Ideals and Realities in Russian Literature : Chapter 3 : Gógol
(1842 - 1921) ~ Russian Father of Anarcho-Communism : As anarchism's most important philosophers he was in great demand as a writer and contributed to the journals edited by Benjamin Tucker (Liberty), Albert Parsons (Alarm) and Johann Most (Freiheit). Tucker praised Kropotkin's publication as "the most scholarly anarchist journal in existence." (From : Spartacus Educational Bio.)
• "To recognize all men as equal and to renounce government of man by man is another increase of individual liberty in a degree which no other form of association has ever admitted even as a dream." (From : "Communism and Anarchy," by Peter Kropotkin, 1901.)
• "Which side will you take? For the law and against justice, or for justice and against the law?" (From : "An Appeal to the Young," by Peter Kropotkin, 1880.)
• "The communes of the next revolution will proclaim and establish their independence by direct socialist revolutionary action, abolishing private property. When the revolutionary situation ripens, which may happen any day, and governments are swept away by the people, when the middle-class camp, which only exists by state protection, is thus thrown into disorder, the insurgent people will not wait until some new government decrees, in its marvelous wisdom, a few economic reforms." (From : "The Commune of Paris," by Peter Kropotkin, Freedo....)
With Gógol begins a new period of Russian literature. which is called by Russian literary critics "the Gógol period," which lasts to the present date. Gógol was not a Great Russian. He was born in 1809, in a Little Russian or Ukraïnian nobleman's family. His father had already dispayed some literary talent and wrote a few comedies in Little Russian, but Gógol lost him at an early age. The boy was educatcd in a small provincial town, which he left, however, while still young, and when he was only nineteen he was already at St. Petersburg. At that time the dream of his life was to become an actor, but the manager of the St. Ptersburg Imperial theaters did not accept him, and Gógol had to look for another sphere of activity. The Civil Service, in which he obtained the position of a subordinate clerk, was evidently insufficient to interest him, and he soon entered upon his literary career.
His debut was in 1829, with little novels taken form the village-life of Little Russia. Nights on a Farm near Dikánka, soon followed by another series of stories entitled Mírgorod, immediately won for him literary fame and introduced him into the circle of Zhukóvskiy and Púshkin. The two poets at once recognized Gógol's genius, and received him with open arms
Little Russia differs considerably from the central parts of the empire, i.e., from the country around Moscow, which is known as Great Russia. It has a more southern position, and everything southern has always a certain attraction for northerner. The villages in Little Russia are not disposed in streets as they are in Great Russia, but the white washed houses are scattered, as in Western Europe, in separate little farms, each of which is surrounded by charming little gardens. The more genial climate, the warm nights, the musical language, the beauty of the race, which probably contains a mixture of South Slavonian with Turkish and Polish blood, the picturesque dress and the lyrical songs-all these render Little Russia especially attractive for the Great Russian. Besides, life in Little-Russian villages is more poetical than it is in the villages of Great Russia. There is more freedom in the relations between the young men and the young girls, who freely meet before marriage; the stamp of seclusion of the women which has been impressed by Bvzantine habits upon Moscow does not exist in Little Russia, where the influence of Poland was prevalent. Little Russians have also maintained numerous traditions and epic poems and songs from the times when they were free Cossacks and used to fight against the Poles in the north and the Turks in the south. Having had to defend the Greek orthodox religion against these two nations, they strictly adhere now to the Russian Church, and one does not find in their villages the same passion for scholastic discussions about the letter of the Holy Books which is often met with in Great Russia among the Non-conformists. Their religion has altogether a more poetical aspect.
The Little-Russian language is certainly more melodious than the Great Russian, and there is now a movement of some importance for its literary development; but this evolution has yet to be accomplished, and Gógol very wisely wrote in Great Russian-that is, in the language of Zhukóvskiy Púshkin, and Lérmontoff. We have thus in Gógol a sort of union between the two nationalities.
It would be impossible to give here an idea of the humor and wit contained in Gógol's novels from Little Russian life, without quoting whole pages. It is the good-hearted laughter of a young man who himself enjoys the fullness of life and himself laughs at the comical positions into which he has put his heroes: a village chanter, a wealthy peasant, a rural matron, or a village smith. He is full of happiness; no dark apprehension comes to disturb his joy of life. However, those whom he depicts are not rendered comical in obedience to the poet's whim: Gógol always remains scrupulously true to reality. Every peasant, every chanter, is taken from real life, and the truthfulness of Gógol to reality is almost ethnographical, without ever ceasing to be poetical. All the superstitions of a village life on a Christmas Eve or during a midsummer night, when the mischievous spirits and goblins get free till the cock crows, are brought before the reader, and at the same time we have all the wittiness which is inborn in the Little Russian. It was only later on that Gógol's comical vein became what can be truly described as "humor,"-that is, a sort of contrast between comical surroundings and a sad substratum of life, which made Púshkin say of Gógol's productions that "behind his laughter you feel the unseen tears."
