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Nikolay (Vasilyevich) Gogol (1809-1852)


Great Russian novelist, dramatist, satirist, founder of the so-called critical realism in Russian literature, best-known for his novel MERTVYE DUSHI I-II (1842, Dead Souls). Gogol's prose is characterized by imaginative power and linguistic playfulness. As an exposer of the defects of human character Gogol could be called the Hieronymus Bosch of Russian literature.

"I am destined by the mysterious powers to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, viewing life in all its immensity as it rushes past me, viewing it through laughter seen by the world and tears unseen and unknown by it."

Nikolay Gogol was born in Sorochintsi, Ukraine, and grew up on his parent's country estate. His real surname was Ianovskii, but the writer's grandfather had taken the name 'Gogol' to claim a nobel Cossack ancestry. Gogol's father was an educated and gifted man, who wrote plays, poems, and sketches in Ukrainian. Gogol started write while in high school. He attended Poltava boarding school (1819-21) and Nezhin high school (1821-28). In 1829 he settled in St. Petersburg, with a certificate attesting his right to 'the rank of the 14th class'. Gogol worked at minor governmental jobs and wrote occasionally for periodicals. His early narrative poem, Hans Küchelgarten (1829), turned out to be a disaster. Between the years 1831 and 1834 he taught history at the Patriotic Institute and worked as a private tutor.

In 1831 Gogol met Aleksandr Pushkin who greatly influenced his choice of literarary material, especially his 'Dikinka tales', which were based on Ukrainian folklore. Their friendship lasted until the great poet's death. After failure as an assistant lecturer of world history at the University of St. Petersburg (1834-35), Gogol became a full-time writer. Under the title Mirgorod (1835) Gogol published a new collection of stories, beginning with 'Old-World Landowners', which described the decay of the old way of life. The book also included the famous historical tale 'Taras Bulba', which showed the influence of Walter Scott. The protagonist is a strong, heroic character, not very typical for the author's later cavalcade of bureaucrats, lunatics, swindlers, and losers.

St. Petersburg Stories (1835) examined disorders of mind and social relationships. 'The Nose' was about a man who loses his nose and which tries to live its own life. In 'Nevsky Prospect' a talented artist falls in love with a tender poetic beauty who turns out to be a prostitute and commits suicide when his dreams are shattered. 'The Diary of a Madman' asked why is it that "all the best things in life, they all go to the Equerries or the generals?" 'The Overcoat' contrasted humility and meekness with the rudeness of the 'important personage'.

Gogol published in 1836 several stories in Pushkin's journal Sovremennik, and in the same year appeared his famous play, The Inspector General. It told a simple tale of a young civil servant, Khlestakov, who finds himself stranded in a small provincial town. By mistake, he is taken by the local officials to be a government inspector, who is visiting their province incognito. Khlestakov happily adapts to his new role and exploits the situation. His true identity is revealed but then arrives the real inspector. Gogol masterfully creates with a few words people, places, things, and lets them disappear in the flow of the story. Vladimir Nabokov wrote: "Who is that unfortunate bather, steadily and uncannily growing, adding weight, fattening himself on the marrow of a metaphor? We never shall know - but he almost managed to gain a footing."

Its first stage production was in St Petersburg, given in the presence of the tsar. The tsar, as he left his box after the première, dropped the comment: "Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of all at me!" Gogol, who was always sensitive about reaction to his work, fled Russia for Western Europe. He visited Germany, Switzerland, and France and settled then in Rome. He also made a pilgrimage to Palestine in 1848.

In Rome Gogol wrote his major work, The Dead Souls. Gogol claimed that the story was suggested by Pushkin in a conversation in 1835. It depicted the adventures Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who arrives in a provincial town to buy 'dead souls', dead serfs. By selling these 'souls' with a cheaply-bought lands, Chichikov planned to make a huge profit. He meets local landowners and departs the in a hurry, when rumors start spread about him. During the last decade of his life, Gogol struggled to continue the story and depict Chichikov's fall and redemption.

Except for a short visits to Russia in 1839-40 and 1841-42, Gogol was abroad for twelve years. The first edition of Gogol's collected works was published in 1842 . It made him one of the most popular Russian writers. Two years before his return, Gogol had published Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847), in which he upheld the autocratic tsarist regime and the patriarchal Russian way of life. The book arose disappointment among radicals who had seen Gogol's works as examples of social criticism. In the play ZHENITBA (1842) nearly everybody lies and the protagomist, Podgolesin, cannot make up his mind about marriage. He hesitates, agrees, then withdraws his promise, the life is full of cheating, but when people jeer at each other, they actually tell the truth.

In his later life Gogol came under influence of a fanatical priest, Father Konstantinovskii, and burned sequels for Dead Souls, just 10 days before he died on the verge of madness on the 4th of March 1852. Gogol had refused to take any food and various remedies were employed to make him eat - spirits were poured over his head, hot loaves applied to his person and leeches attached to his nose. Rumors arise from time to time that Gogol was buried alive, a situation familiar from the story The Premature Burial of the contemporary writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

