Great Russian novelist, dramatist, satirist, founder of the so-called critical realism in Russian literature, best-known for his novel Mertvye dushi I-II (1842, Dead Souls). Gogol's prose is characterized by imaginative power and linguistic playfulness. As an exposer of grotesque in human nature, Gogol could be called the Hieronymus Bosch of Russian literature.
Nikolai Gogol was born in Sorochintsi, Ukraine, where he grew up on his parents' country estate. His real surname was Ianovskii, but the writer's grandfather had taken the name 'Gogol' to claim a noble Cossack ancestry. Gogol's father was an educated and gifted man, who wrote plays, poems, and sketches in Ukrainian.
Gogol started write while in high school. He attended Poltava boarding school (1819-21) and then Nezhin high school (1821-28), where he produced plays for the student's theatre and acted in some productions. However, he was not very highly esteemed by his school and he found it difficult to open up to his schoolmates, who regarded him as the "mysterious dwarf," a secretive individual. To his mother he wrote: "At home I am considered willful; here I am called meek . . . in some quarters I am so very quiet, modest, polite; in others – sullen, pensive, uncouth . . . for some I am intelligent, for others I am stupid" (March 1, 1828).
In 1828 Gogol, an aspiring writer, settled in St. Petersburg, with a certificate attesting his right to "the rank of the 14th class". To support himself, Gogol worked at minor governmental jobs and wrote occasionally for periodicals. Although he was interested in literature, he also dreamed of becoming an actor. However, the capital of Russia did not welcome him with open arms and his early narrative poem, Hans Kќchelgarten (1829), turned out to be a disaster.
Between the years 1831 and 1834 Gogol taught history at the Patriotic Institute and worked as a private tutor. In 1831 he met Aleksandr Pushkin who greatly influenced his choice of literary material, especially his "Dikinka tales", which were based on Ukrainian folklore. Their friendship lasted until the great poet's death. Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka from 1831-32, Gogol's breakthrough work, showed his skill in mixing fantastic with macabre, and at the same saying something very essential about the Russian character.
After failure as an assistant lecturer of world history at the University of St. Petersburg (1834-35), Gogol became a full-time writer. Under the title Mirgorod (1835) Gogol published a new collection of stories, beginning with 'Old-World Landowners', which described the decay of the old way of life. The book also included the famous historical tale 'Taras Bulba', written under the influence of Walter Scott. The protagonist is a strong, heroic character, not very typical for the author's later cavalcade of bureaucrats, lunatics, swindlers, and humiliated losers. One hostile critic descibed his city dwellers as the "scum of Petersburg". Inspired by Gogol's themes of rebellion and freedom, the Czech composer Leoš Janсček used the novel as the frame-work for his orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba (1918).
In his short stories, Gogol fully utilized the Petersburg mythology, in which the city was treated "both as 'paradise', a utopian ideal city of the future, the embodiment of Reason, and as the terrible masquerade of Antichrist." (Yuri Lotman in Universe of the Mind, 1990) Gogol was also the first to publish an extended literary comparison between Moscow and Petersburg, concluding, "Russia needs Moscow; Petersburg needs Russia."
"I am destined by the mysterious powers to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes," wrote Gogol once, "viewing life in all its immensity as it rushes past me, viewing it through laughter seen by the world and tears unseen and unknown by it." St. Petersburg Stories (1835) examined social relationships and disorders of mind; Gogol's influence can be seen among others in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) and The Crime and the Punishment (1866). Gogolian tradition continued also among others in the stories of Franz Kafka.
'The Nose' from this period was about a man who loses his nose, which tries to live its own life. Gogol himself had a long nose, but the motifs in the story were borrowed from other writers. According to V. Vinograd's study (1987), these kind of surrealistic images were popular the 1820-1830s. It is still a puzzle: no key has been found to explain, why Collegiate Assessor Kovalev's nose transforms into civil servant and back into nose. The central plot circles around Kovalev's quest to recapture his runaway organ – he has arrived in Moscow to climb up the social ladder but without proper face it is impossible. Without an arm or leg it is not unbearable, thinks Major, but without a nose a man is, the devil knows what... In the outwardly crazy story lurks a serious idea: what matters is not the person but one's rank.