Not all the Little-Russian tales of Gógol are taken from peasant life. Some deal also with the upper class of the small towns; and one of them, How Iván Ivánovitch quarreled with Iván Nikíforytch, is one of the most humorous tales in existence. Iván Ivánovitch and Iván Nikíforytch were two neihbours who lived on excellent terms with each other; but the inevitableness of their quarreling some day appears from the very first lines of the novel. Iván Ivánovitch was a person of fine behavior. He would never offer snuff to an acquaintance without saying: "May I dare, Sir, to ask you to be so kind as to oblige yourself." He was a man of the most accurate habits; and when he had eaten a melon he used to wrap its seeds in a bit of paper, and to inscribe upon it: "This melon was eaten on such a date," and if there had been a friend at his table he would add: "In the presence of Mr. So and So." At the same time he was, after all, a miser, who appreciated very highly the comforts of his own life, but did not care to share them with others. His neighbor, Iván Nikíforytch, was quite the opposite. He was very stout and heavy, and fond of swearing. On a hot summer day he would take off all his clothes and sit in his garden, in the sunshine, warming his back. When he offered snuff to anyone, he would simply produce his snuff box saying: "Oblige yourself." He knew none of the refinements of his neighbor, and loudly expressed what he meant. It was inevitable that two men, so different, whose yards were only separated by a low fence, should one day come to a quarrel; and so it happened.
One day the stout and rough Iván Nikíforytch, seeing that his friend owned an old useless musket, was seized with the desire to possess the weapon. He had not the slightest need of it, but all the more he longed to have it, and this craving led to a feud which lasted for years. Iván Ivánovitch remarked very reasonably to his neighbor that he had no need of a rifle. The neighbor, stung by this remark, replied that this was precisely the thing he needed, and offered, if Iván Ivánovitch was not disposed to accept money for his musket, to give him in exchange--a pig. . . . This was understood by Iván Ivánovitch as a terrible offense: "How could a musket, which is the symbol of hunting, of nobility, be exchanged by a gentleman for a pig!" Hard words followed, and the offended neighbor called Iván Ivánovitch a gander. . . . A mortal feud, full of the most comical incidents, resulted from these rash words. Their friends did everything to reestablish peace, and one day their efforts seemed to be crowned with success; the two enemies had been brought together-both pushed from behind by their friends; Iván Ivánovitch had already put his hand into his pocket to take out his snuff-box and to offer it to his enemy, when the latter made the unfortunate remark: "There was nothing particular in being called a gander; no need to be offended by that." ....All the efforts of the friends were brought to naught by these unfortunate words. The feud was renewed with even greater acrimony than before; and, tragedy always following in the steps of comedy, the two enemies, by taking the affair from one Court to another, arrived at old age totally ruined.
The pearl of Gógol's Little-Russian novels is an historical novel, Tárás Búlba, which recalls to life one of the most interesting periods in the history of Little Russia--the fifteenth century. Constantinople had fallen into the hands of the Turks; and although a mighty Polish-Lithuanian State had grown in the West, the Turks, nevertheless, menaced both Eastern and Middle Europe. Then it was that the Little Russians rose for the defense of Russia and Europe. They lived in free communities of Cossacks, over whom the Poles were beginning to establish feudal power. In times of peace these Cossacks carried on agriculture in the prairies, and fishing in the beautiful rivers of Southwest Russia, reaching at times the Black Sea; but every one of them was armed, and the whole country was divided into regiments. As soon as there was a military alarm they all rose to meet an invasion of the Turks or a raid of the Tartars, returning to their fields and fisheries as soon as the war was over.
The whole nation was thus ready to resist the invasions of the Mussulmans; but a special vanguard was kept in the lower course of the Dniéper, "beyond the rapids," on an island which soon became famous under the name of the S&eacaute;cha. Men of all conditions, including runaways from their landlords, outlaws, and adventurers of all sorts, could come and settle in the Sécha without being asked any questions but whether they went to church. "Well, then, make the sign of the cross," the hetman of the Sécha said, "and join the division you like." The Sécha consisted of about sixty divisions, which were very similar to independent republics, or rather to schools of boys, who cared for nothing and lived in common. None of them had anything of his own, excepting his arms. No women were admitted, and absolute democracy prevailed.
