Gogol, Russian Strange Genius

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31.03.2009

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This year is declared by UNESCO the Year of Gogol. 200 years ago this great magician of word, subtle master possessing a unique humor and a gift to penetrate into the most secret corners of human soul was born. Nikolai Gogol, to use Ivan Turgenev’s expression, “signified an epoch in the history of Russian literature” and whom Russia is proud of “as one of its fames.” Within his lifetime he only once enjoyed the fame when he created the first book of “Dead Souls”, but it was only an episode in his lonely life – there were much more failures and merciless criticism. Among contemporaries just some prophets called Gogol's pen brilliant and predicted immortality to the writer.

True value of any phenomenon, as is known, becomes known after its disappearance. The fame rose above Gogol with his last heartbeat, making reconsider and reappraise everything he had created. Gogol sparkled with his transparent, good humor, creating his books, and… continued to “joke” after death. Take a story alone with the monument, whose destiny today the Russian community is puzzled with.

One hundred years ago, Muscovites erected a monument to the writer by public subscription, until now being considered the best among all monuments of the city. Gogol loved the “white-stone” Moscow and spent here his last, most tragic days. He saw just in Moscow an epicenter of Russian idea, into understanding of which he put his soul. The sculptor Nikolai Andreev immortalized the writer in the twilight of his life: sick, sorrowful, bent, resembling a ruffled bird. Nevertheless the sculptor succeeded in reproducing Gogol’s fine nature, mysteriousness, his warm humor, in showing Gogol’s eminence as a prophet, “martyr for Russia’s offences,” said Ilya Repin. In this image courageous idea, the whole “truth of Gogol” was reflected.

A place for the monument was found quite quickly – the Arbat place at the junction with the Prechistensky Boulevard – just there Gogol liked to take a walk. But his “strange” image was taken ambiguously and caused conflicts: “The monument to Gogol is detestable,” Sophia Tolstaya, the writer’s wife wrote in her diary.

The monument that had stood on this place half a century was taken off its pedestal – on Stalin’s order – and sent out of sight, to the Donskoy Monastery. For 50 years Andreev’s Gogol was in exile, and then it was returned to Gogol Boulevard after all. In the meantime the previous place was taken by other, more understandable monument, and the Gogol mystery was awarded a modest place in the yard of a house in the Nikitsky Boulevard. Muscovites wait that full rehabilitation of the long-suffering monument and its return to its lawful place will be a gift for the 200th anniversary of genius of Russian literature.

… The writer Turgenev paid for the word “great” in relation to Gogol with an exile from St. Petersburg to the remote estate near Orel: authorities did not consider Gogol that. “Buffoon”, “small satirist” – like this one spoke of a man, who was fated to take place near Alexander Pushkin. Gogol’s pen was called “crooked”, “angry”, “slanderous”. Gogol’s perception was complicated by his non-traditional artistic world, prophet’s boldness, seeming irrationality of graphic manner. “Gogol’s prose is at least four-dimensional. He can be compared with his contemporary mathematician Lobachevsky, who blew up the Euclidean world...,” Vladimir Nabokov thought.

All this, not properly understood initially, conditioned Gogol’s great and increasing role in the world modern culture. His books today help as well not only to highlight the Russian nature, but also learn the mankind as it is. Nikolai Vassilievich Gogol – Yanovsky was born on April 1, 1809 in Poltava gubernia (Ukraine), into a noble family. There was Ukrainians’ and Poles’ blood in his veins. Children of young mother, who had married at the age of 14 years, did not survive, and Nikolai as well balanced long between life and death because of his weak health. It intensified mother’s piety – she incessantly prayed for her son and could raise religiousness in his heart that sharpened his unusual sentimentality and fervid imagination.

Having got education in a provincial Nezhin gymnasium, Gogol set off to Petersburg, capital of the empire. He dreamt of becoming a poet and brought his first poem “Hanz Kuchelgarten”. Having published it for his own account, he waited for responses with impatience. A venomous critical article soon appeared where the author was recommended to take up the pen no more. The shocked Gogol rushed round the shops, where the book was on sale, bought up all copies and burnt them. Now he had to earn his bread and pitiful place by lessons. But youth did not allow being dejected. Nature has endowed Gogol with an ironic disposition, he liked to joke, jest. All this was reflected in his first stories, which appeared under the title of “Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka”. New talent’s brilliancy was noted by Pushkin at once: “Evenings near Dikanka have amazed me. Here is a real cheerfulness, lively and natural… And sometimes what poetry!”

Gogol’s natural humor was reflected also in the famous comedy “The Inspector General”. According to his own declaration, here he “decided to put together all bad things in Russia and … laugh”, Gogol hoped that his word will move to “life-giving tears of joyous laughter”, “blow up and reveal” internal diseases of the society. But one did not understand him: the first staging of the “The Inspector General” in St. Petersburg in 1836, in the presence of the emperor, aristocracy, known literary men failed (later on Nikolai I saw the play two more times and laughed a lot). At premiиre untalented stage director’s work, tasteless stage scenery, weak players could express neither Gogol’s subtle comicalness nor profound meaning of “The Inspector General”.

Critics came down on the writer with such a fury that, shocked, he packed a suitcase – he had never had big property – and went abroad. Failure of “The Inspector General” was ruin of his hopes for him, a personal disaster; he nearly took his own life. But a steamer, sea, heaven of Germany, France, Switzerland, and Austria calmed his nerves. In spring 1837 Gogol arrived in Rome, he found ideal for life and where he stayed for ten years.

He rented a little flat in the Strada Felice Street (now this is a place of Russian pilgrimage) and lived modestly but quite happily. Just then he returned to the story, once suggested by Pushkin, and began to write “Dead Souls”, one of the greatest and mysterious books in the world literature, which made the writer famous as a “strange genius”.

The writer called his narration a “poem”, because he was planning a three-volume work about the Russian life, where the epic principle should connect with the lyric one. “What a huge, what an original story! The whole Rus will appear in it!” he wrote his friends in Russia. The scheme was crystallized around a phenomenon, worrying Gogol much, that he called “ghastliness of life”. Thinking about heroes of “Dead Souls”, Gogol described the process of a living soul’s transformation into a dead one. A man is gradually involved in commonplace habits of his circle, enmeshed in conventions and “decencies” enclosing the soul in a firm shell. “And if one tries to reach the soul – it exists no more …” said the writer.

Gogol finished the manuscript in 1841 and brought it in Moscow. After long censorial trials the book was published and created a furor. Gogol’s fame began to shine. He himself came back to Rome and observed the reaction of the Russian society from far away, not feeling any satisfaction. He was upset that the poem, contrary to his hopes, did not have any improving effect on his country’s life. Nevertheless, he set to the second part of “Dead Souls”.

Searching for even more impressive thoughts and images, he deviated from satire and planned some sort of propagation of purification, wishing to show the dead souls’ ability to revive. He believed that “disease of the century is in general dissatisfaction, loss of ties with the primary and superior. Everyone wants to be not what he is, hence disappointments and vices…». Having determined a great moral task in his creative work, Gogol suffered torments before, as he believed, his own imperfection. The second part of “Dead Souls” was written with mental breakdown, the writer began to have attacks of nerves.

The disease brought him to move from one European health resort to another, but did not abate just the same. In 1845 in Hamburg Gogol burnt in a hotel fireplace the first version of the second volume, his five-year work. “As soon as the flame has taken away the last pages of my book, its content suddenly revived in a purified, light form,” he wrote on that day. With obstinacy of a stonemason, overcoming the granite, he started on this new version of the second volume.

And now the manuscript is nearly ready, only requiring author's polishing. Gogol came back to Russia, to dear Moscow. Everybody, to whom he read this new book, found it splendid and excelling the first one. But we will never be able to appraise it. On the night of February 12, 1852 Gogol yet again burnt his “Dead Souls”. Ten days thereafter he died, in a mysterious way, not having lived a very little more than a month till his 43rd anniversary.

Reasons of this strange death remain a mystery. Either mental illness caught up the writer, or a creative crisis came causing a severe apathy. The cancelled marriage to Countess Vielgorskaya, whose family did not permit a non-highborn person though famous writer to enter their house may have procured the tragedy. In any event, Gogol wished death to himself: “How sweet to die…” – these words were the last to fly away from his lips.

Gogol was lying, crowned with laurels, with a bouquet of snowdrops in hand. The burial service was read for him in the Church of Moscow University at a large concourse of people. Students were carrying the coffin till the burial place – Danilov Monastery. Later the writer was reentered and now reposes in the Pantheon in Moscow at Novodevichye Cemetery. On his monument the following words from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah are carved: “I will laugh with my bitter word”…

Tatiana Sinitsyna, writer