I N T R O D U C T I O N
Art has the provinces in its blood. Art is provincial in principle, preserving for itself a naive, external, astonished, and envious outlook.
ANDREI SINYAVSKY, In Gogol's Shadow
Nikolai Vassilyevich Gogol was born on April 1, 1809, in the village of Sorochintsy, Mirgorod district, Poltava province, in the Ukraine, also known as Little Russia. His childhood was spent on Vassilyevka, a modest estate belonging to his mother. Nearby was the town of Dikanka, once the property of Kochubey, the most famous hetman of the independent Ukraine. In the church of Dikanka there was an icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, for whom Gogol was named.
In 1821 Gogol was sent to boarding school in Nezhin, near Kiev. He graduated seven years later, and in December 1828, at the age of nineteen, left his native province to try his fortunes in the Russian capital. There he fled from posts as a clerk in two government ministries, failed a tryout for the imperial theater (he had not been a brilliant student at school, but had shown unusual talent as a mimic and actor, and his late father had been an amateur playwright), printed at his own expense a long and very bad romantic poem, then bought back all the copies and burned them, and in 1830 published his first tale,''St. John's Eve,'' in the March issue of the magazine Fatherland Notes. There followed, in September 1831 and March 1832, the two volumes of Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, each containing four tales on Ukrainian themes with a prologue by their supposed collector, the beekeeper Rusty Panko. They were an immediate success and made the young provincial a famous writer.
Baron Delvig, friend and former schoolmate of the poet Alexander Pushkin and editor of the almanac Northern Flowers, had introduced Gogol to Pushkin's circle even before that, and in 1831 he had made the acquaintance of the poet himself. Writing to Pushkin on August 21 of that year, Gogol told him how his publisher had gone to the shop where the first volume of Evenings was being printed and found the typesetters all laughing merrily as they set the book. Shortly afterwards, Pushkin mentioned the incident in one of the first published notices of Gogol's work, a letter to the editor of a literary supplement, which began: ''I have just read Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka. It amazed me. Here is real gaiety - honest, unconstrained, without mincing, without primness. And in places what poetry! What sensitivity! All this is so unusual in our present-day literature that I still haven't recovered.'' At twenty-two Gogol was well launched both in literature and in society.
In 1835 came Mirgorod, another two-volume collection of Ukrainian tales, and Arabesques, a group of articles and tales reflecting the life of Petersburg, including ''Nevsky Prospect,''''The Diary of a Madman,'' and the first version of ''The Portrait.'' By then Gogol had also begun work on the novelpoem Dead Souls. When Pushkin began to publish his magazine The Contemporary in 1836, he included tales by Gogol in the early issues - ''The Carriage'' in the first and ''The Nose'' in the third. April of that same year saw the triumph of his comedy The Inspector General.
In June 1836, at the height of his fame, Gogol left Russia for Switzerland, Paris, and Rome. Of the remaining sixteen years of his life, he would spend nearly twelve abroad. He returned in the fall of 1841 to see to the publication of the first volume of Dead Souls. When the book finally appeared in May 1842, its author again left the country, this time for a stretch of six years. Later in 1842, a four volume edition of Gogol's collected writings (minus Dead Souls) was brought out in Petersburg. Among the previously unpublished works in the third volume was his last and most famous tale, ''The Overcoat.'' By then, though he was to live another decade, his creative life was virtually over. It had lasted some twelve years. And in terms of his tales alone, it had been even briefer, condensed almost entirely into the period between his arrival in Petersburg and his first trip abroad in 1836.
The road that brought Gogol from the depths of Little Russia intersected with Nevsky Prospect, ''all-powerful Nevsky Prospect,'' in the heart of the capital. His art was born at that crossroads. It had the provinces in its blood, as Andrei Sinyavsky puts it, in two senses: because Little Russia supplied the setting and material for more than half of his tales, and, more profoundly, because even in Petersburg, Gogol preserved a provincial's ''naive, external, astonished and envious outlook.'' He did not write from within Ukrainian popular tradition, he wrote looking back at it. Yet he also never entered into the life of the capital, the life he saw flashing by on Nevsky Prospect, where ''the devil himself lights the lamps only so as to show everything not as it really looks'' - this enforced, official reality of ministries and ranks remained impenetrable to him. Being on the outside of both worlds, Gogol seems to have been destined to become a ''pure writer'' in a peculiarly modern sense.
And indeed Gogol's art, despite its romantic ghosts and folkloric trappings, is strikingly modern in two ways: first, his works are free verbal creations, based on their own premises rather than on the conventions of ninteenth-century fiction; and, second, they are highly theatrical in presentation, concentrated on figures and gestures, constructed in a way that, while admitting any amount of digression, precludes the social and psychological analysis of classical realism. His images remain ambiguous and uninterpreted, which is what makes them loom so large before us. These expressive qualities of Gogol's art influenced Dostoevsky decisively, turning him from a social romantic into a ''fantastic realist,'' and they made Gogol the father of Russian modernism. His leap from the province to the capital also carried him forward in time, so that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the symbolist Andrei Bely could say: ''We still do not know what Gogol is.''
