There But Not There

<i> Leonard Michaels is the author of several short story collections and a novel. His most recent book is "A Cat" (Riverhead Books)</i>

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.

With his usual self-blindness, Gogol detected nothing of himself in Dostoevsky’s early work but found him verbose. When Gogol’s narrator talks more than he tells, one reads for the pleasure in paragraphs and pages, as opposed to the suspenseful tensions and resolutions of a linear progress. In the story “Viy,” the narrator says he is telling a popular legend simply as he heard it, but it’s obvious that he is making it up as he goes along, in a leisurely, drifty, dreamlike manner, until he arrives at the central dramatic complication, a terrifying sexual nightmare. “The Diary of a Madman,” literally told by a madman talking to himself in his diary, doesn’t seem radically different from “The Portrait,” “The Nose,” “Saint John’s Eve” or “The Overcoat,” all of them issuing from the energy of talk, and kinds and degrees of madness.

“The Nose” begins with a barber wakened by the smell of hot bread, which is his breakfast. Upon slicing open the bread, he discovers a nose. He recognizes the nose as belonging to an important person, becomes upset and tosses it from a bridge into a river. A police officer sees him and asks what he was doing on the bridge. Gogol writes, “here the incident becomes totally shrouded in mist.” Nothing more is known. Thus the first part of the story ends. The second part begins with another man discovering that his nose is gone. Between the first and second parts, there is no logically causal connection, only a mad transition, but the first part is already quite mad if you consider that the barber smells something and then finds a nose. This reversal and separation of smell and nose is eerily amusing and suggests that the story is driven by pathological anxieties and confusions about body and self.

In “The Nose” and other stories, Gogol deals with some sort of primordial anxiety of disconnection, perhaps deeper than his obvious castration fears. Dissociation appears in different forms in his subjects and manner (not to mention his life) and is already evident in Gogol’s earliest story, “Saint John’s Eve,” in which the distinction between talking and telling is emphasized. A man who “mortally disliked” telling the same story twice proceeds to do just that, telling a story that he told before. Thus, disconnected from himself, he is like the hero of his story who finds himself “thinking and thinking as if he wanted to remember something.” What the hero can’t remember is that, entranced by the devil, he murdered a 6-year-old boy, who represents nonsexual innocence, for the sake of possessing the boy’s older sister. When he remembers, the horror is relived and the story ends with images of demonic spookiness as if, for Gogol, the devil is not only an escape from sense, but also from responsibility.

“The Overcoat,” probably Gogol’s best story, again ends with a series of spooky images rather than an event necessarily entailed by preceding events. It would be impossible to tell this story without losing its dramatic force, as you could tell almost any story by Chekhov and retain some of its dramatic force and much of its sense. Like some of Gogol’s other stories, “The Overcoat” is much concerned with supernatural phenomena rather than with psychological or sociological realities. As in other stories, pretensions to titles, hierarchies, jobs, skills and all sorts of production--books, overcoats, legal documents--are seen as absurd. As for the sentiments basic to anything you might call social, sentiments that bind persons to one another, these also seem to Gogol absurd, if not something worse.

In his preface to “The Collected Tales,” Pevear quotes a letter, written by Gogol to his father confessor, saying he is “guilty and accursed” for having described the world as it actually is, “as alive as a painter from life.” Considering the grotesques who people his stories, as well as witches, devils and monsters, the quotation is puzzling, but an instance of painterly aliveness, or depravity, might be the passage in “The Overcoat” in which the exceedingly abused and pitiable clerk, Akaky, is mercilessly tormented by his colleagues and he says, “Why do you offend me?”

In the word “offend,” there’s something dramatically alive, not merely lifelike, though Akaky himself is an improbable creature and, in Gogol’s eyes, ridiculous. Hideously unlucky, aesthetically deplorable, Akaky’s only happiness is in the brainless copying of boring documents. But he is able to feel offended. Thus, Gogol’s laborious caricature suddenly lives not as a fictional person but as an instance of humanity, a being defined by interior life. One of Akaky’s colleagues, who hears the question, is permanently disturbed and depressed. “He shuddered to see how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness”--a perception at the heart of many fairy tales. When Akaky dies and becomes a phantom, the scourge of St. Petersburg, his transfiguration suggests a creature of pathos and vengeance invoked by our inhumanity, a kind of antichrist. The improbable Akaky then seems fearfully probable.

There are other such distinctly Gogolian moments when a situation that is banal, comical or absurd gains unanticipated peculiar intensity. In “Viy,” a man is beating a witch who cries out, “Oh, I can’t take any more,” and collapses, transformed into a “beauty with a disheveled, luxurious braid.” She spreads her “bare white arms” and moans and looks up “with tear-filled eyes.” The man feels “strange excitement and timidity, incomprehensible to himself.” This is the Gogolian surreal. Unlike most of what we call surrealism, it doesn’t feel gratuitous, meretricious or trivial. It has the mysterious cogency of a dream, and the quality of realness that we hesitate to say is merely a dream.