"The moon is made by some lame cooper, and you can see the idiot has no idea about moons at all. He put in a creosoted rope and some wood oil; and this has led to such a terrible stink all over the earth that you have to hold your nose. Another reason the moon is such a tender globe it that people just cannot live on it any more, and all that's left alive there are noses. This is also why we cannot see our own noses - they're all on the moon." (from Diary of a Madman)
Shinel' (1842, The Overcoat) - Akakii Akakievich is a lowly government clerk. When winter begins he notices that his old overcoat is beyond repairing. He manages to save money for a new, luxurious coat. His colleagues at the office arrange a party for his acquisition. But his happiness proves to be short-lived. On the way home he is attacked by thieves and robbed of his coat. To recover his lost possession, Akakievich asks help from an Important Person, a director of a department with the rank of general. He treats Akakievich harshly and Akakievich dies of fright within three days. One night when the Important Person is returning home, he is attacked by a ghost, late Akakii Akakievich, who steals his overcoat. The stealing of outer garments continue, even though now the ghost is a big man with a moustache and enormous fists.
Nos (The Nose, 1936) - surrealistic story about the transformation of the nose - Gogol himself had a long nose, but the motifs in the story were borrowed from other writers. According to V. Vinograd's study (1987), these kind of stories were popular the 1820-1830s. It is still a puzzle: no key has been found to explain, why Collegiate Assessor Kovalev's nose transforms into civil servant and back into nose. The central plot circles around Kovalev's quest to recapture his runaway body part - he has arrived in Moskow to climb up the social ladder but without proper face it is impossible. Without an arm or leg it is not unbearable, thinks Major, but 'without a nose a man is, the devil knows what...'In the outwardly crazy story lurks a serious idea: what matters is not the person but one's rank.
For further reading: Nikolai Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov (1944); Gogol: A Life by David Magarshack (1957); Gogol: His Life and Works by Vsevolod Setchkarev (1965); The Smile and Gogol's Death Souls by Carl R. Proffer (1967); The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol by Simon Karlinsky (1976); Gogol's Dead Souls by James B. Woodward (1978); Out from under Gogol's Overcoat by Daniel Rancour-Laferriére (1982); Gogol and the Natural School by Victor V. Vinograd (1987); Nikolay Gogol: Text and Context, ed. by Jane Grayson and Faith Wigzell (1989); Exploring Gogol by Robert A. Maguire (1994); Gogol's 'The Government Inspector' by Michael Beresford (1997) - Suomeksi kirjailijalta on julkaistu myös Kertomus siitä miten Ivan Ivanovits ja Ivan Nikiforovits riitaantuivat keskenään, Muotokuva, Naimapuuhat sekä Valitut teokset I-II. - See also: Lu Xun ; Arkady Strugatski

Selected works:

  • GANTS KYUHELGARTEN, 1829 - Hans Küchelgarten - publishend under the pseudonym V. Alov
  • VECHERA NA KHUTORE BLIZ DIKAN'KI, 1831-32 - Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka - Dikankan iltoja
  • MIRGOROD, 1835 - Mirgorod
  • ARABESKI, 1835 - Araberques
  • TARAS BULBA, 1835 - appeared in story collection MIRGOROD - suom. Jalo Kalima, Juhani Konkka - film 1909, dir. by Aleksandr Drankov; film 1962, dir. by J. Lee Thompson
  • ZAPISKI SUMASSEDSHEGO, 1935 - appeared in story collection ARABESKI - The Diary of a Madman - Mielipuolen päiväkirja eli Hullun päiväkirja
  • NEVSKI PROSPEKT, 1835 - St. Petersburg Stories (among others The Nose, Diary of a Madman, The Overcoat) - Nevan valtakatu, suom. Juhani Konkka
  • NOS, 1836 - The Nose - Nenä, suom. Juhani Konkka (katso myös Pentti Saarikoski, nimimerkki Nenä) - animation 1963, dir. by Alexandre Alexeieff
  • REVIZOR, 1836 - The Government Inspector - Reviisori - film The Inspector General, dir. by Henry Koster, starring Danny Kaye; film 1952, dir. by Vladimir Petrov
  • KOLIASKA, 1936 - The Coach
  • SHINEL, 1842 - The Overcoat - Päällysviitta - film 1926, dir. by Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg; film 1959, dir. by Aleksei Batalov
  • SOCHINENII, 1842 (4 vols.)
  • PORTRET, 1842 - The Portrait
  • RIN, 1842 - Rome
  • ZHENITBA, 1842 - The Marriage - Naimahankkeita
  • MERTVYE DUSHI I-II, 1841-46 - Dead Souls - Kuolleet sielut, suom. Juhani Konkka - film 1909, dir. by Pjotr Tshardynin
  • IGROGI, 1843 - The Gamblers
  • VYBRANNYYE MESTA IZ PEREPISKI S DRUZYAMI, 1847 - Selected Passages from Correspondence wirt My Friends - see also Vissarion Belinsky
  • RAZMYSHLENIIA O BOZHESTVENNOI LITYRGII, 1913 - The Divine Liturgia of the Eastrn Orthodox Church
  • Collected Works, 1922-27 (6 vols.)
  • POLNOE SOBRANIE SOCHINENII, 1937-52 (14 vols.)
  • The Collected Tales and Plays, 1964
  • Letters of Nikolai Gogol, 1967
  • The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, 1972
  • AVTORSKAIA ISPOVED, 1974 - An Author's Confession
  • SOBRANIE SOCHINENII, 1984-86 (8 vols.)
  • The Complete Tales, 1985
  • Hanz Kuechelgarten, Leaving the Theater and Other Works, 1990
  • Village Evenings Near Dikanska and Mirgorod, 1994
  • Plays and Petersburg Tales, 1995

© 2000

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