Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties

By Edmund Wilson | Go to book overview

VLADIMIR NABOKOV ON GOGOL

IF YOU READ E.-M. de Vogüé Le Roman Russe, you will learn that Nikolai Gogol was a pioneer of Russian realism; if you read Mérimée's essay on him, you will be told that he was first of all a satirist, who, if he had written in a more widely read language, might well have "acquired a reputation equal to that of the best English humorists"; and these two notions have remained the chief elements in the Western conception of Gogol. If we set out to read Gogol himself, we may be puzzled to find he does not fit them. We soon recognize that we are a long way here from the familiar Russian realism, of which the purest example is Tolstoy. Gogol's characters are social types, but they are also mythical monsters; his backgrounds are vulgar in a way that was new in Russian fiction, but the sordid detail is intensified, thrown into a dramatic relief which does not allow any illusion that we are watching the lives of ordinary people; and both characters and backgrounds, by a strange Homeric growth, are continually putting forth gigantic similes involving characters and scenes of their own, which give the whole thing a queer other dimension. And though we may laugh at The Inspector General, we shall find that Gogol's stories inspire more horror than mirth, and a horror rather tragic than satiric. We shall also find long passages of prose lyricism that probably-- for richness of texture combined with emotional power

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