all abstruse interpretations: D.S. Mirsky declared it "a piece of sheer play, almost sheer nonsense".
Gogol's oeuvre has also had a large impact on Russia's non-literary culture, and his stories have been adapted numerous times into opera and film. Russian Composer Alfred Schnittke wrote the eight part Gogol Suite as incidental music to the The Government Inspector performed as a play, and composer Dmitri Shostakovich set The Nose as his first opera in 1930, despite the peculiar choice of subject for what was meant to initiate the great tradition of Soviet opera. 
In Marathi, P. L. Deshpande adapted his play "The Government Inspector" as "Ammaldar" (literally 'the Government Inspector') in late 1950s, skillfully cladding it with all indigenous politico-cultural robe of Maharashtra, while maintaining the comic satire of the original.
Gogol in Pop Culture
Seattle based indie-noise rock band Ivan the Wheel derived their name from a character in Dead Souls.
Notes and references
This article incorporates text from D.S. Mirsky's "A History of Russian Literature" (1926-27), a publication now in the public domain.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Wikisource has original works written by or about: