Nikolay Vasiliyevich Gogol (1809-1852)
Great Russian novelist, dramatist, satirist, founder of the so-called critical realism in Russian literature, best-known for his novel MERTVYE DUSHI (1842, Dead Souls). Gogol's prose is characterized by imaginative power and linguistic playfulness. As an exposer of the defects of human character Gogol could be called the Hieronymus Bosch of Russian literature.
Nikolay Gogol was born in Sorochintsy, Ukraine, and grew up on his parent's country estate. His real surname was Ianovsky, but the writer's grandfather had taken the name 'Gogol' to claim a nobel Cossack ancestry. Gogol's father was an educated and gifted man, who wrote plays, poems, and sketches in Ukrainian. Gogol started write while in high school. He attended Poltava boarding school (1819-21) and Nezhin Higher School (1821-28). In 1829 he settled in St. Petersburg, with a certificate attesting his right to 'the rank of the 14th class'. Gogol worked at minor governmental jobs and wrote occasionally for periodicals. His early narrative poem, Hans Kьchelgarten (1829), turned out to be a disaster. Between the years 1831 and 1834 he taught history at the Patriotic Institute and worked as a private tutor.
In 1831 Gogol met Alexander Pushkin who greatly influenced his choice of literarary material, especially his 'Dikinka tales', which were based on Ukrainian folklore. Their friendship lasted until the great poet's death. After failure as an assistant lecturer of world history at the University of St. Petersburg (1834-35), Gogol became a full-time writer. Under the title Mirgorod (1835) Gogol published a new collection of stories, beginning with 'Old-World Landowners', which described the decay of the old way of life. The book also included the famous historical tale 'Taras Bulba', which showed the influence of Walter Scott. The protagonist is a strong, heroic character, not very typical for the author's later cavalcade of bureaucrats, lunatics, swindlers, and losers.
St. Petersburg Stories (1835) examined disorders of mind and social relationships. 'The Nose' was about a man who loses his nose and which tries to live its own life. In 'Nevsky Prospect' a talented artist falls in love with a tender poetic beauty who turns out to be a prostitute and commits suicide when his dreams are shattered. 'The Diary of a Madman' asked why is it that "all the best things in life, they all go to the Equerries or the generals?" 'The Overcoat' contrasted humility and meekness with the rudeness of the 'important personage'.
Gogol published in 1836 several stories in Pushkin's journal Sovremennik, and in the same year appeared his famous play, The Inspector General. It told a simple tale of a young civil servant, Khlestakov, who finds himself stranded in a small provincial town. By mistake, he is taken by the local officials to be a government inspector, who is visiting their province incognito. Khlestakov happily adapts to his new role and exploits the situation. His true identity is revealed but then arrives the real inspector. Gogol masterfully creates with a few words people, places, things, and lets them disappear in the flow of the story. Vladimir Nabokov wrote: "Who is that unfortunate bather, steadily and uncannily growing, adding weight, fattening himself on the marrow of a metaphor? We never shall know - but he almost managed to gain a footing."
Its first stage production was in St Petersburg, given in the presence of the tsar. The tsar, as he left his box after the premiиre, dropped the comment: "Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of all at me!" Gogol, who was always sensitive about reaction to his work, fled Russia for Western Europe. He visited Germany, Switzerland, and France and settled then in Rome. He also made a pilgrimage to Palestine in 1848.
In Rome Gogol wrote his major work, The Dead Souls. Gogol claimed that the story was suggested by Pushkin in a conversation in 1835. It depicted the adventures Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who arrives in a provincial town to buy 'dead souls', dead serfs. By selling these 'souls' with a cheaply-bought lands, Chichikov planned to make a huge profit. He meets local landowners and departs the in a hurry, when rumors start spread about him. During the last decade of his life, Gogol struggled to continue the story and depict Chichikov's fall and redemption.
Except for a short visits to Russia in 1839-40 and 1841-42, Gogol was abroad for twelve years. The first edition of Gogol's collected works was published in 1842 . It made him one of the most popular Russian writers. Two years before his return, Gogol had published Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847), in which he upheld the autocratic tsarist regime and the patriarchal Russian way of life. The book arose disappointment among radicals who had seen Gogol's works as examples of social criticism. In the play ZHENITBA (1842) nearly everybody lies and the protagomist, Podgolesin, cannot make up his mind about marriage. He hesitates, agrees, then withdraws his promise, the life is full of cheating, but when people jeer at each other, they actually tell the truth.
In his later life Gogol came under influence of a fanatical priest, Father Konstantinovsky, and burned sequels for Dead Souls, just 10 days before he died on the verge of madness on the 4th of March 1852. Gogol had refused to take any food and various remedies were employed to make him eat - spirits were poured over his head, hot loaves applied to his person and leeches attached to his nose. Rumors arise from time to time that Gogol was buried alive, a situation familiar from the story The Premature Burial of the contemporary writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).