The word “weird” could have been invented for Russia’s greatest comic writer, Nikolai Gogol (1809–52, though one almost wants to write 1852–09), who actually managed to be born on April 1 (March 20 by the Russian calendar). No one understood him, least of all himself. “What an intelligent, queer, and sick creature!” exclaimed Ivan Turgenev. When he died, one of his best friends, the writer Sergei Aksakov, wrote to his son Ivan: “I don’t know whether anyone liked Gogol exclusively as a human being. I don’t think so; it was, in fact, impossible. How can you love one whose body and spirit are recovering from self-inflicted torture?”

Even Gogol’s name was fictitious, a sort of natural pseudonym. The family name was Yanovsky, but when Catherine the Great decreed that only hereditary gentry could own serfs, Gogol’s Ukrainian grandfather invented a noble ancestor, Hohol (in Russian, Gogol) and changed his name to Gogol-Yanovsky, which was Gogol’s name until he dropped the real part. His mother, who was eighteen when Gogol was born, came to believe that her son had invented just about everything, including the steamboat and the railroad. Sickly and hypochondriacal, skeptical and pursued by the devil, paranoid and ironical, he would escape from real or imagined criticism by fleeing abroad. Gogol’s masterpiece Dead Souls is set in the Russian provinces, but was written entirely in Europe, mostly in his beloved Rome. The city fascinated him by its beauty, its history, and its smells. “Would you believe me,” he wrote to a Russian friend, “that sometimes I am seized by a frenzied desire to transform myself into one big nose . . .  whose nostrils would be as large as pails so that I can imbibe as much . . . as possible.”

Everything is olfactory in Gogol, who had quite a schnoz himself. In “The Diary of a Madman,” the insane hero decides that people’s noses have all emigrated to the moon; in “Nevsky Avenue” we read of “mustaches to which the better part of a lifetime is devoted.” In one strange sequence of that story, a vulgarian pursuing a pretty German girl winds up in a shop where he encounters her inebriated husband and another tradesman who happen to be named Schiller and Hoffman: “not the Schiller who wrote William Tell and the History of the Thirty Years’ War, but the famous Schiller, the ironmonger and tinsmith of Meshchansky Street. Beside Schiller stood Hoffman—not the writer Hoffman, but a rather high-class bootmaker.” Hoffman is holding Schiller by the nose and brandishing his cobbler’s knife, while Schiller urges him to cut it off: “I use three pounds of snuff a month on my nose alone!” Alone?

In Gogol’s most famous nasal tale, the totally absurd “The Nose,” a man wakes up to discover that he has somehow lost his nose, pimple and all, and now has nothing but an empty space “as flat as a pancake” in its place. Hunting for his nose, he discovers that it has somehow grown to full size and become a government official who outranks him. He catches up with the nose in the Kazan Cathedral, where he finds the nose “piously praying” and genuflecting, and timidly asks his member if it “knows his place”; but the nose, who speaks the only sensible words in the story, tells the hero he can’t understand what he is talking about. Attempts to impose an interpretive grid on the story—religious, political, and, inevitably, Freudian—seem to be parodied in advance by a story designed to resist all interpretation. “Absolute nonsense happens in the world,” the narrator says, and it is plain that for Gogol all attempts to explain the world must fail because the world is fundamentally inexplicable. Gogol’s world is on display in a new translation of his best-known stories from the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.1

