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Gogol, a genius of Ukrainian descent
This year marks two hundred years since Nikolay Gogol’s birth. Though he is ranked among the “finest” and “most accomplished” authors of world literature, Nikolay Gogol is, at the same time, one of the most enigmatic writers in world literature. His literary legacy continues to be controversial, assessments vary, and there is only one point in which consensus is reached — it’s Gogol’s unique greatness.
Gogol was born in Ukraine, in the village of Velyki Sorochyntsi; his parents were of the solid Ukrainian stock; his father traced his descent to Ukrainian Cossacks. He was exposed to Ukrainian culture and language since his birth — but then, in 1828, at the age of nineteen, he went to St. Petersburg, Russia, hoping to enter the civil service, but he soon discovered that without money and connections he would have to fight hard for a living. His first attempts at writing were unsuccessful, but he persisted. Gogol wrote occasionally for periodicals, and then he committed to paper what he remembered of Ukraine’s sunny landscapes, peasants, and boisterous village lads; he also related tales about devils, witches, and other demonic or fantastic agents that enliven Ukrainian folklore. His narratives were published in two volumes in 1831–32 under the title Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki (Evenings at a Hamlet Near Dikanka). Written in a lively prose, these works contributed something fresh and new to Russian literature. In addition to the author’s whimsical inflection, they abounded in genuine folk flavor, including numerous Ukrainian words and phrases, all of which captivated the Russian literary world. The young author became famous overnight.
His further literary career made him the most remarkable figure in Russian literature of his time. The apex of Gogol’s fame was his novel Dead Souls, which the author himself defined as “a poem.” Gogol began to see his leading role in a perspective of his own. He was sure that God had given him a great literary talent in order to make him reveal to Russia the righteous way of living in an evil world. He therefore decided to continue Dead Souls as a kind of Divine Comedy in prose; the already published part would represent the Inferno of Russian life, and the second and third parts would be its Purgatorio and Paradiso. Unfortunately, having embarked upon such a soul-saving task, Gogol noticed that his former creative capacity was deserting him. Crushed by his failures, Gogol saw in it a further proof that, sinful as he was, he had lost God’s favor forever. He increased his prayers and his ascetic practices; in 1848 he even made a pilgrimage to Palestine, but in vain. Despite a few bright moments, he began to wander from place to place like a doomed soul. Finally he settled in Moscow, where he came under the influence of a fanatical priest. Gogol burned the presumably completed manuscript of the second volume of Dead Souls in February of 1852. Ten days later, after a period of fasting by means of which his morbid melancholy tried to counter the Devil, he died, probably on the verge of semimadness. The doctors who had been called in, instead of saving his life, precipitated his death.
“The strangest prose-poet”
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), one of the greatest stylists the world literature has ever known (his position in world literature is unique — he is considered to be “a classic” of both Russian and American literature) called Gogol “the strangest prose-poet Russia has ever produced” (notice the emphasis on “poet”). Nabokov was of the opinion that Gogol’s genius lay in his exceptional mastery of language, not in his “realism” or “humor”. “It is as useless to look in Dead Souls for an authentic Russian background, as it would be to try and form a conception of Denmark on the basis of that little affair in cloudy Elsinor (reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet). In Gogol’s prose, “We are faced by the remarkable phenomenon of mere forms of speech directly giving rise to live creatures.”
Gogol did not “condemn the regime of Nicholas I” as the soviet literary critics claimed; neither did he expose or castigate “the evils of serfdom” or “the absurdities of bureaucratic practices, destructive for the human soul.” In fact, one can read these and other “truths” about Gogol into his works — but Gogol himself stands, in his best works, high above the mundane, realistic world. Gogol is one of the fist prose writers who treated the prose the way poets do; for Gogol, it was much more important how to say than what to say.
Gogol was called, among other preposterous things, “one of the finest comic authors of world literature, and perhaps its most accomplished nonsense writer” (here is another example of critical assessment: Gogol’s works “provide the occasion for profound reflections on the degrading and stultifying influence of serfdom on both owner and serf”). Gogol cannot be pigeonholed, he is a literary phenomenon which is beyond definitions. “It is one of the most striking (and thus most Gogolian) ironies of Russian literary history that radical critics celebrated Gogol as a realist.”
Gogol’s “language itself seems to generate its own absurd content while the universe turns out to be a counterfeit of which there is no original.” “Characteristic of Gogol is a sense of boundless superfluity that is soon revealed as utter emptiness and a rich comedy that suddenly turns into metaphysical horror.”
“Whatever the vagaries of Gogol’s mind and life, his part in Russian literature was enormous.”
“Was Mykola Hohol a Russian writer?”
