Under the Overcoat

Divided Soul: The Life of Gogol

by Henri Troyat, translated by Nancy Amphoux
Doubleday, 489 pp., $12.95

We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,”’ the most famous apocryphal saying of Russian literature, is attributed to Dostoevsky. It suggests not only that Gogol was the great source of the Russian novel but that his works lent themselves to a wide enough range of interpretations for his overcoat to shelter, comfortably, future Turgenevs, Chekhovs, Dostoevskys, and Tolstoys. The capacity to influence so many different writers is also reflected in the range and eccentricity of Gogol criticism, which includes flat, solemn analyses by Soviet writers as well as hysterical eschatology by émigré mystics.

Although the rest of Russian literature may have come out of “The Overcoat,” it is not easy to see where “The Overcoat” came from. Gogol may have sources in eighteenth-century Ukrainian literature, but finding them is strictly a pursuit for academics: their discovery makes one no wiser. Gogol’s writing remains an enigma; his totally original combination of wild surrealism and minutely observed detail creates an atmosphere of intense and comic unease. Gogol made a world that seemed real enough, plain as the nose on your face—so long as that’s where it is, so long as it has not left for the moon (“Diary of a Madman”) or taken a stroll down the Nevsky Prospekt dressed as a senior civil servant (“The Nose”). Gogol describes places that are booby-trapped, in which the cloth of reality is stretched too thin; at any moment it may tear and let through the devil (“The Portrait”) or one of his junior executives, such as the bland, clean, round-chinned Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. You might take him for a charming retired civil servant, traveling on business, but you would be wrong. Chichikov is also a would-be prince of voodoo, seeking control over a legion of the dead.

Gogol creates a sinister and uncertain Russia suffused with devilry but rarely smelling of sulphur. It is largely free of Gothic hardware, in fact it looks remarkably like the Russia of Nicholas the First. Indeed it would be wrong to assume that the chicanery and ludicrous administrative malpractice of The Inspector General and Dead Souls were extravagant fantasies or exaggerations. Alexander Herzen’s hilarious accounts of his experiences in exile come straight from The Inspector General. He describes a Siberian governor who prepares for a somewhat testing visit from the Tsarevich by having a potential troublemaker declared insane and tucked away in the asylum. Unfortunately the Tsarevich has been warned, and the first thing he wants to see is the asylum. When exiled in Novgorod, Herzen is put in charge of the local department of internal security—since exiles must work. His chief duty is to file reports on the activities of all local exiles, including himself.

Nothing in Gogol’s world is quite what it seems. The most ludicrous of fantasies may turn out to be true, while apparent realism is often an invention. In fact Gogol, the first great poet of provincial Russia, had no real experience of the Russian provinces and spent most of his creative life abroad, dividing the rest between Moscow and Petersburg.

His work presents the ambitious critic with considerable difficulties, but these are nothing compared with those facing his biographers. Gogol was the most enigmatic of characters; nothing so simple as a mass of contradictions, he was a conglomeration of irreconcilable and largely repellent characteristics. His parents were not simply eccentric. His father’s attention was drawn to his mother by the Virgin in a dream. He was thirteen and she was seven months old. He courted her variously and assiduously for fourteen years before marrying her. In due course Gogol’s mother became a remarkably foolish woman who had her son’s ability to believe whatever she wanted to believe. She attributed to him books he had never written, such as Evgeny Onegin, and even claimed he had invented the steamship. Neither mother nor son ever let facts stand in their way.

Gogol himself was a repulsive boy with purulent ears, straggling hair, and an absurd nose. The inner man was worse. From his school days on his letters were crammed with abject and inflated homilies. He had an uncontrollable itch to tell others how to live. He would never quit the role of the would-be man of righteousness. Nor was Gogol the preacher ever sensitive to the reactions of his audience. He would shift blithely, and in mid-paragraph, from urgent moral exhortation to a no less urgent request for a sizable loan, to be sent at once, and all without the slightest uneasiness. He suffered from a pathological ethical solipsism—believing that he alone in the world was right—a condition he shares with Rousseau, whom he resembles in many other ways. Both men were high priests of virtue, able to reconcile their self-interest with their sacerdocy, and to do so with ease. Both had a monopoly over truth.

