Exploring Gogol

Exploring Gogol

Exploring Gogol

Exploring Gogol

Synopsis

For the past 150 years, critics have referred to 'the Gogol problem', by which they mean their inability to account for a life and work that are puzzling, often opaque, yet have proved consistently fascinating to generations of readers. This book proceeds on the assumption that Gogol's life and work, in all their manifestations, form a whole; it identifies, in ways that have eluded critics to date, the rhetorical strategies and thematic patterns that create the unity. These larger concerns emerge from a close study of the major texts, fictional and nonfictional, and in turn are set in a broad artistic and intellectual context, Russian and European, with special attention to German philosophy, the visual arts, and Orthodox Christian theology.

Excerpt

When I first encountered Gogol, longer ago than now seems plausible, he did not conform to my expectations of what a "great" nineteenth- century fiction writer should be. For one thing, the corpus was modest: a mere fourteen volumes (albeit substantial ones) in the only existing complete works, of which seven covered the stories, plays, and Dead Souls, and the rest, nonfiction. I found few ontological excursions of the kind that make Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Stendhal so discussable, by casual readers as well as scholars. There were virtually no exciting or even very interesting plots of the kind that take us back again and again to Pushkin, Poe, and Dickens. There were none of those rounded characters, to borrow E. M. Forster's once fashionable term, whom we can treat almost like real human beings, such as Raskolnikov, Emma Bovary, and Becky Sharp. At most I could identify two or three well-made stories of the kind that readers of Chekhov and Maupassant enjoy as a matter of course. It was all but impossible to paraphrase a story by Gogol, and I was usually hard put, on finishing one, to say with much confidence what it was "about." Yet the simplicity was only apparent. Except in format, these works were not really prose fictions at all, but tightly knotted poems, which produced a profound, disturbing, unforgettable impression. Reading Gogol was like visiting a house where the door was open and welcoming but we were admitted only part way. We had to be satisfied with what we could see by craning our necks from the well-lighted hallway, but we yearned to explore the whole house, particularly the attic and the basement. Over the years I

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