Nikolai Vassiliyevich Gogol was born, appropriately for a satirist, on April 1, 1809, in the Poltava Gubernia of Maloros ("Little Russia" later officially named Ukraine). His parents were mid-level landowners and his father was also an amateur playwright. Gogol was well-educated in the arts and showed a particular proficiency in acting later in life, his dramatic readings of his stories would be widely renowned.
Gogol had a very healthy ego and feared obscurity. At the age of 18, he wrote to an uncle: "Cold sweat drenches my face at the thought that I may perish in dust without becoming famous for any extraordinary accomplishment. Living in this world would be terrible if I failed to make my being beneficial."
At first he dreamed of a legal career. So, in 1828, when he finished his studies at a gymnasium in Nezhin, he set off to make his name in St. Petersburg. But he quickly became discouraged by the monotony, emptiness and pitiful remuneration of a bureaucratic career (so tellingly described in his masterpiece, The Overcoat). Thankfully, he focused his creative energies on writing.
Gogol's first three years in Petersburg were filled with economic hardship and creative disappointment. His first work (the self-published poem Hartz Kyukhelgarten), written under the pseudonym V. Alov, was pretentious and insubstantial. It was not until 1831 that his fortunes changed. On May 20, 1831, Gogol met Alexander Pushkin for the first time. He brought to that meeting a collection of stories about life in Maloros (one of which, St. John's Eve, had been published the year before). Pushkin liked them very much and urged Gogol to get them published.
The collection of stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, published that same year, was met with almost universal critical praise. Written in an earthy, realistic style, the tales are introduced by a fictitious beekeeper, Rudy Panko, as if to impart legitimacy upon them. Drawing upon Gogol's upbringing in Maloros, the stories evoke all the color, superstition and flavor of Ukrainian folklore. They are highly descriptive and romantic, with just a taste of the fantastic.
The following year, Gogol published a second volume of stories (which were actually promised by beekeeper Panko: "if, please God, I live to the New Year"). This collection was equally successful, but it contained a story different from anything Gogol had yet published. Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt was a hint of Gogol's future masterpieces. In Shponka, he creates a series of hilarious, extraordinary events out of seemingly normal circumstances; he shows how the world may look orderly and benign on the surface, but once one looks at things in detail, excruciating detail, underneath it all is poshlost.
Without grasping the idea of poshlost, one cannot hope to understand and appreciate Gogol. Any Russian dictionary will tell you poshlost means "vulgarity" or "banality." But of course there is more to it than that. Poshlost is the decadence and petty schemes that entangle the lives of provincial bureaucrats; it is the slothful self-centeredness of the landed gentry (so lusciously detailed in Gogol's later story, Old World Landowners); it is the smarmy rot of scandal and corruption that lies stinking beneath the conventions of proper society and inherited wealth.
The Gogolian portrait of poshlost became richer with the publication of his Arabesques and Mirgorod stories in 1835, followed by short stories such as The Nose. But it reached perfection with his masterpiece play The Inspector General.
On January 18, 1836, Gogol read The Inspector General to Pushkin, Zhukovsky, Vyazemsky and others. It was such a success that it was rushed into production and premiered on April 19 in St. Petersburg and May 25 in Moscow. To this day, this story of Khlestyakov, a scheming imposter who took bribes from poshlost-ridden locals (the idea for the story was given to Gogol by Pushkin, who based it on real events), is part of the standard repertoire of nearly every Russian theater. …