The hero of the novel is an old Cossack, Tarás Búlba, who has himself spent many years in Sécha, but is now peacefully settled inland on his farm. His two sons have been educated at the Academy of Kíeff and return home after several years of absence. Their first meeting with their father is very characteristic. As the father laughs at the sons' long clothes, which do not suit a Cossack, the elder son, Ostáp, challenges him to a good boxing fight. The father is delighted, and they fight until the old man, quite out of breath, exclaims: "By God, this is a good fighter; no need to test him further; he will be a good Cossack!-Now, son, be welcome; let us kiss each other." On the very next day after their arrival, without letting the mother enjoy the sight of her sons, Tarás takes them to the Sécha, which--as often happened in those times--was quickly drawn into war, in conscquence of the exactions which the Polish landlords made upon the Little Russians.
The life of the free Cossacks in the republic "beyond the rapids" and their ways of conducting war are wonderfully described; but, paying a tribute to the then current romanticism, Gógol makes Tarás' younger son, a sentimentalist, fall in love with a noble Polish-lady, during the seige of a Polish town, and go over to the enemy; while the father and the elder son continue fighting the Poles. The war lasts for a year or so, with varying success, till at length, in one of the desperate sorties of the besieged Poles, the younger son of Tarás is taken prisoner, and the father himself kills him for his treason. The elder son is next taken prisoner by the Poles and carried away to Warsaw, where he perishes on the rack; while Tarás, returning to Little Russia, raises a formidable army and makes one of those invasions into Poland with which the history of the two countries was filled for two centuries. Taken prisoner himself, Tarás perishes at the stake, with a disregard of life and suffering which were characteristic of this strong, fighting race of men. Such is, in brief, the theme of this novel, which is replete with admirable separate scenes.
Read in the light of modern requirements, Tarás Búlba certainly would not satisfy us. The influence of the Romantic school is too strongly felt. The younger son of Tarás is not a living being, and the Polish lady is entirely invented in order to answer the requirements of a novel, showing that Gógol never knew a single woman of that type. But the old Cossack and his son, as well as all the life of the Cossack camps, is quite real; it produces the illusion of real life. The reader is carried away in sympathy with old Tarás, while the ethnographer cannot but feel that he has before him a wonderful combination of an ethnographical document of the highest value, with a poetical reproduction--only the more real because it is poetical--of a bygone and most interesting epoch.
The Little-Russian novels were followed by a few novels taken from the life of Great Russia, chiefly of St. Petersburg, and two of them, The Memoirs Of a Madman and The Cloak (Shinél) deserve a special mention. The psychology of the madman is strikingly drawn. As to The Cloak, it is in this novel that Gógol's laughter which conceals "unseen tears" shows at its best. The poor life of a small functionary, who discovers with a sense of horror that his old cloak is so worn out as to be unfit to stand further repairs; his hesitation before he ventures to speak to a tailor about a new one; his nervous excitement on the day that it is ready and that he tries it on for the first time; and finally his despair, amid general indifference, when night-robbers have robbed him of his cloak--every line of this work bears the stamp of one of the greatest artists. Sufficient to say that this novel produced at its appearance, and produces still, such an impression, that since the times of Gógol every Russian novel-writer has been aptly said to have re-written The Cloak.
Gógol's prose-comedy, The Inspector-General (Revizór), has become, in its turn, a starting point for the Russian drama--a model which every dramatic writer after Gógol has always kept before his eyes. "Revizór," in Russian, means some important functionary who has been sent by the ministry to some provincial town to inquire into the conditions of the local administration--an Inspector-General; and the comedy takes place in a small town, from which "you may gallop for three years and yet arrive nowhere." The little spot--we learn it at the rising of the curtain--is going to be visited by an Inspector-General. The local head of the Police (in those times the head of the Police was also the head of the town)--the Gorodníchiy or Governor-has convoked the chief functionaries of the place to communicate to them an important news. He has had a bad dream; two rats came in, sniffed and then went away; there must he something in that dream, and so there is: he has just got this morning a letter from a friend at St. Petersburg, announcing that an inspector-general is coming, and--what is still worse--is coming incognito! Now, the honorable Governor advises the functionaries to put some order in their respective offices. The patients in the hospital walk about in linen so dirty that you might take them for chimney sweeps. The chief magistrate, who is a passionate lover of sport, has his hunting appareI hanging about inthe Court, and his attendants have made a poultry-yard of the entrance hall. In short, everything has to be put in order. The Governor feels very uncomfortable. Up to the present day he has freely levied tribute upon the merchants, pocketed the money destined for building a church, and within a fortnight he has flogged the wife of a noncommissioned officer, which he had no right to do; and now, there's the Inspector-General coming! He asks the postmaster "just to open a little" the letters which may be addressed from this town to St. Petersburg and, if he finds in them some reports about town matters, to keep them. The postmaster--a great student of human character--has always indulged, even without getting this advice, in the interesting pastime of reading the letters, and he falls in with the Governor's proposal.
At that very moment enter Petr Iványch Dóbchinsky and Petr Iványch Bóbchinsky. Everyone knows them, you know them very well: they play the part of the town Gazette. They go about the town all day long, and as soon as they have learned something interesting they both hurry to spread the news, interrupting each other in telling it, and hurrying immediately to some other place to be the first to communicate the news to someone else. They have been at the only inn of the town, and there they saw a very suspicious person: a young man, "who has something, you know, extraordinary about his face." He is living there for a fortnight, never paying a penny, and does not journey any further. "What is his object in staying so long in town like ours?" And then, when they were taking their lunch he passed them by and looked so inquisitively in their plates--who may he be? Evidently, the Governor and all present conclude, he must be the Inspector-General who stays there incognito. . . . A general confusion results from the suspicion. The Governor starts immediately for the inn, to make the necessary inquiries. The womenfolk are in a tremendous excitement.
The stranger is simply a young man who is traveling to rejoin his father. On some post-station he met with a certain captain--a great master at cards--and lost all he had in his pocket. Now he cannot proceed any farther, and he cannot pay the landlord, who refuses to credit him with any more meals. The young man feels awfully hungry--no wonder he looked so inquisitively into the plates of the two gentlemen--and resorts to all sorts of tricks to induce the landlord to send him something for his dinner. Just as he is finishing some fossil-like cutlet enters the Gorodníchiy; and a most comic scene follows, the young man thinking that the Governor came to arrest him, and the Governor thinking that he is speaking to the Inspector-General who is trying to conceal his identity. The Governor offers to remove the young man to some more comfortable place. "No, thank you, I have no intent to go to a jail," sharply retorts the young man. . . . But it is to his own house that the Governor takes the supposed Inspector, and now an easy life begins for the adventurer. All the functionaries appear in turn to introduce themselves, and everyone is only too happy to give him a bribe of a hundred rubles or so. The merchants come to ask his protection from the Governor; the widow who was flogged comes to lodge a complaint....In the meantime the young man enters into a flirtation with both the wife and the daughter of the Governor; and, finally, being caught at a very pathetic moment when he is kneeling at the feet of the daughter, without further thought he makes a proposition of marriage. But, having gone so far, the young man, well-provided now with money, hastens to leave the town on the pretext of going to see an uncle; he will be back in a couple of days. . . .
The delight of the Governor can easily be imagined. His Excellency, the Inspector-General, going to marry the Governor's daughter! He and his wife are already making all sorts of plans. They will remove to St. Petersburg, the Gorodníchiy will soon be a general, and you will see how he will keep the other Gorodníchies at his door! . . . The happy news spreads about the town, and all the functionaries and the society of the town hasten to offer their congratulations to the old man. There is a great gathering at his house-when the postmaster comes in. He has followed the advice of the Governor, and has opened a letter which the supposed Inspector-General had addressed to somebody at St. Petersburg. He now brings this letter. The young man is no inspector at all, and here is what he writes to a Bohemian friend of his about his adventures in the provincial town:*
*There is a good English translation of The Inspector-General, from which, with slight fevision, I take the following passage.
The Postmaster (reads) I hasten to inform you, my dear friend, of the wonderful things which have happened to me. On my way hither an infantry captain had cleared me out completely, so that the innkeeper here intended to send me to jail, when, all of a sudden, thanks to my St. Petersburg appearance and costume, all the town took me for a Governor-General. Now I am staying at the Gorodníchiy's! I have a splendid time, and flirt awfully with both his wife and his daughter. . . . Do you remember how hard up we were, taking our meals where we could get them, without paying for them, and how one day, in a tea-shop, the pastry-cook collared me for having eaten his pastry to the account of the king of England?* It is quite different now. They all lend me money, as much as I care for. They are an awful set of originals: you would split of laughter. I know you write sometimes for the papers--put them into your literature. To begin with, the Governor is as stupid as an old horse. . . .
[*This was in those times an expression which meant "without paying."]
The Governor (interrupting): That cannot be there! There is no such thing in the letter.
Postmaster (showing the letter) - Read it then, yourself.
Governor (reads) An old horse"...impossible! You must have added that.
Postmaster: How could I?
The Guests: Read! read!
The Postmaster (continues to read) "The governor is as stupid as an old horse"...
Governor: The deuce! Now he must repeat it--as if it were not standing there already!
