The Portrait (and the devil) by Gogol

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Fame can give no pleasure to him who has stolen it, not won it.

The Portrait (1835) is said to be the least Gogolian of all of Gogol’s works. It follows a more traditional pattern. It’s almost a classic ghost story, in the tradition of Hoffman and Poe. It’s also more autobiographical than you would think.

A mysterious portrait

It’s the story of a young artist, Chartkov, who buys a mysterious portrait in a shop in Saint Petersburg. Curiously, the eyes of the portrait seem to be alive, they have an evil stare. That same night the portrait comes to life and the stranger steps out of the frame. He starts counting money on the terrified Chartkov’s bed. Lots of money. The next day the frame breaks accidentally and it turns out that there was a large amount of golden coins hidden in the frame.

Money and fame

In my previous post I wrote that Gogol’s characters are not subject to personal development. In this story they are. When we first meet Chartkov he is a penniless artist who only cares about his art en developing his artistic skills. But as soon as Chartkov has money, everything changes: before he dressed like someone so preoccupied with his work that he pays no attention to his dress and now he dresses in fine clothes. He rents the first fancy apartment on the Nevski Prospect that he sees, and his shabby assistent Nikita is never heard of again. He buys newspaper reviews to get clients. And he turns into an artist who only paints what his clients want him to paint so that he can make easy money.

Possessed by the devil

This change, Gogol suggests, is the effect of the mysterious portrait, that seems to be inhabited by the devil himself. Gogol was very religious, for him the devil was as real as his neighbour. The devil plays a (main) part in the majority of his work. In his work he tried to make the devil less important by making fun of him. Not in this story. He lived at times in a real fear that his work might be(come) possessed by the devil, and this is what The Portrait is about. By keeping the portrait and by taking the money, Chartkov makes a pact with the devil. Chartkov’s name even sounds like the word for ‘devil’ in Russian, ‘chort’.

Insight

Although it takes Chartkov many, many years, he does eventually come to an insight. This happens when he sees a painting by a fellow artist; the work has a device quality to it. Its beauty moves Chartkov to tears. He realises that he has been driven by financial gain instead of aiming for artistic development. He tries to paint again like before, but it’s already too late. Out of jealousy he starts to destroy the most beautiful paintings he can buy at auctions. Luckily for the art world he dies soon. Here is another parallel with Gogol’s own life; he used to burn his own work regularly, for fear of it not being good enough, or, indeed, possessed by the devil.

The painter of the portrait and the portrayed

In the second part of the story it is revealed that the portrait depicted an evil loanshark, the personification of the devil. Every person who loaned money from him changed dramatically for the worse. The portrait was so lifelike, that the evil spirit of the loanshark transferred into the portrait. Because the loanshark dies, the painter is stuck with the portrait and soon starts to feel its’ evil influence. He tries to destroy it, but a friend buys it from him instead. The painter then flees to a monastery to cleanse his soul. There he lives a reclusive life and finally manages to regain himself. He aks his son to find the painting and to destroy it. He has heard that the painting still exists and that people still get under its’ evil influence. The son does find it at an auction. But when he is about to buy it, it suddenly disappears and that’s the end of the story.

The devil in Saint Petersburg

In Gogol’s earlier Ukrainian works the devil is a tangible figure; in Saint Petersburg he is disincarnate, and all the more scarier for it! He now operates in a much less conspicuous manner. 

The Portrait is unmistakably from Gogol, and even if it’s not his most Gogolian work, it’s still a devilish good one!

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By Authors Possessed: The Demonic Novel in Russia – Adam Weiner

Het Portret – Gogol (the by Gogol revised version from 1842), translated by Karel van het Reve

Text and photo collage © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61my/contents.html

  

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Gogol’s Plays

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Russian Literature is well known for its lifelike characters who usually go through some ordeal and achieve personal growth through that. The base of many a novel, but Russian literature particularly excels in it. The reader is swept along and en passant gains some experience himself. Who has read War and Peace knows that whatever happens, normal life will always take its course again, and happiness will return. Not with Gogol. In his work the end situation is the same as the beginning, the characters are not particularly sympathetic and no-one has learned anything. Yet he is considered one of the founders of the great 19th century Russian literature, together with Pushkin.

Details

Gogol had a particular talent for characterising his protagonists, big and small. We all know the people who walk around in Gogol’s fictional world: frauds, vain creatures, people with big plans that never materialise, scroungers and misers. Surely somewhere a miserable civil servant is dreaming of having a bigger car than his boss. But however recognisable they may be, that are the product of Gogol’s rich fantasy. He took a character trait and built a character around it.

Gogol wrote three plays, all three are still being performed: The Government Inspector, The Gamblers and Marriage.

The Government Inspector

The Government Inspector (1836) is the best known of the three. In a small provincial town a high ranking inspector is expected. The officials in the town are terrified that their deplorable state of affairs will be discovered and they mistake a young man staying in the local inn for the inspector. As soon as he realises that he can profit from the situation, the young man plays along, not hindered by any lack of fantasy, accepting bribes from everyone. After he disappears it soon becomes clear that he was not the real inspector, and everyone tries to shift the blame for the mistaken identity to each other.