A vogue for Little Russia already existed when Gogol arrived in the capital. The novelist Vassily Narezhny (1780-1825) had recently published two comic novels portraying Ukrainian life and customs - The Seminarian (1824) and The Two Ivans, or The Passion for Lawsuits (1825). In 1826 a leading romantic of Ukrainian origin, Orest Somov (1793-1833), had begun to publish a series of tales based on the folklore of the region. And Anton Pogorelsky (1787-1836), superintendent of the Kharkov school district, had used a Ukrainian setting for a volume of fantastic tales entitled The Double, or My Evenings in Little Russia(1829). The province offered an ideal combination of the native and the exotic, the real and the fantastic, peasant earthiness and pastoral grace. The landscape of Little Russia is open steppe, not the forests of the north; the climate is sunny, warm, southern, conducive to laziness and merry-making; the earth is abundant; the cottages, built not of logs but of cob or whitewashed brick, are sunk in flourishing orchards; the men wear drooping mustaches, grow long topknots on their shaved heads, and go around in bright-colored balloon trousers. Here was a whole culture, with its heroic past of successful struggle against the Turks on one side and the Poles on the other, that could be taken as an embodiment of the Russian national spirit. And so it was taken in the Petersburg of the 182os.
Gogol, however, seems to have paid little attention to the details of Ukrainian life while he lived there. He was bent on putting the place behind him, on winning glory in the capital, on performing some lofty deed for the good of all Russia, on becoming a great poet in the German romantic style (the title of his burnt poem was Hans Ku¨chelgarten). It was only in Petersburg that he discovered the new fashion for the Ukraine and sensed, in Sinyavsky's words, ''a 'social commission' from that side, a certain breath of air in the literary lull of the capital, already sated with the Caucasus and mountaineers and expecting something brisk, fresh, popular from semi-literate Cossackland.'' Four months after his arrival, on April 30, 1829, he wrote to his mother:
You know the customs and ways of our Little Russians very well, and so I'm sure you will not refuse to communicate them to me in our correspondence. That is very, very necessary for me. I expect from you in your next letter a complete description of the costume of a village deacon, from his underclothes to his boots, with the names used by the most rooted, ancient, undeveloped Little Russians; also the names, down to the last ribbon, for the various pieces of clothing worn by our village maidens, as well as by married women, and by muzhiks . . . the exact names for clothing worn in the time of the hetmans . . . a minute description of a wedding, not omitting the smallest detail . . . a few words about carol singing, about St. John's Eve, about water sprites. There are lots of superstitions, horror stories, traditions, various anecdotes, and so on, current among the people: all of that will be of great interest to me. . .
So it was with the help of his mother's memory, plus a few books of local history and old Ukrainian epic songs, that Gogol set about creating the Little Russia of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and Mirgorod.
It is a world of proud, boastful Cossacks, of black-browed beauties, of witches, devils, magic spells and enchantments, of drowsy farms and muddy little towns - that is, a stage-set Ukraine, more operatic than real. Holidays and feasting are always close by - in ''St. John's Eve'' and ''The Night Before Christmas'' obviously, but also in the wedding that begins ''The Terrible Vengeance,'' in the banqueting that runs through the Mirgorod tales and appears again in ''The Carriage,'' a perfect little anecdote that belongs to this same world. Festive occasions grant special privileges; on festive nights fates are revealed or decided, lovers are separated, enemies are brought together; the natural and the supernatural mingle for good or ill, for comic or horrific effect. The expanded possibilities of festive reality justified the freedom with which Gogol constructed his narratives. But of the real peasant, of conditions under serfdom, of Ukrainian society and its conflicts at the time, there is no more trace in Gogol's tales, even those of the most realistic cast, than there was in his father's comedies. His characters, as Michel Aucouturier notes in the preface to his French translation of Evenings, ''are not typical representatives of the Little Russian peasantry, but the young lovers and old greybeards of the theater, Ukrainian descendants of the Cle´antes and Elises, the Orgons and Ge´rontes of Molie`re.''
The more surprising is the reputation Gogol acquired early, among both conservatives and liberals, as a painter of reality, the founder of the ''natural school.'' Gogol's appearance in Russian literature was so enigmatic that it seems his first critics(Pushkin excepted), while they liked what they read, could not account for their liking of it and invented reasons that were simply beside the point. The real reason was no doubt the unusual texture of Gogol's writing. His prose is a self-conscious artistic medium that mimics the popular manner but in fact represents something other, something quite alien to the old art of storytelling.
Copyright © 2008 by Nikolai Gogol. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.