I’m having tremendous fun with a book by a friend of mine, Laszlo Tikos, called “Gogol’s Art: A Search for Identity.” Laszlo was a professor of Russian literature at UMass for many years, and with this book he has added a whole new dimension to my appreciation for one of the world’s greatest writers.
The book has just been released in a new edition which explores Gogol’s identity as a native of Ukraine, then known as “Little Russia”.
Some people see the title of Gogol’s masterwork, “Dead Souls”, and think it’s some long boring morbid study of human mortality, but it’s really a hilarious spoof of all the drole characters to be met with in the Russian countryside.
The hero, Chichikov, is a lovable scoundrel who is buying up deceased serfs, “dead souls”, which needs a bit of explanation. The Russians had a census every ten years, and landowners were taxed based on the number of serfs (or “souls”) that they owned. If a serf passed away, the landowner still had to pay tax on them until the next census, so the “dead soul” was just a tax liability.
So everyone wonders why Chichikov is buying up dead souls. Later we find out that the government is giving away free land in the Caucasus somewhere to anyone who can show they own –a certain number of serfs.
Gogol is also famous for a thrilling novel about the Cossacks, Taras Bulba (made into a movie starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis) and numerous poems and plays including “The Inspector General” (made into a movie starring Danny Kaye). He also wrote a short story called “The Overcoat” of which Dostoyevsky famously observed, “We all came out of Gogol’s overecoat.”
Laszlo traces all of Gogol’s literary works, starting with the romantic poems he wrote as a youth, and he provides all kind of insights that give the reader a deeper understanding of the works. Often Gogol’s choice of names says something about his attitude toward the character. In one of his early stories, the young hero’s name means “naked rear end” or “bare butt”.
Chichikov’s name comes from the Russian word for “who”, as if to ask, “who is he?” And in “The Overcoat” the tailor has a name that suggests the devil, like “Scratch” in American folklore. There are a lot of these plays on words in Gogol’s works, so Laszlo’s book really adds to the reader’s understanding.
The part I especially liked was the account of the friendship of the young Gogol with another of my literary heroes, Alexander Pushkin. They lived near one another for a few years in St. Petersburg, and it turns out they had a kind of collaboration on one of Gogol’s most famous works.
Gogol had achieved some measure of fame writing about Russian provincial characters — kind of like “The Beverly Hillbillies” — but he wanted to take his art to the next level. He wrote to Pushkin asking for some plot ideas.
“Give me a subject and I’ll knock off a comedy in five acts — I promise, funnier than hell. For God’s sake, do it! My mind and stomach are both famished.”
Pushkin suggested that Gogol write about a lovable scoundrel who is mistaken by corrupt local officials for a government inspector who they have been warned is coming to their town. When Klestakov arrives (the name means “whip”) the officials are certain he is the inspector.
“It is he!” exclaims Dobchinsky, a local landowner. “He doesn’t pay his bills and he doesn’t go on his way. Who else could it be?”
This uproarious comedy has been a huge hit all over the world, and as I mentioned, it was made into a movie. How did it get past the censors? Gogol’s friends showed it to the Tsar himself, who thought it was hilarious.
So this play was actually a collaboration between the two greatest figures in Russian literature.