The Gamblers

In The Gamblers (1840) a card sharp becomes the victim of a cunning scam himself. He has just won a lot of money and arrives in a new town hoping to make some more. Unfortunately he meets a couple of clever conmen and he loses all his money even quicker than he had made it.

Marriage

In Marriage (1832) the protagonist is planning to get married. He has hired a matchmaker to help him find a suitable bride. She finds him several candidates, but Podkolyosin is terribly indecisive. In order to speed things up his friend forces him to to visit the latest candidate with him. There they find several suitors, but the friend manages to close the deal. They are supposed to get married that same evening, the friend will arrange everything. While the bride gets dressed, Podkolyosin climbs out of the window and goes home as fast as he can.

Moral intentions

Gogol had intended to not just entertain the audience with his plays, he also wanted to confront them with what was wrong in society. The audience, however, saw only the satire and humor of the plays and even the tsar himself had a good laugh when he saw The Government Inspector. Gogol was disillusioned. But the society that he depicted was the product of his imagination. He had never visited a Russian provincial town, he wasn’t a civil servant. Hardly a reliable witness exposing all kinds of wrongs.

Memorabilty

If we forget about Gogol’s moral intentions, we are left with highly enjoyable pieces of literature. Gogol has a unique sense of humor and his characters are as alive today as when he created them many years ago. He has shown his descendants the importance of details when it comes to characterisation. It’s the details that make the character universal, alive, and memorable. A young man passing through a provincial town is unremarkable, but a young man who has squandered away all his money and is sitting in his room in the inn with an empty stomach and an obstinate servant promises entertainment.

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Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Turgenev’s Smoke

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In its own time a political novel, in our time a love story.

Smoke was first published in 1867 in the Russian Messenger, the famous literary magazine in which Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were also published. The political message of the novella made it very controversial at the time. Its pro western sentiment was perceived as being anti Russian, and the satirical depiction of the Russian aristocracy in Baden Baden was not appreciated by that same aristocracy either; after publication Turgenev received considerably less dinner invitations.

Social responsibilities

It was the ‘job’ of the nineteenth century Russian realist writer to address social and political issues, and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev succeeded extremely well in conveying both their message and writing a great story around it. It is thanks to that, that we can nowadays still enjoy their works, whether or not we have a background knowledge of Russian history.

A Love Story

When we leave the political message out of Smoke, we are left with a love story. A typical Turgenev love story with autobiographical elements. The novella takes place in Baden Baden in Germany. Baden Baden was a popular destination for the Russian aristocracy at the time. Dostoevsky too visited it several times, once with his young bride Anna. At the time he was still addicted to gambling and he gambled away everything they owned in the casinos of Baden Baden, down to the wedding rings.

Turgenev was no gambler; he tried his best his whole life to take as few risks as he possibly could. Marriage comes with risks. If it’s a happy marriage, there’ll be no more inspiration for writing. If it’s a bad marriage, there’ll be inspiration, but whether it’ll be worth it remains to be seen. And actually, he writes to his friend Leontiev, he doesn’t understand how a young girl can evoke passion in a man. A married woman is much more interesting, because of her experience.

Pauline

Turgenev was in love with the same married woman his whole life: Pauline Viardot. Pauline was a celebrated singer, and when he saw her perform in 1843 in St Petersburg, he was sold for life. When her career took her to Baden Baden, Turgenev followed and even moved into the house next-door to the Viardots. To love and follow a married woman may sound extreme, but for Turgenev it was a safe choice. She would never leave her husband and it doesn’t seem as if Turgenev would have wanted her to. He was happy with every scrap that she threw at him.

Olga

In 1854 he was temporarily back in Russia and during the summer he met his remote cousin Olga. She was eighteen and he was thirty-six. A romance blossomed and for a while it looked like he was going to get married. But when it came down to it, he didn’t choose domestic happiness, but instead, as he described it in a letter to countess Lambert, a gypsy existence abroad, following Pauline wherever she goes, and that shall be his fate. Fate, he said, was invented by weak characters, so that they would not have to take responsibility for the way their lives turned out. 

Ménage à Trois

In Smoke the protagonist Litvinov is in Baden Baden to meet up with his fiancé Olga and travel back to Russia with her. While he is waiting for her to arrive, he unexpectedly meets his first love, Irina. Ten years ago the two of them were going to get married, but Irina broke with him when she had the opportunity to get into the highest social circles in St Petersburg through a wealthy relative. Now she is married to some important person. After a few meetings their old love blossoms up again and they have an affair.

Irina tells him she is willing to give up her luxury life for him, and when the sweet, good and wise Olga finally arrives in Baden Baden, Litvinov breaks off the engagement. Then he receives a letter from Irina: she is not going to leave her husband after all and offers Litvinov the opportunity to become her lover. Litvinov does something that Turgenev never did: he thanks for the honour and returns to Russia alone. In the epilogue Turgenev writes that Litvinov did meet Olga again some years later and that she forgave him, suggesting that they may have gotten married.

What if…

Turgenev was not unhappy in his strange relationship with Pauline, but here he appears to have been thinking “what if…” Politics may be controversial, love is universal.

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Text en photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Smoke – Turgenjev 

Turgenev, His Life and Times – Schapiro

Toergenjev’s Liefde – Schmeltzer