March 01, 2009

Understanding Gogol

During Gogol’s lifetime, and for many  decades afterwards, no one would have thought that the 200th anniversary of his birth would be celebrated as a cultural event of global significance. In Russia, however, the writer was acclaimed literally from the time of his first book of prose: the collection Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (published in two parts in 1831-32). Yet an understanding of the depth of his work did not come immediately; it required time and effort.

“Everyone was delighted by this lively description of a tribe that sang and did folk dances, by these fresh pictures of life in Little Russia, by this cheerfulness, at once simple-hearted and cunning,” wrote Alexander Pushkin about Evenings. Such was the general impression among writers and critics. The quality of the book that Pushkin described with the word “cunning” went almost unnoticed: the author of Evenings had skillfully lured his readers deep into his artistic world by revealing to them more and more new meanings, meanings that often directly contradicted one another.

Unrestrained, infectious joy… Yes, there is some of that in Evenings. But too, there is a tinge of sadness. Whence springs the sadness in the songs of the vivacious boys and girls in May Night, who apparently poured “their joy into sounds that were always inseparable from despondency”? Where does the minor-key ending of The Fair at Sorochintsy come from? (“It’s boring for the abandoned one! And the heart becomes heavy and sad…”) The lines prefigure the famous ending of The Tale of the Quarrel Between Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforich: “It’s dull in this world, gentlemen!” Where in fact does the disturbed mood, portending misfortune, of the majority of the finales come from – like the ending of St. John’s Eve, when “the alarmed ravens… with wild cries raced around the skies”? In a word, the joy is deceptive; it is like a “beautiful and fickle guest” (from The Fair at Sorochintsy) who is ready to abandon us at any minute.

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