Was Gogol Gay?

Nicolai Gogol
Nicolai Gogol; drawing by David Levine

Simon Karlinsky is convinced that Gogol’s “emotional orientation” was homosexual, and this is what his book is about. In his opinion the topic is of first importance, a “neglected area in Gogol’s life and work,” taboo even in universities. So much so that, as one is shocked to learn, some twenty years ago in Berlin Vsevolod Setchkarev, now of Harvard, was prevented from mentioning it in his study of Gogol by a senior colleague who threatened to ruin his academic career if he did so. Subsequently, several Freudian critics delved into other aspects of Gogol’s sexuality but left this one untouched. So that in the name of scholarship and intellectual freedom alone, the question should be brought to light and examined. But Professor Karlinsky has other reasons as well. He considers the matter to be crucial for an understanding of Gogol’s puzzling nature. “It may provide,” he thinks, “the missing key to the riddle of his personality”; it is “the source and the cause of Gogol’s personal and literary tragedy.”

With Gogol, who seems to be concealed rather than revealed in his writings, it is much more difficult than with other writers to see the link between the man and the work. He has always been a puzzle. Like Chichikov and Khlestakov, the devious heroes of Dead Souls and The Inspector General, galloping off in their troikas, Gogol escapes from you just as you are about to catch hold of him, or he tries to hide away in some secluded corner of his property like his Pifagor Chertokutsky in “The Carriage.” He is indeed more evasive than his creatures. After all, we do know a good deal about Chichikov and Khlestakov, and the unfortunate Chertokutsky is traced to his hiding place and discovered. Gogol, on the other hand, remains secreted and impenetrable. His writings float free of himself, as if he had deliberately snapped the cord of his inspiration and, having set his invented world in motion, had retreated from it, the deus absconditus of his creation.

Professor Karlinsky claims to have solved the mystery, to have tracked Gogol down to the secluded lair of his homosexuality, as Chertokutsky was tracked down to the refuge of his carriage. His thesis, in brief outline, is that Gogol, unable to be himself in a world where homosexuality was proscribed, concealed his inclinations, attempted to suppress his emotions, projected his secretiveness unconsciously in the deceptions, mystifications, and symbols of his stories and plays, and ultimately broke down under the strain, ruining his art and destroying himself. The analysis proceeds not so much from the man to the work, although some relevant biographical data is put to use, as from the work to the man, so that the work takes on the shape and function of hieroglyphics that must be deciphered so the man might be read.

It has long been noticed that “love interest,”…

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