Typically Gogol

Just like Pushkin Gogol is considered to be the father of Russian literature. Pushkin provided a modern language for future writers and proved to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration, and Gogol gave Russian literature its’ own identity and he wrote the first Russian novel: Dead Souls. He doesn’t quite fit into a genre, his work has both romantic and realistic elements, and one could even say that he was a fantastic realist avant la lettre.


His career

Gogol was born in Ukraine from Cossack descent. At school the other children called him a ‘mysterious dwarf’, but his mother adored him. When he was nineteen he moved to Petersburg to become either an actor or a writer. At the time folklore was very popular in Petersburg and writing about the Ukraine was easy for Gogol. His first collection of stories, Evenings on a farm near Dikanka (1832), was soon a modest success.


He followed it up with another set of Ukrainian stories, Mirgorod (1835). His first big success came with his play The Government Inspector (1836). It managed to get through the strict censure, even though Gogol parodied the bureaucracy in Russia. The so called Petersburg stories were written between 1835 en 1842. With that first of all great Russian novels, Dead Souls (1842) Gogol’s star was firmly set on the Russian firmament.


Great sense of humour


Gogol was a genius when it came to making ordinary situations comical. Dead Souls, described as an ‘odyssey through the great Russian land’, is riddled with anecdotes and eccentric characters. No one escapes Gogol’s satire. There is a hilarious scene where two servants come back to the hotel where their master stays in an apparent state. They need fifteen minutes to conquer the stairs. Once inside they fall asleep immediately and soon the whole hotel is snoring. Quite a funny situation already. But add to that one person who is not asleep, a lieutenant, of absolutely no relevance to the rest of the novel, who has just bought four pairs of new boots and is parading up and down his room in them, admiring them and unable to take them off. That’s when we have Gogol’s inimitable sense of humour*.




His writing style is rather old fashioned and complicated in Russian. Even though he wrote in Russian, he used a lot of Ukrainian words. He had a great sense of humour, but it is not always clear where he gets serious. His characters are described in detail by their appearance and actions, but unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Gogol does not provide any psychological insights into their behaviour, nor do his characters develop. And he is terrible when it comes to describing women, probably because he simply didn’t know many women.




Gogol was influenced by his paternal grandmother, who told him all about Ukrainian folklore and superstitions, Cossack legends and taught him the old songs. He corresponded with his contemporary Pushkin and it was he who stimulated Gogol to write, and supposedly gave him the idea for Dead Souls. Dickens’s influence can also be felt, as well as Homer’s and Walter Scott’s.


Gogol, in turn, has influenced all Russian writers after him, particularly Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, who frequently mentioned him in their works. Franz Kafka was a big admirer, and his famous novel, Die Verwandlung, was clearly inspired by Gogol.




Gogol was rather eccentric himself, with his funny haircut and small physique. He never married, although it is not clear if he was perhaps homosexual. He liked to travel, probably that was his Cossack blood stirring, and was abroad for long periods of time. He died at the age of 42, shortly after famously burning parts of part two of Dead Souls, one of the big mysteries in Russian literature**. He had more or less starved himself to death.


Gogol may not have left a huge legacy on paper, but his legacy in Russian literature is enormous***. At this very moment people all over the world are reading one of his books with tears of laughter rolling down their faces.



*This sense of humour made Pushkin sad, he saw the sadness behind the smile.

**Bulgakov refers to this incident in The Master and Margarita with the well known quote «Рукописи не горят – Manuscripts don’t burn».

***See my piece about Taras Bulba https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/gogols-taras-bulba-a-milestone/





© Elisabeth van der Meer / photos by me and from Wikipedia

Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com


30 thoughts on “Typically Gogol

  1. Great post, Elisabeth. Thank you. Very interesting and insightful.

    A couple of things that come to mind.

    The comparison to Dickens is very apt. The ability to create characters who are hilarious, idiosyncratic, total originals, and almost like distortions of real life, yet — in their incongruity with what we think of us as “average” — are fully human and totally believable.

    I read Henri Troyat’s biography of Gogol. I recall it as being very good.

    Regarding Gogol’s sexuality, Simon Karlinsky’s monograph “The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol” (1976) is excellent. Karlinksy, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCal-Berkeley, was a top-notch scholar who produced another outstanding work on Chekhov (letters plus extensive commentary). I have read book books; they were well worth it.

    The Wikipedia entry on Gogol contains the following paragraph:

    In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories. After an introductory lecture made up of brilliant generalizations which the ‘historian’ had prudently prepared and memorized, he gave up all pretense at erudition and teaching, missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth. 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.

    Troyat does a good job of describing this incident.

    Thanks, Elisabeth. I will be eagerly awaiting your next post.


  2. Thank you, Roger.
    Yes, the characters are Dickensian, aren’t they? Dickens uses the same technique to describe them.
    I shall have to read Simon Karlinsky’s essay, it sounds fascinating, thanks for the tip. I haven’t read Troyat’s biography either, but have read others by him, he is a joy to read.
    That anecdote about Gogol’s short career as a history professor is hilarious, it could have been an episode in one of his stories. Because he spoke so softly, he didn’t become an actor, but you probably already knew that;-)
    Thanks again Roger, always interesting to hear from you!


  3. An excellent post… I read “Taras Boulba” a long time ago… A master in his genre, for sure… Interesting to learn more about his life and eccentricism … The last section reminded me of Oscar Wilde´s life, somehow… Although, he looks like Marcel Proust in the image, I´d say 😀 Thaks for sharing dear Elisabeth. Very enlightening! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I just downloaded “The Nose” and “Diary of a Madman” from Feedbooks. Thank you for the insightful post. This is the second time around. And I will be back again because you always write a 3-read post. Thank you. Have a great day!


  5. Ah yes, he does look a bit like Proust. Although I think that this portrait probably flatters him 😃 He was a unique writer, as you say, a master in his genre. I hadn’t read him for years until a few months ago, but I’m glad I picked him up again. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog post and your sweet reply ❤️


  6. I do not know anything of Gogol, how careless of me! You say he was terrible at describing women… in what way, Elisabeth? I always enjoy your well-researched posts ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, don’t worry, he is not as well known as his contemporaries. Gogol’s women are very one-dimensional, the young ones care about clothes and marriage and the old ones are superstitious. They are caricatures and quite funny, but you cannot identify with them. Luckily he was aware of that, and they play only small parts in his work. But Tolstoy, who was in real life not exactly a feminist, portrayed very real women, we can completely identify with Anna Karenina (perhaps not agree), it’s like he has looked into your head to read your thoughts. Tolstoy was smart enough to let his wife Sofia help him 😀 But Gogol is funny, and you’ll forgive him this shortcoming. Thanks for your kind words, Christy, happy reading! 💚

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for your explanation here, Elisabeth! That really is helpful for answering my question and now I understand more. Gogol is new to me, as I said, so I’m learning 🙂 Happy reading to you too!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. very interesting as always! It seems his childhood experience of being called a dwarf wasn’t very pleasant was it lol . But what a great writer . I shall have to buy some books of his work now ! Thankyou 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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