Sunday, December 14, 2008

Russian Reading Challenge 4: Gogol Potpourri

I began and ended the Russian Reading Challenge with Nikolai Gogol, taking the year to work my way through short stories in Beчера на хуторе близ Диканьки (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka) and Миргород (Mirgorod). I finished with the play Ревизор (The Government Inspector/The Inspector General).

The stories in Dikanka and Mirgorod, which focus on Ukrainian country life, are of very mixed quality and genre. The Dikanka stories were particularly painful reading for me, though I did finish them. My composite recollections from early 2008 include numerous bops over the head, deceptions, people hiding in hay, and, of course, devils and unclean forces.

I didn’t especially enjoy the stories, though there were some occasional nice passages. A description of the Dnepr in the gothic “Страшная месть” (“The Terrible Vengeance”) for example, is rather poetic, and bits of Майская ночь, или Утопленница (“A May Night or the Drowned Maiden”), which included witches, reminded me a bit of Master and Margarita. Many of the stories in these two collections showed двоеверие, dual belief, a combination of religious and pagan traditions. “Вий” (“The Viy”), a story in Mirgorod, is a sort of ghost story involving a seminary student and a shapeshifting, flying witch.

I wondered why I didn’t find much amusement in Dikanka, which D.S. Mirsky describes in A History of Russian Literature as simple and unadulterated fun. Feeling lost and humorless, I appealed to Vladimir Nabokov, via his book Nikolai Gogol. I was relieved to find I had company. Nabokov is scathing: 

“There is nothing more dull and sickening to my taste than romantic folklore or rollicking yarns about lumberjacks or Yorkshiremen or French villagers or Ukrainian good companions. It is for this reason that the two volumes of the Evenings as well as the two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod… which followed in 1835, leave me completely indifferent. It was however this kind of stuff, the juvenilia of the false humorist Gogol, that teachers in Russian schools crammed down a fellow’s throat.” (page 31)

I was able to find laughs in “Повесть о том, как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем” (“How Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich Quarrelled”). I thought this story was the best of the two collections, with its humorous picture of how small-town neighbors feud for years after an argument that involves a silly insult and wishful thinking about gun ownership. You lawyers out there will be happy to know the Ivans decide to sue.

Gogol balances his humor, though, with a devastating final paragraph that includes mud, dampness, and one of the most quoted lines (in my experience, anyway) in Russian literature: “Скучно на этом свете, господа!” The line is not easy to translate because the word скучно combines boring and dreary. But here’s a go: “It’s tedious on this world, gentlemen!” And really, what could be more tedious/boring/dreary than two neighbors hating each other for years because of trivialities and name-calling?

As for the rest of Mirgorod, I admit I couldn’t make my way through “Старосветские помещики” (“Old World Landowners”) despite multiple attempts. I read the novella Тарас Бульба (Taras Bulba), about warring Cossacks, several years ago, so didn’t include it in this RRC selection.

I’m very happy I finished my Gogol reading with The Government Inspector, which includes a wonderful combination of slapstickish humor and observations about human nature and identity. The basic plot: rumor has it that a guest at the local inn is an inspector so townspeople look for ways to impress him.

Nabokov makes much of ghost-like characters in The Inspector General who create a rich social backdrop despite never appearing onstage other than as topics of conversation for the townspeople. Of course the play’s characters, many of whom have very funny names that reflect their personalities and frailties, are terribly unreliable and imaginative narrators, particularly when they talk about themselves. Khlestakov, the alleged inspector, for example, reinvents himself completely in conversation, and most of the other characters also show tremendous vanity in creating new narratives for themselves.

The play contains some strong elements of carnival, with plenty of chaos, masks, and changes in the power structure for characters of varied social strata. It seems to me that the final scene, in which the actors freeze for a minute and a half, is Gogol’s way of forcing spectators to, literally, look at his characters and recognize bits of themselves.

Even if I didn’t much enjoy the Dikanka stories, I’m glad I read them: I got a better feel for the variations in Gogol’s writing and the influence he exerts on Russian literature. I’ve been familiar with The Inspector General for years, having read pieces of it and seeing it performed, so was glad to finally fill in a big hole in my Russian reading.

Thank you, Sharon, for creating the Russian Reading Challenge


  1. "How Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich Quarrelled" was also my favorite of these stories, by far. I don't have the strength of Nabokov's convictions about them, but I thought they were mostly of interest as background on a great writer.

  2. Thank you for the comment, AR. I, too, can't come close to Nabokov's negative feelings about these stories, but I imagine they would be discouraging to read as a schoolchild!

  3. I didn't mind the Dikanka stories too much - and the 2 Ivans was probably my favourite too. I hated Dead Souls, which started out as a comedy but then tried to transform itself into something serious and failed (for me anyway). I enjoyed the Petersburg Tales a lot though - but I really didn't buy into the tedious Freudian interpretation of "Nos", which we had to discuss ad nauseam when we studied Gogol at university.

    I think it's more interesting to look at Gogol as a Ukrainian/ "Little Russian" writer who was trying to make it in the big city...

  4. Cat, thank you for adding your comment. I, too, have always liked certain Gogol short stories best: "The Overcoat" and "The Nose" are my favorites, though I also like "Diary of a Madman." I agree that Freudian analysis of "The Nose" gets tiresome! I much prefer to love its absurdity.

    On another note, I enjoy Gary Saul Morson's take on Gogol' in an article, "Absolute Nonsense".