Nabokov on Gogol


Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom have birthdays in April (their 190th and 100th, respectively), were two of the greatest Russian writers of the past 200 years. In many ways, the creative works of Gogol and Nabokov could not be more different. Gogol was a fabulist, a writer famous for building absurd tales full of exaggerated characters and social commentary. Nabokov was a realist. His stories grind no axes; they are peopled by very frail, life-sized characters who live in a world described with poetic precision. To Nabokov, moralizing is anathema. And yet, it is not so simple. Gogol is often credited with giving birth to realism in Russian literature and many of Nabokov's tales are fabulist morality plays.

There are, however, some specific commonalities. Both Nabokov and Gogol had noble bloodlines (though Nabokov's was much "richer"); both spent most of their creative lives outside their homeland, as aliens seeking acceptance in a different culture; both had short tenures as teachers; both became famous for writing in a language other than their mother tongue. In their art, there is a common richness, a feeling that every word is chosen for poetic meaning (indeed, Gogol's Dead Souls is subtitled A Poem), that images constructed of words must be tangible and yet impressionistic - thriving on many layers of meaning.

Regardless of such comparisons, Gogol and Nabokov stand as literary bookends for an incredible century of Russian literature. Gogol, a friend and heir of Pushkin, was a leading light in the Golden Age of Russian literature of the 1840s-1860s. Nabokov stands at our end of this literary century. He was born almost exactly on the centenary of Pushkin's birth and came of age around the time of Tolstoy's death. Fleeing Russia with his family after the revolution (his father was a senior member of the Kerensky government), he became one of the last great Russian writers untouched by Socialist Realism. Since he spent most of his life in emigration, and since he wrote in English from 1940 on, he is not often identified as a "Russian" writer. But, before 1940, he created some of the best Russian fiction in emigration, even though his fiction, devoid of archetypal characters and blunt philosophical advocacy, was a break from the prevailing tradition of Russian literature - a tradition which had been set in motion by Nikolai Gogol.

Interestingly, one of Nabokov's first works published in English was a study of Gogol's work (out of print, but partially available in Lectures on Russian Literature). It is some of the best analysis of Gogol, but it also shines a light back on Nabokov, the great Russian writer at our end of that fantastic century of Russian literature.

RELATED ARTICLE: A Birthday Gift

As St. Petersburg and Russia prepare to mark the 100th birthday of the writer Vladimir Nabokov, on April 24, justice has finally been served. For the first time, Nabokov's birthday will be celebrated in the beloved house of his childhood at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya Street, in the center of St. Petersburg. Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899; his family was forced to flee Russia in 1919.

Since the state-financed museum to the writer's memory at the family summer residence in the village of Rozhdestveno burned to the ground in 1995, the world's only Nabokov museum is now located on the first floor of the gorgeous art nouveau building on Bolshaya Morskaya. The upper floors of the building, however, are still occupied by the liberal daily newspaper, Nevskoye Vremya.

Nabokov spent most of his life in emigration, in Germany, France, the US and Switzerland. …

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