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 …

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