On Nikolai Gogol

There’s Gogol, and Then Again, There’s Gogol

Among others, Ivan Turgenev could not believe that The Inspector General, the greatest play in Russian literature and “one of the most subversive comedies ever to appear on stage,” was written by the same man who wrote the bloated and ingenuous sentences of the essays in Arabesques—and, later, the moralizing and preachy epistles, coruscating with derangement, in Selected Passages from Letters to Friends.

Of course, it was not the same man. The Gogol writing fiction was a genius, and that glorious fiction welled up from some genius of a neuron deep in his brain. The Gogol writing nonfiction was a sententious fool. As Karlinsky writes, “nonfictional Gogol is hard going: verbose, rhetorical, convoluted, and all too often beside the point.”

Gogol lived and wrote in the nineteenth century, but the most prominent theme of his fiction is a twentieth century theme: the illusory nature of all human identity. The man who wrote Gogol’s fiction is a twentieth century writer.

The writer Gogol and the painter Ivanov. Quite possibly these two rather unhinged artists—who were very close, who saw each other nearly every day during the time that Gogol lived in Rome—spoke together of things they never discussed with anyone else. Maybe homosexuality?

In an earlier variant of his famous painting, “Christ Appearing Before the People”—which variant is on exhibit today at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg—Ivanov painted two nude figures side by side, having just been baptized and emerging from the River Jordan. One had the head of Josif Vielgorsky, the young man whom Gogol nursed on his death bed in Rome. The other was Gogol himself. In that same painting the figure of a gloomy penitent located right next to Christ is another portrait of Gogol.

“Gogol has raised a personal peculiarity, his inability to fall in love with a woman—as any imbecile can—to a state of consciousness, similar to those of the Stylites. From this he has concluded that he is a ‘chosen vessel’ and to avoid ending up in Sodom, he aims to land in the calendar of saints.”

from a historical novel by Olga Forsh, The Contemporaries (on the life of Gogol)

Gogol sometimes wrote of the bizarre state of his psyche. He once compared his condition to that of a person trapped in a lethargic dream, who watches as he is being buried alive and cannot so much as lift a finger to show that he is not dead.

Typical Grandiloquence of Gogol’s Letters

“Purer than the Alpine snows and more effulgent than the sky must be my soul, and only then will I find the strength to begin my mighty feats and grandiose endeavors in art, only then will be resolved the riddle of my very existence.”

Letter to Zhukovksy, June 26, 1842

Late in Gogol’s life the sober, ascetic, tight-assed mode was in the ascendancy. He took aim at his beautiful multicolored kites—embodiments of inspired light irony and celestial humor—he shot them out of the azure-blue skies of his life and art.

Gogol never recovered from the success of his play, The Inspector General, a play in which he discovered accidentally the puissant power of laughter. It was as if he himself were on stage in the final dumb scene of the play, paralyzed, frightened out of his wits by what he, the author had done.  ,,,Andrei Sinyavsky, In Gogol’s Shadow

In the best of his fictional works Gogol does not write the words; the words write Gogol. Just as in the braggart Khlestakov’s wild rodomontade (The Inspector General) the words take over from the man and create themselves. Khlestakov’s speeches make for the quintessence of the creative process. Gogol himself composed by passing the conductor’s baton to some force deep within his subconscious brain, and then that force created mighty wonders far above and beyond his puny carnal existence as a writer or man. 2017

U.R. Bowie, author of Gogol’s Head, 2017

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