I read a smattering of Gogol’s stories first, the better-known ones – “The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” “Diary of a Madman.” Later, I read Dead Souls, which mingled folk material with what I thought was 1960’s-style Black Humor. Generations of readers and critics, Russian and otherwise, read the novel as a precursor of social realism. Nabokov in his Lectures on Russian Literature (1980) sets us straight:
“Gogol's heroes merely happen to be Russian squires and officials; their imagined surroundings and social conditions are perfectly unimportant factors — just as Monsieur Homais might be a business man in Chicago or Mrs. Bloom the wife of a schoolmaster in Vyshni-Volochok.”
Nabokov’s idiosyncratic monograph, Gogol (New Directions, 1944), opens with a memorable account of Gogol’s death (just as the title character in C.H. Sisson’s 1965 novel, Christopher Homm, dies in the first sentence):
“It is horrible to read of the grotesquely rough handling that Gogol’s poor limp body underwent when all he asked for was to be left in peace. With as fine a misjudgment of symptoms as a clear anticipation of the methods of Charcot, Dr. Auvers (or Hovert) had his patient plunged into a warm bath where his head was soused with cold water after which he was put to bed with half-a-dozen plump leeches affixed to his nose. He had groaned and cried and weakly struggled while his wretched body (you could feel the spine through the stomach) was carried to the deep wooden bath; he shivered as he lay naked in bed and kept pleading to have the leeches removed: they were dangling from his nose and getting into his mouth (Lift them, keep them away—he pleaded) and he tried to sweep them off so that his hands had to be held by stout Auvert’s (or Hauvers’s) hefty assistant.”
The scene is deliciously Nabokovian, with the veiled swipe at Freud (“the Viennese quack”) and the mock pedantry over the name of the doctor. In the previous paragraph, Nabokov had written: “Second rate German and French general practitioners still dominated the scene, for the splendid school of Russian physicians was yet in the making.” Interested readers should proceed to Chap. 3, “Our Mr. Chichikov,” for Nabokov’s classic anatomy of poshlust, and then on to Andrei Sinyavsky’s In the Shadow of Gogol (1975).
Gogol’s distinctive flavor, his mingling of the comical and grotesque, is unlike any other writer’s. In the “Author’s Note” to his collected works, Up in the Old Hotel (1992), Joseph Mitchell praises the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. Mitchell says his death-haunted drawings “had a strong undercurrent of humor. It was the kind of humor that the old Dutch masters caught in those prints that show a miser locked in his room counting his money and Death is standing just outside the door. It was Old Testament humor, particularly the humor in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Gogolian humor. Brueghelian humor.”
Gogol died on this date, March 4, in 1852. He was not yet forty-three years old.