Can he be considered to be a Ukrainian author who happened to write in Russian?
“I tender my most heartfelt and inexpressible thanks for the precious information you gave me about Malorossiya (“Little Russia”— was the way Ukraine was referred to in the 19th century) and beg you not to stop sending me communications of that kind. I’m storing up things which I shall not publish before all the details are worked out… If my work ever comes out in print, it will be in a foreign language…” wrote Gogol to his mother from St Petersburg some time after he had left Ukraine.
Did Gogol really consider Russian to be “a foreign language?
Mykola Hohol (this is how his name should be pronounced in Ukrainian) is invariably called “a Russian writer” though he was born in Ukraine and his ethnic and cultural background is thoroughly Ukrainian. Yes, he wrote all of his works in Russian but “what a torment it must have been for him both on the strictly personal and on the literary level to wear the mask of a foreign culture.”
“Ukrainian literary critics often called Gogol ‘the prodigal son of his nation.’”
“For people around him, Gogol was a Ukrainian, “a little khokhol” (khokhol — derogatory Russian term for a Ukrainian), from Poltavshchyna. Never did Gogol, under any circumstances tergiversate on his being a Ukrainian, never did he try to hide his links with Ukraine — with his Ukrainian ancestry, with the Ukrainian people.”
“Gogol never tried to hide his ethnic background. Neither did he advertise it.”
“Most of the time Gogol preferred to be all by himself.”
One of Gogol’s friends in St Petersburg, perceptively wrote in the obituary after Gogol’s death: “His was an exceptional personality and after his death he became even more mysterious and difficult to understand than during his lifetime, he cannot be measured or assessed by our usual standards, and we should not even try to do it… What was part of his physiology, part of his nationality, or his upbringing, or his life and experience, what was inborn in him, and what grew up in him without his being conscious of it — all of it is hardly possible to comprehend, and hardly anyone will have enough mental strength to get all these things sorted out.”
Soviet literary critics tried to harness Gogol to their primitive ideology of everything, even the human spirit, being determined by “class struggle” and “economic conditions.” Literary critics in western democracies, though not constrained by such ideological considerations and “party decrees”, were, if their Russian was not good enough, nevertheless handicapped by an insurmountable complication — they had to deal with Gogolian texts in translation.
Very unfortunately for those whose Russian is not absolutely fluent, Gogol’s principal works are untranslatable — the plot can be rendered all right, of course, but the very power of Gogol’s genius is in the way he handled words. All the sublimity of his language, all the amazing language resources that he used or created himself, all the subtle nuances are irrevocably lost in translation. Not dampened, not made bland and insipid, not devoid of certain features — but totally lost.
Even such a great stylist as Nabokov, who handled Russian and English with equal, superior dexterity, called his translations (excerpts he quoted in his book on Gogol) “clumsy” “but at least exact in regard to sense.” Exact they may be, but all the inimitable richness and fragrance of Gogol’s prose is only feebly hinted at.
Gogol, whose writings of the early period must have been influenced by his Ukrainian experiences and ethnicity, in his later works (before his decline began) only formally belongs to “Russian literature” — he is one of those authors who have truly universal appeal. Unfortunately there is a hitch here — his language is so complex, so individually his that so far there has been not a single translator into any language who was endowed with a genius comparable to Gogol’s.
From highly romantic and poetic to surrealistically bizarre, from almost naturalistic to wildly eccentric is Gogol’s range, and across this enormously wide spectrum Gogol remains in perfect control of the language he uses to express himself.
It is with a sigh that we must state that English translations reveal to the readers only a skeleton, stripped of the muscles, sinews, skin and most importantly — the very spirit of the original.
Gogol remains enigmatic to those who read Russian; he is thrice as enigmatic for those who read his translation and can’t help wondering, “What’s so special about this author? His elevation to the elite few of the very great in literature must have been a mistake!”
It is not a mistake — but Gogol still waits to be discovered.
By Oles Paniv
Translator’s note: quotations from various sources are marked by “ ” but their authors
and references, except for Nabokov, were omitted in the original
Gogol’s Museum in the village of Velyki Sorochyntsi.
Mariya Gogol and Vasyl Gogol, the writer’s parents.
By an unknown painter.
Nikolay Gogol, a drawing by Alexander Pushkin.
The cover of Dead Soles (second edition), in which
Gogol’s design was used.
The final scene from Revizor — The Government
Inspector, a play by Gogol; this drawing is
attributed to Gogol himself.
The text of the Ukrainian folk song, “Oy,
rosserdivsya miy milenky” (“Oh, My Beloved Got
So Angry!”) which has been written down by Gogol.
A page from the manuscript of Taras Bulba by Gogol.