Not surprisingly, con games are one of Gogol’s favorite themes. In The Inspector-General, certainly Russia’s greatest comedy, the officials of a provincial town learn that a government inspector will soon be arriving—doubtless incognito—to expose their corruption. As it happens, an idiotic nonentity, Khlestakov, is staying at the local inn and the townspeople decide he must be the inspector general: after all he refuses to leave and yet won’t pay his bill, so who else can he be? They offer him countless bribes, let him talk flirtatious nonsense with the women (“we’ll flee to some happy dale beneath the shade of brooks”), and take him on tours of their implausibly gussied up facilities (the director of hospitals proclaims that “we cure them like flies!”). In a recent New Yorker article on Gogol, James Wood describes Khlestakov as “an opportunist [who] arrives in town posing as a government official,” but this careless reading reduces Gogol’s comedy to ordinary dimensions. Actually, it takes Khlestakov two acts to figure out what is going on. Any good comedy writer could create a con man, but Gogol’s genius lies in having the officials con themselves. Khlestakov is not so much a fraud as a phony, a dolt who becomes the occasion for people to outsmart themselves. When Khlestakov, whose name became synonymous with “stupid lying braggart,” at last catches on, he yields to such a stream of boastful lies that, as the narrator of Dead Souls remarks on a similar occasion, it “was such a blue streak of nonsense that it resembled nothing on either heaven or earth” and one could only shake one’s head and spit.

When the supposed inspector at last gallops away, the postmaster, who opens all outgoing letters out of a sincere interest in human affairs, comes across Khlestakov’s insulting description of all the officials. The mayor cannot believe that an experienced con man like himself has been taken in by such a puppy. He foresees the worst possible fate: “There will come a scribbler, some inkslinger, who will put you in a comedy . . . he won’t spare your rank and calling and everyone will grin and clap!” He turns to the audience, and, shaking his fist, tell us: “What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves!”—the hidden truth of all really great comedy.

At this moment a policeman enters and announces that the inspector general from St. Petersburg has arrived and summoned the officials. The play closes with Russian literature’s most famous stage direction: the whole group is to remain silent and frozen in carefully described, grotesque positions of shock. “For almost a minute and a half, the petrified group retains its position. Curtain.” It must be the longest ninety seconds in world literature.

Gogol’s greatest con story is undoubtedly his novel Dead Souls. It is probably the most insightful parable on bureaucratic logic ever written. Russian landowners were assessed taxes on the basis of how many adult male serfs (“souls”) they owned, and so between censuses were forced to pay taxes on serfs who had died, on their “dead souls.” The novel’s picaresque hero, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, gets the idea of buying up these dead souls—executing purchase deeds just as one would for live peasants—and using them as collateral. After all, they are legal property, souls registered with the bureau of audits. Landowners will be glad to sell them for almost nothing, or even give them away, just to avoid the taxes.

Gogol’s greatest con story is undoubtedly his novel Dead Souls.

With this plan, he goes from estate to estate, meeting a series of grotesque specimens of humanity that only Gogol could create, and haggles over the proper price of nothing. One landowner, Sobakevich, talks up the price of his nonexistent wares by exaggerating what his serfs used to be able to do, and when Chichikov protests that, after all, they are now of no use whatsoever, Sobakevich replies memorably and horribly: maybe so, but then, of what use are the living? “They are so many flies, not people.” When Chichikov insists the dead souls must be worth nothing because they are nothing, Sobakevich answers shrewdly that they are worth something because someone, Chichikov himself, wants them. What is this, we ask, a comedy on the theory of market value, a grotesque play on the tendency of governments to confuse legal entities with real people, or a troubling existential meditation on the insubstantiality of everything apparently real?

When Chichikov returns to town to count the souls he has bought, we recognize that he is some paltry demon. But he is shocked to discover that he himself has been conned because Sobakevich has slipped into his list a dead female serf, a counterfeit counterfeit. The town officials, who imagine the purchase deeds they execute are for real people, are amazed at the number of serfs Chichikov has acquired, and ask the apparent millionaire if he has enough land to house them on. “Sufficient for the peasants I have bought,” he replies.