Gogol’s preaching is inspired by a decision to consider himself guided by the hand of God. A view by no means intrinsically repellent, it becomes so when it is suggested that to oblige Gogol is to oblige the Lord; or when Gogol asks certain long-suffering friends to hand his royalties over to “the poor students,” conveniently forgetting that he had already promised them to the selfsame friends in partial acquittal of his enormous debts.

Although his sense of righteousness may seem compatible with his total rejection of sex, it is less easily reconciled with an attention to dress that gave him the flashy style of a small-town dandy; still less does it fit with his colossal gluttony. His writing is suffused with a profound love of food, and Gogol himself was one of the great eaters of the world. Sometimes he combines his gluttony and spirituality, as when he suggests that his letters, together with the Scriptures, be used as a cookery-book for the soul—the recipes should be read after meals, when the reader is undistracted by appetite.

Along with being a monumental glutton Gogol was a dedicated hypochondriac and died of an imaginary disease. One may laugh at one of his characters who maintains that the brain comes to us on a wind from the Caspian; one laughs less on learning that Gogol believed the cause of his own poor health to be that his stomach was upside-down. His death was tragic. Gogol the mighty eater starved and wasted away. At the last moment he was assailed by a team of doctors, who created scenes of a savage medical barbarism that surpass the worst he had imagined in his own writing. Gogol spent his last days pummeled, pounded, and drenched in corrosive alcohol, with, the ultimate horror, half a dozen leeches attached to his nose.

But Gogol the hypocrite, the glutton, the flawed vessel of righteousness, was also the greatest storyteller and mimic of his age. He worked eccentricity, lunacy, and finely observed detail into patterns of genius. Despite his fibbing, his cadging, his compulsive traveling—living, as it were, on the metaphysical run—he remains the greatest comic writer since Moliére, and a greater authority on evil perhaps than even Baudelaire or Dostoevsky.

It is his sense of evil that created the mood of insecurity that pervades his work. Although some of the early writing is overtly supernatural, as he matures this element recedes to the point of invisibility, while remaining to dominate an apparently realistic world. The effect is unnerving. Whether it be the Petersburg stories, The Inspector General, or Dead Souls, we feel that beneath the surface of the visible lurks something monstrous and infernal. We may glimpse it sometimes—in the grotesque landowners of Dead Souls, who may seem for a moment truly colossal figures, only to become human (well almost human) again. When Chichikov is bargaining with a customer he sometimes seems to be talking about people and sometimes about acquiring a mortgage on zombies. When he reads over a list of his acquisitions this owner of imaginary assets can almost persuade himself that they’re real, the master of voodoo can turn the dead into profit. Dead Souls is always on the point of slipping into allegory and mystic abstraction, but never actually does so, and it is this sense of looming allegory that gives it a particular kind of richness, a richness that brings Gogol strangely close to Melville.

The atmosphere of unease is compounded by Gogol’s so-called realism. It is a realism perpetually tested by the use of totally irrelevant detail and digression. Time and again what begins as a piece of realistic writing will trail off into dreamy and inconsequential metaphor and nonsense. For Gogol writes of a world so lacking in reality and purpose, so essentially negative, that its essence may only be caught through inconsequence and digression.

Gogol has an undramatic sense of evil. He sees it operate through absurdity and mediocrity, and portrays it through the soft focus of his narrative. His devils deal in trivia—such as dead souls—and Satan himself is a mediocre bureaucrat. Gogol is at his best when writing of petty devils. Indeed he could write well of nothing else. In his last years he tried desperately to add a Purgatory and a Paradise to his comedy, only to find that he could only write of hell. The rest eluded him. What finally drove him to destroy the second part of Dead Souls, six years’ work, and to waste away to death was the realization that he could not write successfully of the good. He came to understand that when he wrote of virtue he sounded like a hypocrite; that it was the petty devil in him who had the best, indeed the only, story to tell.

M. Troyat’s book is a critical biography, more biography than criticism. He gives brief accounts of the works which are on the whole useful. One may find some of his opinions insensitive or obtuse, suggesting that he has no real nose for Gogol, but in general his views are sound. There is, however, a glaring critical omission. Too little is said about the brilliance of Gogol’s language. Gogol can range from the most vivid colors to a superb flat and gray lyricism. He creates a linguistic world which is not exactly Russian but the surrealistic expression of a dream of Russianness; and which can be said to re-create that language for us. On this subject M. Troyat is virtually silent.