Postmaster (continues reading): Hmm, Hmm, yes! "an old horse. The postmaster is also a good man"....Well he also makes an improper remark about me....
Governor: Read it then.
Postmaster: Is it necessary?
Governor: The deuce! once we have begun to read it, we must read it all through.
Artémy Filípovitch (head of the philanthropic institutions): Permit me, please, I shall read (puts on his spectacles and reads): The postmaster is quite like the old porter in our office, and the rascal must drink equally hard."...
Postmaster: A naughty boy, who ought to be flogged-that's all!
Art. Fil. (continues reading) The head of the philanthropic in-in . . .
Korobki: Why do you stop now?
Art. Fil. Bad writing. But, after all, it is quite evident that he is a scoundrel.
Korobkin: Give me the letter, please. I think, I have better eyes (tries to take the letter).
Art. Fil. (does not give it) : No use at all. This passage can be omitted. Further on everything is quite readable.
Korobkin: Let me have it. I shall see all about it.
Art. Fil: I also can read it. I tell you that after that passage everything is readable.
Postm.: No, no, read it all. Everything was read so far.
The Guests: Artémy Filípovitch, pass the letter over. (To Korobkin) Read it, read it!
Art. Fil.: All right, all right. (He passes the letter.) There it is; but wait a moment (he covers a part of it with his finger). Begin here (all surround. him).
Postman: Go on. Nonsense, read it all.
Korobkin (reads) "The head of the philanthropic institutions resembles a pig that wears a cap"...
Art. Fil. (to the audience): Not witty at all! A pig that wears a cap! Have you ever seen a pig wearing a cap?
Korobkin (continues reading) "The inspector of the schools smells of onions all through!"
The Inspector (to the audience): Upon my honor, I never touch onions.
The Judge (apart): Thank God, there is nothing about me.
Korobkin (reading): " The judge".....
The Judge: There! ...(aloud): Well, gentlemen, I think the letter is much too long, and quite uninteresting--why the deuce should we go on reading that nonsense?
Insp. of Schools: No! no!
Postm: No!-go on!
Art. Fil.: No, it must be read.
Korobkin: (continues) "The judge Lyápkin-Tyápkin is extremely mauvais ton." (Stops.) That must be a French word?
The Judge. The deuce knows what it means. If it were only "a robber," then it would be all right, but it may be something worse.
In short, the letter produces a great sensation. The friends of the Governor are delighted to see him and his family in such straits, all accuse each other, and finally fall upon the two gentlemen, when a police soldier enters the room and announces in a loud voice: "A functionary from St. Petersburg, with Imperial orders, wants to see you all immediately. He stays at the hotel." Thereupon the curtain drops over a living picture of which Gógol himself had made a most striking sketch in pencil, and which is usually reproduced in his works; it shows how admirably well, with what a fine artistic sense, he represented to himself his characters.
The Inspector-General marks a new era in the development of dramatic art in Russia. All the comedies and dramas which were being played in Russia at that time (with the exception, of course, of Misfortune from Intelligence, which, however, was not allowed to appear on the stage) hardly deserved the name of dramatic literature: so imperfect and puerile they were. The Inspector-General, on the contrary, would have marked at the time of its appearance (1835) an epoch in any language. Its stage qualities, which will be appreciated by every good actor; its sound and hearty humor; the natural character of the comical scenes, which result from the very characters of those who appear in this comedy; the sense of measure which pervades it--all these make it one of the best comedies in existence. If the conditions of life which are depicted here were not so exclusively Russian, and did not so exclusively belong to a bygone stage of life which is unknown outside Russia, it would have been generally recognized as a real pearl of the world's literature. This is why, when it was played a few years ago in Germany, by actors who properly understood Russian life, it achieved such a tremendous success.
The Inspector-General provoked such a storm of hostile criticism of the part of all reactionary Russia, that it was hopeless to expect that the comedy which Gógol began next, concerning the life of the St. Petersburg functionaries (The Vladimir Cross), could ever be admitted on the stage, and Gógol never finished it, only publishing a few striking scenes from it: The Morning of a Busy Man, The Law Suite, etc. Another comedy, Marriage, in which he represented the hesitation and terror through which an inveterate bachelor goes before a marriage, which he finally eludes by jumping out of a window a few moments before the begining of the ceremony, has not lost its interest even now. It is so full of comical situations, which fine actors cannot but highly appreciate, that it is still a part of the current repertoire of the Russian stage.
