Wednesday, July 04, 2018
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-52) was a Russian writer, who was born in an era where European nations with rulers such as Nicholas I were fearful of revolution and tightened up censorship of published works. Gogol’s father died when he was fifteen, but he finished education in Ukraine and headed to St. Petersburg for a career in the Czarist bureaucracy. He fancied himself an actor or a painter, but it was obvious his skills were with words. His skill in describing people led to many a character in his book sketched out by artists of the period. It took him no time to realize that his job would stifle any personal development and even the salary prospects were poor. He attempted creative work in the two or less years he worked as a government official. Most letters to his mother begged for another three hundred rubles.
His first stories were derived from his native Ukraine, as those were popular in Russia at the time. Pushkin preceded Gogol, but otherwise the state of Russian literature was poor. People read many a book of German poetry and fiction as harmless entertainment.
Gogol developed literary relationships in St. Petersburg and published regularly in literary journals. Eventually some stories were collected in book form, and he was accepted into the literary circles and educated circles all the way up to the royal family. He taught in a girls’ school and worked as a tutor at other times.
Gogol’s books are full of fussy majors, landowners, peasants and other colorful characters described to the tiniest detail. If his heroes were vain, so was Gogol. If they had particular habits of eating and consumed a variety of Russian and foreign foods, so did Gogol. He suffered from anxiety, travel discomforts, health problems and endless little things that occupied his daily routines. He was not a particularly easy person to be with, but he did always have Russian friends, especially during his years abroad.
Gogol’s relationships with women were usually with the wives of his friends and supporters, and members of the Czarist nobility. He was never known to have a physical relationship with a woman, and his intimate matters are mostly speculation.
Gogol was in fact patriotic and fairly religious and at times superstitious. His works reflect an attitude to the Russian bureaucracy, but his notions of improvement for Russia must be categorized as rather strange. His private letters were published at one point, after careful editing and censorship. People took his writings as satire and criticism of certain classes in Russia. The Inspector General took some work to publish, but mysteriously Nicholas I himself approved it. The Czar then soon forgot all about Gogol and his plays. The play as well as many of his works are humorous, but writers who followed him warn us not to treat him simply as a humorist. Gogol himself did not enjoy the attention the play got as a sort of criticism of the system, and he made one of his many escapes abroad. He merely wanted some fame, not any label as a revolutionary of any sort.
The Overcoat remains a work that easily portrays Russia of the time and the underclasses. The scribes and offices in it are pretty much what Gogol saw when he arrived in the capitol as a young man. Despite his flaws, there was not a comparable writer in his day. Dostoevski was released from prison in 1854 and published his major works in the 1860s.
One can read the biographies of many writers and find the person not quite what you expect. This is true of Gogol but is even true of Mark Twain, for example. We all have our failures. I find it best to read the material, but then give the greater weight to the works, not the writer and his failures or quirks.