March 20, 2009

Happy Birthday Nikosha Gogol!

Today is the 200th birthday of Nikolai Gogol. Well, sort of.

I'll come back to that.

Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol is one of Russia's greatest and yet least appreciated writers. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and other classics, said that "we all came out of Gogol's Overcoat." What he meant is that Gogol was completely unlike any Russian writer who preceded him, and that all Russian literature that followed was indebted to him.

Gogol had a way of seeing the world that was at once dark and hysterical, grotesque yet humorous. In his stories, he magnified human frailties, fears, pettiness and license, the better to demonstrate the comic futility of our human condition. His works are therefore timeless and, in many ways, unequaled.

There are few short stories as powerful as Gogol's The Overcoat; there is no Russian play more important than his Inspector General; and few novels have had as much impact as his epic Dead Souls. And then there is his masterful short story, The Nose - a personal favorite. On the surface, it seems to be a nonsensical story about a nose that left its owner's face to make a life of its own, yet it is in fact a hilarious, and utterly profound, story about status and social mores.

Gogol had a huge impact on Russian culture. Even today, 200 years after his birth, Russians still use the names of characters from his stories as adjectives to describe people they know. And Gogol is perhaps only exceeded by Pushkin - Russia's national poet - in the number of his works adapted for opera, ballet and film.

Yet perhaps the best thing about Gogol is that he is just telling great stories; he is not, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, trying to sell Great Ideas. As the writer Vladimir Nabokov said: "Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange... Great literature skirts the irrational" And the irrational, Nabokov said "is the very basis of Gogol's art, in fact, whenever [Gogol] tried to treat rational ideas in a logical way, he lost all trace of talent."

Not surprisingly, Soviet literary critics did not get Gogol. Instead, they mortgaged his long-dead soul for their own purposes, classifying him as a realist and a social critic, which was pure nonsense. And, as if that were not enough, they moved observation of his birthday from March 20 to April 1, to make it seem like the satirist had been born on April Fool's Day - a ridiculous sham.

Today, on Gogol's 200th birthday, we should resolve to look at the world as this great writer did, not taking ourselves too seriously, and always remembering, as he wrote in The Nose, that "Absolute nonsense happens in the world."

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