At last the truth gets out, and everyone in the town, feather-brained women and corrupt men, begins to wonder what it all means, what that horrible phrase “dead souls” might really signify. Interpretation goes mad: Could Chichikov be a counterfeiter, who has paid for nothing with nothing? Is he a government inspector, using the code word “dead souls” to investigate several suspicious “accidental” deaths? Maybe he is Napoleon escaped from St. Helena in disguise? Could he be the Antichrist? Or maybe he is really intent on carrying off the governor’s daughter and using the dead souls as a distraction—or a wedding present? If these processes of deduction seem implausible, the author comments, they are no more so than the arguments scholars use when they pile hypothesis on hypothesis. At last, Chichikov, who has been laid up in the local hotel, gets wind of the speculative frenzy and hightails it out of town.

Of course, the reference to scholars and mad interpretations once again successfully parodies in advance the criticism that was to be written about this book. In Gogol, humorless interpretation is always as insubstantial as dead souls. The world he described is pure and absolute nonsense, a counterfeit of which there is no original.

Stranger still, in the last years of his life, Gogol himself succumbed to a religious mania and offered ponderous and pious interpretations of his own work. As Nabokov wryly observed, Gogol indulged in “thoroughly planning his works after he had written them.” Possessed by a characteristically Russian desire to be a moral teacher, he spent a decade trying to write what would have been parts two and three of Dead Souls—its Purgatorio and Paradiso—in the hopeless task of converting Chichikov and preaching the Christian virtues of the status quo to Nicholas I’s Russians. While working on the “rest” of Dead Souls, he published the amazingly smarmy Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, which reads eerily as if one of Gogol’s idiot narrators had penned it. The radicals were outraged—they had assumed the author of The Inspector-General was one of their own—and the conservatives lamented a great talent lost to sanctimonious claptrap.

Gogol died in agony, uttering the mystifying last words: “A ladder, quick, a ladder!”

Gogol’s paranoia turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy and, in despair, disgust, and fear of the Evil One, he consigned most of his decade-long work on the continuation of his novel to an auto-da-fé. Apparently committing slow suicide, he refused all food and grew hopelessly ill. Against his will, doctors treated him by immersing him in a bath of broth and—I am not inventing this—hanging leeches from his nose. He died in agony, uttering the mystifying last words: “A ladder, quick, a ladder!” Was he trying to mount up to the moon, where noses roam healthy and free?

Believe it or not, Gogol went down in literary history as a realist—so the radical critic Belinsky hailed him—a critical fate that can only be called Gogolian. This absurd interpretation became canonical in the Soviet period. I thought it would pass along with the “Era of Stagnation” (another truly Gogolian phrase for Russia), but I recently discovered it again in Wood’s article. “The Nose” is a realistic story, he tells us, because realism can include surrealism and because the nose’s social climbing is “a dogged literalization of a fantastic social reality.” But the term “realism,” if it means anything and not everything, refers to works like Middlemarch and Anna Karenina. “The Nose” belongs with Gargantua and Pantagruel and Through the Looking Glass, with Lucian’s “Dialogues of the Dead” and the fictions of Kafka. If those are realistic, what isn’t? Is the term simply a grunt signifying approval?

But Gogol’s most Gogolian punishment, something his paltry demons might have conjured up, has been his translators, who have almost always been pedantic and humorless. And what is the point of reading humorless comedy? Gogol’s idiosyncratic play with language, his sense of the funniest possible word, the rhythms of his absurd syntax—the reasons Nabokov considered him Russia’s greatest writer—are replaced by prose “as flat as a pancake.” There are a few exceptions, notably Milton Ehre’s rendition of the plays and, especially, the Dead Souls rendered by Bernard Guerney, which Nabokov lauded and which was recently made even better by Susanne Fusso. By contrast, the new version of the tales translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky is bedeviled by an almost perfect sense of the least apt choice. Anyone who knows Gogol will only be able to “gasp and spit” at their tin ear. This is all the stranger since Pevear claims in his introduction to be an admirer of Gogol’s linguistic legerdemain. If you want to know what Gogol doesn’t sound like, pick up this version and hold your nose.

  1.  The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; Pantheon, 464 pages, $30.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 3, on page 65
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