Otherwise he provides a modest and unassuming critical comment which, although it has its weaknesses, is coherent and sensible. The same is true of his account of the vastly more important biographical material. One asks of a life of Gogol that it should not just describe but attempt to explain the more puzzling aspects of his personality and work. One would welcome a treatment that pulled everything together, providing insight as well as facts. To achieve this the author would have to be a Gogol addict, and probably also a genius. Anyone who wants to know what that combination can achieve should read Nabokov’s unique and brilliant study.*

Although M. Troyat is no addict of Gogol, his work has distinct virtues. In the first place, every fact that should be there is there. M. Troyat makes much use of the correspondence, bridging gaps with factual statements and background information, all of which is required to speak for itself. Sometimes, alas, he adds the kind of descriptive detail (“The day dawned fine and sunny”) which, when unsubstantiated by sources, smacks of that most despicable form of literature, the biographie romancée.

M. Troyat’s self-effacing method works perfectly with Gogol’s later years, when his letters, growing madder daily, speak clearly for themselves. But the younger Gogol is too elusive for this technique. It is here that one misses the interpretation and explanation that would give this biography more depth. Nor does it help that Troyat often writes in clichés—“Carnival came and went merrily,” or even, heaven help us, “the endless Russian plain.”

The book is often inaccurate. Mistakes become fair game when there are enough to test one’s confidence in a book. The least important, in this case, are those of the translator from the French. “Un pays, Nikolai Gogol” means “A fellow-countryman N.G.” not “A country….” More eccentrically, “marieuse hardie,” “bold marriage broker,” has turned into “arrogant marquis.” Elsewhere a moth, “mite,” has become a termite, and a cherry-wood pipe (big) has become a briar (small); important enough when the pipe in question is about to be used to thrash Chichikov. A character in The Inspector General, the play explains, smells of vodka because his nurse once dropped him as a baby. The explanation appears to leave the translator unsatisfied. She has it that the nurse “dropped him in it,” i.e., the vodka.

These are fairly trivial. More alarming are certain lapses in the author’s recollection of the texts. A program has crept into Taras Bulba. Elsewhere Thomas Brutus, the hero of Viy, is described flying through the air with a witch. In fact he gallops with her over the steppe, in one of the most memorable passages in Gogol. Then there are certain factual errors, one of which looks like willful distortion. M. Troyat says that Gogol looked like a grebe. This is arguable, but what is not is his statement that gogol is the Russian for “grebe.” It is the Russian for “goldeneye,” a different bird. Gogol did not look like a goldeneye.

Finally some of the author’s own translations are dubious. Bashmak means neither “a carpet slipper” nor “une savate,” just an ordinary shoe. Pech‘—“a stove”—becomes in the French “une cheminée” or fireplace, to turn in the English into a chimney. The poor clerk of “The Overcoat” once dreamed, wildly, of trimming the collar of his new coat with marten. In the English version this has become sable, altogether a wilder dream. Chichikov protected himself from the smell of his valet by putting cloves up his nose. For certain very understandable reasons M. Troyat takes the Russian word for cloves to mean a pink (the flower). But since he cannot see Chichikov putting a flower up his nose he alters the text to have him hold the flower under it; turning Chichikov the practical man into something more delicate.

On one occasion at least M. Troyat fails to understand the idiomatic Russian. Chichikov quotes a wise old peasant proverb: “All a corpse is good for is propping up a fence.” M. Troyat renders this as “A corpse can’t even prop up a fence,” another saying altogether. At the least such mistakes confirm the impression that M. Troyat is not passionately devoted to Gogol and his world.

Indeed there are enough different kinds of mistakes to make the reader doubt M. Troyat’s authority. Although there may be those who will feel that this can spoil a biography, it has the paradoxical effect of giving it the very quality which it otherwise lacks, essential Gogolism. Here, as with Gogol, you can never be quite sure of anything. You may think, in your innocence, that Chichikov is delicately holding a bloom to his nostrils, when he is stuffing a clove up his nose. Nothing in Gogol, or in M. Troyat’s limited but highly readable and comprehensive account of his life, is ever necessarily what it seems.

  1. *

    Nikolai Gogol (Humanities Press, 1973; New Directions).