In 'Nevsky Prospect' a talented artist falls in love with a tender poetic beauty. She turns out to be a prostitute and the artist commits suicide when his romantic illusions are shattered. 'The Diary of a Madman' asked why is it that "all the best things in life, they all go to the Equerries or the generals?" 'Shinel' (1842, The Overcoat), one of Gogol's most famous short stories, contrasted humility and meekness with the rudeness of the "important personage". The central character is Akakii Akakievich, a lowly government clerk. When winter begins he notices that his old over coat is beyond repairing. He manages to save money for a new, luxurious over coat. His colleagues at the office arrange a party for his acquisition. But his happiness proves to be short-lived. On the way home he is attacked by thieves and robbed of his coat. To recover his loss, Akakievich asks help from an Important Person, a director of a department with the rank of general. He treats harshly Akakievich, who develops a fever, and dies of fright within three days. One night when the Important Person is returning home, he is attacked by a ghost, the late Akakii, who now steals his overcoat. The stealing of outer garments continue, even though now the ghost is a big man with a moustache and enormous fists.
Gogol published in 1836 several stories in Pushkin's journal Sovremennik, and in the same year appeared his famous play, The Inspector General. It told a simple tale of a young civil servant, Khlestakov, who finds himself stranded in a small provincial town. By mistake, he is taken by the local officials to be a government inspector, who is visiting their province incognito. Khlestakov happily adapts to his new role and exploits the situation. His true identity is revealed but then arrives the real inspector. Gogol masterfully creates with a few words people, places, things, and lets them disappear in the flow of the story. Vladimir Nabokov wrote: "Who is that unfortunate bather, steadily and uncannily growing, adding weight, fattening himself on the marrow of a metaphor? We never shall know – but he almost managed to gain a footing."
Its first stage production was in St Petersburg, given in the presence of the tsar. As he left his box after the premiшre, The tsar dropped the comment: "Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of all at me!" Gogol, who was always sensitive about reaction to his work, fled Russia for Western Europe. He visited Germany, Switzerland, and France, and settled then in Rome. He also made a pilgrimage to Palestine in 1848, to pray for inspiration for the part II of Dead Souls. He had burned the manuscript of part II for the first time in 1845.
In Rome Gogol wrote his major work, The Dead Souls. "The prophet finds no honor in his homeland," he said. Gogol claimed that the story was suggested by Pushkin in a conversation in 1835. Pushkin did not live to see its publication, but on hearing the first chapters read, he exclaimed: "God, how sad our Russia is!"
Wishing to embrace the whole Russian society, Gogol regarded the first volume merely as "a pale introduction to the great epic poem which is taking shape in my mind and will finally solve the riddle of my existence". The story depicted the adventures Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who arrives in a provincial town to buy '"dead souls," dead serfs. As a character, he is the opposite of starving Akakii Akakievich. By selling these 'souls,' Chichikov planned to make a huge profit. He meets local landowners and departs the town in a hurry, when rumors start spread about him.
In the play Zhenitba (1842) nearly everybody lies and the protagonist, Podgolesin, cannot make up his mind about marriage. He hesitates, agrees, then withdraws his promise, the life is full of cheating, but when people jeer at each other, they actually tell the truth. Igrogi (The Gamblers), about professional card-sharps, was first staged in 1843; Dmitri Shostakovich based his unfinished opera on the comedy.
Except for a short visits to Russia in 1839-40 and 1841-42, Gogol was abroad for twelve years. The first edition of Gogol's collected works came out in 1842 and made him one of the most popular Russian writers. Two years before his return, Gogol had published Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847), in which he upheld the autocratic tsarist regime and the patriarchal Russian way of life. The book disappointed radicals who had seen Gogol's works as examples of social criticism. "The peasant must not even know there exist other books besides the Bible," Gogol argued. The radical critic Vissarion Belinsky labelled him as the "apostle of ignorance" and Sergei Askakov lamented that "the best that can be done is to call him a madman."
During the last decade of his life, Gogol struggled to continue the story and depict Chichikov's fall and redemption. Gogol's friends were exhausted by his arrogance and unreliability. After returning from Jerusalem to Russia he came under influence of a fanatical priest, Father Konstantinovskii, who urged him to abandon literature and to enter a monastery. Gogol burned sequels for Dead Souls, just 10 days before he died on the verge of madness on the 4th of March 1852. A few chapters of part II have survived.
Gogol died of self-enforced starvation. Various remedies were employed to make him eat – spirits were poured over his head, hot loaves applied to his person and leeches attached to his nose. Rumors arise from time to time that Gogol was buried alive, a situation familiar from the story 'The Premature Burial,' of the contemporary writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).