Gógol's main work was Dead Souls. This is a novel almost without a plot, or rather with a plot of the utmost simplicity. Like the plot of The Inspector-General, it was suggested to Gógol by Púshkin. In those times, when serfdom was flourishing in Russia, the ambition of every nobleman was to become the owner of at least a couple of hundred serfs. The serfs used to be sold like slaves and could be bought separately. A needy nobleman, Tchítchikoff, conceives accordingly a very clever plan. A census of the population being made only every ten or twenty years, and every serf-owner having in the interval to pay taxes for every male soul which he owned at the time of the last census, even though part of his "souls" be dead since, Tchítchikoff conceives the idea of taking advantage of this anomaly. He will buy the dead souls at a very small expense: the landlords will he only too pleased to get rid of this burden and surely will sell them for anything; and after Tchítchikoff has bought two or three hundred of these imaginary serfs, he will buy cheap land somewhere in the southern prairies, transfer the dead souls, on paper, to that land, register them as if they were really settled there, and mortgage that new sort of estate to the State Landlords' Bank. In this way he can easily make the beginnings of a fortune. With this plan Tchítchikoff comes to a provincial town and begins his operations. He makes, first of all, the necessary visits.
"The newcomer made visits to all the functionaries of the town. He went to testify his respects to the Governor, who like Tchítchikoff himself, was neither stout nor thin. He was decorated with a cross and was spoken of as a person who would soon get a star; but was, after all, a very good fellow and was fond of making embroideries upon fine muslin. Tchítchikoff's next visits were to the Vise-Governor, to the Chief Magistrate, to the Chief of Police, the Head of the Crown Factories..... but it is so difficult to remember all the powerful persons in this world..... sufficient to say that the newcomer showed a wonderful activity as regards visits. He even went to testify his respects to the Sanitary Inspector, and to the Town Surveyor, and after that he sat for a long time in his carriage trying to remember to whom else he might pay a visit; but he could think of no more functionaries in the town. In his conversations with all these influential persons he managed to say something to flatter every one of them. In talking with the Governor he accidentally dropped the remark that when one enters this province one thinks of paradise--all the roads being quite like velvet; and that 'governments which nominate wise functionaries surely deserve universal gratitude.' To the Chief of the Police he said something very gratifying about the police force, and while he was talking to the Vise-Governor and to the presiding magistrate, who were only State-Councilors, he twice made the mistake of calling them 'Your Excellency,' with which mistake they were both immensely pleased. The result of all this was that the Governor asked Tchítchikoff to come that same day to an evening party, and the other functionaries invited him, some to dine with them, others to a cup of tea, and others again to a party of whist.
About himself Tchítchikoff avoided talking, and if he spoke at all it was in vague sentences only, with a remarkable modesty, his conversation taking in such cases a rather bookish turn. He said that he was a mere nobody in this world and did not wish people to take any particular interest in him; that he had had varied experiences in his life, suffered in the service of the State for the sake of truth, had had many enemies, some of whom had even attempted his life, but that now, wishing to lead a quiet existence, he intended to find at last some corner to live in, and, having come to this town, he considered it his imperative duty to testify his respect to the chief functionaries of the place. This was all they could learn in town about the new person who soon made his appearance at the Governor's evening party.
"Here, the newcomer once more produced the most favorable impression. . . . He always found out what he ought to do on every occasion; and he proved himself an experienced man of the world. Whatsoever the conversation might be about, he always knew how to support it. If people talked about horses, he spoke about horses; if they began talking about the best hunting dogs, here also Tchítchikoff would make remarks to the point. If the conversation related to some inquest which was being made by the Government, he would show that he also knew something about the tricks of the Civil Service functionaries. When the talk was about billiards, he showed that in billiards he could keep his own; if people talked about virtue, he also spoke about virtue, even with tears in his eyes; and if the conversation turned on making brandy, he knew all about brandy; as to Custom officers, he knew everything about them, as though he had himself been a Custom officer, or a detective; but the most remarkable thing was that he knew how to cover all this with a certain sense of propriety, and in every circumstance knew how to behave. He never spoke too loudly, and never in too subdued a tone, but exactly as one ought to speak. In short, take him from any side you like, he was a very respectable man. All the functionaries were delighted with the arrival of such a person in their town."
It has often been said that Gógol's Tchítchikoff is a truly Russian type. But--is it so? Has not every one of us met Tchítchikoff?--middle-aged; not too thick and not too thin; moving about with the lightness almost of a military man. . . . The subject he wishes to speak to you about may offer many difficulties, but he knows how to approach it and to interest you in it in a thousand different ways. When he talks to an old general he rises to the understanding of the greatness of the country and her military glory. He is not a jingo--surely not--but he has, just in the proper measure, the love of war and victories which are required in a man who wishes to be described as a patriot. When he meets with a sentimental reformer, he is sentimental and desirous of reforms, and so on, and he always will keep in view the object he aims at at any given moment, and will try to interest you in it. Tchítchikoff may buy dead souls, or railway shares, or he may collect funds for some charitable institution, or look for a position in a bank, but he is an immortal international type; we meet him everywhere; he is of all lands and of all times; he but takes different forms to suit the requirements of nationality and time.
One of the first landlords to whom Tchítchikoff spoke of his intention of buying dead souls was Maníloff--also a universal type, with the addition of those special features which the quiet life of a serf-owner could add to such a character. "A very nice man to look at," as Gógol says; his features possessed something very pleasant--only it seemed as if too much sugar had been put into them. "When you meet him for the first time you cannot but exclaim after the first few minutes of conversation: 'What a nice and pleasant man he is.' The next moment you say nothing, but the next but one moment you say to yourself: 'The deuce knows what he is,' and you go away; but if you don't, you feel mortally bored." You could never hear from him a lively or animated word. Everyone has some point of interest and enthusiasm. Maníloff had nothing of the kind; he was always in the same mild temper. He seemed to be lost in reflection; but what about, no one knew. Sometimes, as he looked from his window on his wide courtyard and the pond behind, he would say to himself: "How nice it would be to have there an underground passage leading from the mansion to the pond, and to have across the pond a stone bridge, with pretty shops on both its sides, in which shops all sorts of things useful for the people could be bought." His poor eyes became in this case wonderfully soft, and his face took on a most contented expression. However, even less strange intentions remained mere intentions. In his house something was always missing; his drawing room had excellent furniture covered with fine silk stuff, which probably had cost much money; but for two of the chairs there was not sufficient of the stuff, and so they remained covered with plain sack-cloth; and for many years in succession the proprietor used to stop his guests with these words: "Please, do not take that chair; it is not yet ready." "His wife . . . But they were quite satisfied with each other. Although more than eight years had passed since they had married, one of them would still occasionally bring to the other a piece of apple or a tiny sweet, or a nut, saying in a touchingly sweet voice which expressed infinite love: 'Open, my dearest, your little mouth,--I will put into it this little sweet.' Evidently the mouth was opened in a very charming way. For her husband's birthday the wife always prepared some surprise--for instance, an embroidered sheath for his tooth-pick, and very often, sitting on the sofa, all of a sudden, no one knows for what reason, one of them would leave his pipe and the other her work, and impress on each other such a sweet and long kiss that during it one might easily smoke a little cigarette. In short, they were what people call quite happy."
It is evident that of his estate and of the condition of his peasants Maníloff never thought. He knew absolutely nothing about such matters, and left everything in the hands of a very sharp manager, under whose rule Maníloff's serfs were worse off than under a brutal landlord. Thousands of such Mániloffs peopled Russia some fifty years ago, and I think that if we look closer round we shall find such would-be "sentimental" persons under every latitude.
It is easy to conceive what a gallery of portraits Gógol was enabled to produce as he followed Tchítchikoff in his wanderings from one landlord to another, while his hero tried to buy as many "dead souls" as he could. Every one of the landlords described in Dead Souls--the sentimentalist Maníloff, the heavy and cunning Sobakévitch the arch-liar and cheat Nózdreff, the fossilized, antediluvian lady Koróbotchka, the miser Plyúshkin--have become common names in Russian conversation. Some of them, as for instance the miser Plyúshkin, are depicted with such a depth of psychological insight that one may ask one's self whether a better and more humane portrait of a miser can be found in any literature?
Towards the end of his life Gógol, who was suffering from a nervous disease, fell under thoe influence of "pietists"--especially of Madame 0. A. Smirnóff (born Rossett), and began to consider all his writings as a sin of his life. Twice, in a paroxysm of religious self-accusation, he burned the manuscript of the second volume of Dead Souls, of which only some parts have been preserved, and were circulated in his lifetime in manuscript. The last ten years of his life were extremely painful. He repented with reference to all his writings, and published a very unwholesome book, Correspondence with Friends, in which, under the mask of Christian humility, he took a most arrogant position with respect to all literature, his own writings included. He died at Moscow in I852.
It hardly need be added that the Government of Nicholas I. considered Gógol's writings extremely dangerous. The author had the utmost difficulties in getting permission for The Inspector-General to be played at all on the stage, and the permission was only obtained by Zhukóvskiy, at the express will of the Czar himself. Before the authorization was given to print the first volume of Dead Souls, Gógol had to undergo most incredible trouble; and when the volume was out of print a second edition was never permitted in Nicholas l.'s reign. When Gógol died, and'Turguéneff published in a Moscow paper a short obituary notice, which really contained absolutely nothing ("any tradesman might have had a better one," as Turguéneff himself said), the young novelist was arrested, and it was only because of the influence of his friends in high position that the punishment which Nicholas I. inflicted upon him was limited to exile from Moscow and a forced residence on his estate in the country. Were it not for these influences, Turguéneff very probably would have been exiled, like Púshkin and Lérmontoff, either to the Caucasus or to Siberia.
The police of Nicholas I. were not wrong when they attributed to Gógol a great influence upon the minds of Russians. His works circulated immensely in manuscript copies. In my childhood we used to copy the second volume of Dead Souls-the whole book from beginning to end, as well as parts from the first volume. Everyone considered then this work as a formidable indicment against serfdom; and so it was. In this respect Gógol was the forerunner of the literary movement against serfdom which began in Russia with such force, a very few years later, during and especially after the Crimean War. Gógol never expressed his personal ideas about this subject, but the life-pictures of serf-owners which he gave and their relations to their serfs--especially the waste of the labor of the serfs--were a stronger indictment that if Gógol had related facts of brutal behavior of landlords towards their men. In fact, it is impossible to read Dead Souls without being impressed by the fact that serfdom was an institution which had produced its own doom. Drinking, gluttony, waste of the serf's labor in order to keep hundreds of retainers, or for things as useless as the sentimentalist Maníloff's bridges, were characteristic of the landlords; and when Gógol wanted to represent one landlord who, at least, obtained some pecuniary advantage from the forced labor of his serfs and enriched himself, he had to produce a landlord who was not a Russian: in fact, among the Russian landlords such a man would have been a most extraordinary occurrence.
As to the literary influence of Gógol, it was immense, and it continues down to the present day. Gógol was not a deep thinker, but he was a very great artist. His art was pure realism, but it was imbued with the desire of making for mankind something good and great. When he wrote the most comical things, it was not merely for the pleasure of laughing at human weaknesses, but he also tried to awaken the desire of something better and greater, and he always achieved that aim. Art, in Gógol's conception, is a torchbearer which indicates a higher ideal; and it was certainly this high conception of art which induced him to give such an incredible amount of time to the working out of the schemes of his works, and afterwards, to the most careful elaboration of every line which he published.
The generation of the Decembrists surely would have introduced social and political ideas in the novel. But that generation had perished, and Gógol was now the first to introduce the social element into Russian literature, so as to give it its prominent and dominating position. While it remains an open question whether realism in the Russian novel does not date from Púshkin, rather even than from Gógol--this, in fact, is the view of both Turguéneff and Tolstóy-there is yet no doubt that it was Gógol's writings which introduced into Russian literature the social element, and social criticism based upon the analysis of the conditions within Russia itself. The peasant novels of Grigoróvitch, Turguéneff's Sportsman's Notebook, and the first works of Dostoyéskiy were a direct outcome of Gógol's initiative.
Realism in art was much discussed some time ago, in connection chiefly with the first writings of Zola; but we, Russians, who had had Gógol, and knew realism in its best form, could not fall in with the views of the French realists. We saw in Zola a tremendous amount of the same romanticism which he combated; and in his realism, such as it appeared in his writings of the first period, we saw a step backwards from the realism of Balzac. For us, realism could not be limited to a mere anatomy of society: it had to have a higher background; the realistic description had to be made subservient to an idealistic aim. Still less could we understand realism as a description only of the lowest aspects of life, because, to limit one's observations to the lowest aspects only, is not to be a realist. Real life has beside and within its lowest manifestations its highest ones as well. Degeneracy is not the sole nor dominant feature of modern society, if we look at it as a whole. Consequently, the artist who limits his observations to the lowest and most degenerate aspects only, and not for a special purpose, does not make us understand that he explores only one small corner of life. Such an artist does not conceive life as it is: he knows but one aspect of it, and this is not the most interesting one.
Realism in France was certainly a necessary protest, partly against unbridled Romanticism, but chiefly against the elegant art which glided on the surface and refused to glance at the often most inelegant motives of elegant acts--the art which purposely ignored the often horrible consequences of the so-called correct and elegant life. For Russia, this protest was not necessary. Since Gógol, art could not be limited to any class of society. It was bound to embody them all, to treat them all realistically, and to penetrate beneath the surface of social relations. Therefore there was no need of the exaggeration which in France was a necessary and sound reaction. There was no need, moreover, to fall into extremes in order to free art from dull moralization. Our great realist, Gógol, had already shown to his followers how realism can be put to the service of higher aims, without losing anything of its penetration or ceasing to be a true reproduction of life.
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