In Chapter 7 of Dead Souls, Gogol’s playful narrator distinguishes two sorts of writers. Of the first he says: “Happy the writer who, passing by characters that are boring, disgusting, shocking in their mournful reality, approaches characters that manifest the lofty dignity of man, who from the great pool of daily whirling images has chosen only the rare exceptions,” and so on. Such a writer is assured of popularity and prizes. He flatters readers and conceals unpleasant realities. Gogol doesn’t use the word but we might think of such writers as Romantics. With “entrancing smoke” they “cloud people’s eyes.” I use the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Dead Souls (1996).
Gogol published his great novel in 1842, and much has since changed among writers and readers. Now we know that writers can achieve a following by documenting life’s perversity and horror, and even simple sadness. Happy writers risk banishment because they are happy, and thus lying purveyors of treacle. Here is the narrator’s characterization of the second sort of writer, in contrast to the one described above:
“[They dare] to call forth all that is before our eyes every moment and which our indifferent eyes do not see—all the terrible, stupendous mire of trivia in which our life is entangled, the whole depth of cold, fragmented, everyday characters that swarm over our often bitter and boring earthly path, and with the firm strength of his implacable chisel dares to present them roundly and vividly before the eyes of all people!”
Except in his late proselytizing mode, Gogol is a slippery writer. Ernest critics from the start judged him a “realist” and “social critic,” vaporous words more appropriate to banal journalism. The novel’s best explicator for readers of English, Nabokov, calls it “a tremendous dream” and, as you would expect, dismisses “the utter stupidity of such terms as `bare facts’ and `realism.’ Gogol — a `realist’!” A modern reader or writer is put in the position not of siding with one Gogolian category or the other – Romantic or Realist – but of picking individual qualities, buffet-style. “Characters that are boring, disgusting, shocking in their mournful reality” can be quite amusing. As the narrator of Dead Souls puts it, “equally wondrous are the glasses that observe the sun and those that look at the movements of inconspicuous insects.”
Writers who defy conventional categories are bothersome. Think of Stevie Smith and her exceedingly twee poems. She even wrote some about cats, of all things. Larkin thought Smith’s poems “speak with the authority of sadness.”