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Books: Mad Russian

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GOGOL (329 pp.)—David Magarshack —Grove Press ($6.50).

Nikolai Gogol was one of those truly bizarre characters who appeared in. and occasionally wrote, the great Russian novels of the 19th century. He was born of Ukrainian Cossack stock into that great shambling mess of splendor and squalor, the Russian Empire. The society must have had something in it of Elizabethan England (with its preoccupation with theology, place and power, and its spiritual ferment). To this was added a fantastic, ramshackle bureaucracy with bewhiskered officials dedicated to the ledgers of obscurantism. Gogol’s own parents typified that society. His mother was a pious, eccentric ninny; his father a sometime bureaucrat in the chaotic Russian post office as well as the owner of 3,000 acres, 384 serfs and a vodka distillery.

Gogol lived and worked in the illusion that he was defending his time, place and class, while actually he helped to destroy them. In a full dress study that will probably be the definitive work on Gogol in English, Russian-born Biographer David Magarshack (Chekhov,’TIME, