Nikolai Gogol, 1809-52, was subjected early in life to the morbid religiosity of his mother, and he was never free of it, sometimes imagining himself a grandiose spiritual teacher and Russia's savior, sometimes an accursed wretch. At the end of his life, instructed by a fanatical and sadistic priest, Gogol tried to cleanse himself through starvation. It led to a gruesome death, Gogol screaming as doctors tried to save him from suicidal purity by attaching leeches to his nose and mouth. In the years between the manias of mother and priest, he left his provincial home in the Ukraine, went to St. Petersburg and, early and late, had tremendous literary successes as well as excruciating failures. He traveled a good deal, visiting Germany, Switzerland and France, and he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In Italy he had a lover and was openly homosexual.
The preface to Gogol's tales, newly translated into excellent English by Richard Pevear and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, suggests how Gogol has been read and misread, praised and dispraised. The Russian critic Belinsky thought Gogol's strange story "The Portrait" wouldn't have been "boring and ridiculous" if it were rational, whereas Nabokov thought Gogol succeeded when he was visionary, not rational, as in the grimly fantastic story "The Overcoat." Critical disparity is typical of comments on Gogol who, in different cultural and political contexts, has been considered a realist, romantic, revolutionary, conservative, nihilist, formalist, surrealist and, by a few writers, more or less insane. Simon Karlinsky's superb study, "The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol," focuses on Gogol's homosexuality.
In his preface to the new translation, Pevear makes an effort to discuss Gogol's work without giving provenance to politics, genres, styles, sex or other matters outside the words on the page. He suggests that Gogol's work is antithetical to ordinary ideas of meaning. Critics such as Belinsky, looking for social significance, miss this possibility. Nabokov, who missed nothing, was simply unsympathetic to Gogol's licentious inventiveness, and while he found much to admire, thought most of Gogol juvenile. Readers more tolerant than Nabokov will find even the earliest of Gogol's stories entertaining, as did his contemporaries, who, while praising him for originality and humor, didn't always know what to make of him. Pevear says, "Gogol was made uneasy by his own works." It seems apparent, then, like his heartbreaking narrator in "The Diary of a Madman," Gogol didn't know what to make of himself.
Pevear says Gogol's "discovery of the unaccountable, of the absence of an experience to be passed on, left him permanently surprised. His work was the invention of forms to express it." The observation is interesting and gracefully put. It stops short of saying Gogol found ways of saying there is nothing to say. It is notable that, like fairy tales, some of Gogol's stories--which are told in a cheery voice--are full of violence, supernatural terrors and desecrations of the relation between colleagues, friends, lovers, family members, et al. In effect, they compel attention while defeating rational understanding, the distinguishing characteristic of madness, Gogol's recurrent subject.
This mad dynamic appears in "The Portrait," a strange story over which Gogol labored long. It is about a compelling artistic image that exudes a weird influence and causes derangement. The image, one supposes, is of himself. A similar idea about images appears in the Old Testament, in the opposition of God's law and the self-indulgent golden calf, an image in the evil sense that Gogol had in mind. A famous distrust of images is also in Plato's "Republic," but it is odd to find it in Gogol, who spent much of his life making images and was neither Greek nor Jew; while Christianity, his faith, has often been associated with images, the cross itself being one.
Gogol's stories have influenced writers from Dostoevsky to Kafka. His influence appears even in such contemporaries as Isaac Bashevis Singer, among the greatest storytellers, though Gogol himself might be included among anti-storytellers who deal with caricatures and grotesques rather than with characters, and exhibit high-spirited comical indifference to the traditional expectations and gratifications of a story. In Gogol's work, you don't usually find a series of events, each leading to the next until an ending arrives that seems both unpredictable and inevitable. He tends to be multifariously digressive, his chatty narrator sometimes making self-conscious jokes and talking mainly for the sake of talking, rather as if he doesn't want to get into the story lest he might actually have to tell it and bring it to an end.