Under the Overcoat

Gogol was made uneasy by his works,” notes Richard Pevear in his introduction to his and Larissa Volokhonsky’s admirable new translation of the collected tales. It is an understatement that would have appealed to Gogol himself. He came to regard his extraordinary gift for writing prose as something sent from the devil, something that only prayer, fasting, and slavish obedience to his father confessor might exorcise and expiate. He fasted so fanatically that he died at forty-three. The story of his last years and months makes harrowing reading, more particularly for readers who are themselves fascinated and seduced by the power of words, and by their capacity in the hands of a great artist to exist marvelously and uncannily on their own, like the nose which, to the consternation of its respectable owner, seems to have escaped, even from the tale of which it is the title, to lead a phantom life of its own in the streets of St. Petersburg.

Andrei Sinyavsky’s study In Gogol’s Shadow analyzes Gogol’s gift for language—one could speak of it as the equivalent in Russian prose of Pushkin’s primal genius as Russian poet—that shifts “from the object of speech to speech as a process of objectless intent, interesting in itself and exhausted by itself…. That is why we perceive Gogol’s prose so distinctly as prose, and not as a…form of putting thoughts into words…. It has its content and even, if you wish, its subject in itself—this prose which steps forth in the free image of speech about facts worth mentioning, speech in a pure sense about nothing.” No wonder Gogol came to think that such objectless speech must come from the devil—Satan, in fact, finding words for idle mouths to utter. Pushkin hinted that laughter and tears are the same in Gogol—the same because neither has significance beyond the pure play of the words that convey them? And naturally, as Richard Pevear comments, the images that Gogol’s prose produces “are too deeply ambiguous to bear any social message.”

Nonetheless they must have come from somewhere, and be about something. And indeed they are, and they have: Gogol’s laughter itself is neither sane nor mad, but it is totally and magically localized. He was born in the provincial depths of Little Russia or the Ukraine, in the village of Sorochintsy near the town of Dikanka. His mother, the dominant factor in his emotional life, had a small estate; his father, a more shadowy figure who died young, had been an amateur playwright; Gogol’s sole apparent talent at school was as an actor and mimic. Like many an ambitious young provincial he went to try his luck in the capital; and a setting more different from his home town in the Ukraine could hardly be imagined. As Pevear observes, the road from the depths of Little Russia intersected with the glittering “all-powerful Nevsky Prospect,” in Gogol’s words, and “his …

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