Vladimir Nabokov called Gogol 'the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced'. Born in a village in the Poltava district of the Ukraine to a family of minor gentry, he grew up in the Ukrainian countryside with its Cossack traditions and wealth of folklore. It was an idyllic childhood, but at night in the darkness he used to hear the uncanny voices of the dead.
In high school from the age of 12, he was not popular and was called 'the mysterious dwarf'. He had a biting tongue and, according to one schoolmate, he was covered in spots and his ears leaked disagreeably. He went to St Petersburg in 1828 to make his way in the world, but he had no connections and no money. A poem he had written at school was published but it was trounced by the critics and fell completely flat. He managed to get a badly paid civil service post in the Ministry of the Interior and started writing lively pieces for magazines about his memories of the Ukraine, combining realistic accounts of life there with fantastic stories about demons, witches and other creatures of Ukrainian folklore. …