Author: Nikolai Gogol


Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

    Short lifespan 43 years (31 March 1809–4 March 1852) was a Russian dramatist of Ukranian origin.

    The popularity of Nikolai Gogol in India can be judged by the fact that the main character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel The Namesake and its 2006 movie is named after Nikolai Gogol, because his father survives a train crash while clutching onto a copy of one of Gogol’s books in his hand.

    An eponymous poem “Gogol” by poet-diplomat Abhay Kumar refers to some of the great works of Gogol such as “The Nose”, “The Overcoat”, “Nevsky Prospekt”, “Dead Souls” and “The Government Inspector.”

    Gogol’s story “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich” was adapted into a Marathi movie titled, Katha Don Ganpatravanchi in 1996. The movie was directed by Arun Khopkar and dialogues are written by Satish Alekar. The movie had Dilip Prabhawalkar and Mohan Agashe in lead roles.

    Although, Gogol was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the pre-eminent figures of the natural school of Russian literary realism. Later his critics have found in his work a fundamentally romantic sensibility, with strands of surrealism and grotesque in works such as, “The Nose”, “Viy”, (a horror story) “The Overcoat” and “Nevsky  Prospekt”. His early works, such as “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka,” were influenced by his Ukrainian upbringing, Ukranian culture and folklore. His later writing satirised political corruption in the Russian Empire which includes (The Government Inspector and Dead Souls,). His novels “Taras Bulba” (1835) and his play “Marriage” (1842), along with the short stories “Diary of a Madman”, “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”, “The Portrait” and “The Carriage”, are all among his best-known works.

    Gogol was born in the Ukrainian Cossack town of Sorochyntsi, in Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire. His mother descended from Leonty Kosyarovsky, an officer of the Lubny Regiment in 1710. His father Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, was a descendant of Ukrainian Cossacks who died when Gogol was 15 years old. He belonged to the ‘petty gentry’, who wrote poetry in Ukrainian and Russian, and was an amateur Ukranian-language playwright. As was typical of the left-bank Ukrainian gentry of the early nineteenth century. The family spoke Ukrainian as well as Russian. As a child, Gogol helped stage, Ukrainian-language plays, in his uncle’s home theatre.

    In 1820, Gogol went to a school of higher art in Nizhyn (now Nizhyn Gogol State University) and remained there until 1828. It was there that he began writing. He was not popular among his schoolmates, who called him a “mysterious dwarf”, but with two or three of them he formed lasting friendships. Very early he developed a dark and secretive disposition, marked by a painful self-consciousness and boundless ambition. Equally early, he developed a talent for mimicry, which later made him a matchless reader of his own works and induced him to toy with the idea of becoming an actor.

    In 1828, upon leaving school, Gogol came to Saint Petersburg, with vague but ambitious hopes. He wanted literary fame, and brought with him a Romantic poem of German idyllic life – Hans Küchelgarten. He had it published, at his own expense, under the name of “V Alov.” The magazines he sent it to, almost universally, derided it. He bought all the copies and destroyed them, swearing never to write poetry again. Gogol was always in touch with the “literary aristocracy.”

    In 1831 Gogol brought out the first volume of his Ukranian stories—‘Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka’ that met with immediate success. He followed it in 1832 with a second volume and in 1835 by two more volumes and in 1835 by two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod as well as miscellaneous prose titled Arabesques. With all this Gogol emerged more as an Ukranian writer than a Russian one. The themes and style of Gogol’s prose were similar to the work of Ukranian writers.

    Gogol developed a passion for Ukranian history and tried to obtain an appointment in the history department at Kiev University. Where, despite the support of Pushkin and Sergey Uvarov the Russian Minister for education his appointment was blocked by a Kyivan bureaucrat on the grounds that Gogol was unqualified.

    In 1834 Gogol was made professor of medieval history at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. At the final examination, he sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, simulating a toothache, while another professor interrogated the students. This academic venture proved a failure and he resigned his chair in 1835.

    Between 1832 and 1836 Gogol worked with great energy. It was, only after the presentation, at the Saint Petersburg, State Theatre, on 19 April 1836, of his comedy “The Government Inspector” that he finally came to believe in his literary capabilities. The comedy, was a violent satire of Russian provincial bureaucracy. From 1836 to 1848 Gogol lived abroad, travelling through Germany and Switzerland. Gogol spent the winter of 1836–37 in Paris, among Russian expatriates and Polish exiles, He eventually settled in Rome. For much of the twelve years from 1836 Gogol was in Italy developing an admiration for Rome. He studied art, read Italian literature and developed a passion for opera.

    In 1841 the first part of Dead Souls was ready, and Gogol took it to Russia to supervise its printing. The book instantly established his reputation as the greatest prose writer in the language.

   After the triumph of Dead Souls, Gogol’s contemporaries came to regard him as a great satirist who lampooned the unseemly sides of Imperial Russia.  

    In April 1848 Gogol returned to Russia from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and passed his last years in restless movement throughout the country. He fell into a state of deep depression. On the night of 24 February 1852 he burned some of his manuscripts, which contained most of the second part of Dead Souls. He explained this, as a mistake, a practical joke played on him by the Devil. Soon thereafter, he took to bed, refused all food, and died in great pain nine days later.

    Gogol was mourned in the Saint Tatiana church at the Moscow University before his burial and then buried at the Danilov Monastery. His grave was marked by a large stone (Golgotha), topped by a Russian Orthodox cross. In 1931, Moscow authorities decided to demolish the monastery and had Gogol’s remains transferred to a cemetery in Moscow, Russia.

    His body was discovered lying face down, which gave rise to the story that Gogol had been buried alive. The authorities moved the Golgotha stone to the new gravesite, but removed the cross. In 1952 the Soviets replaced the stone with a bust of Gogol.

    Gogol was a great destroyer of prohibitions, and of romantic illusions. He undermined Russian Romanticism by making vulgarity reign where only the sublime and the beautiful had been before.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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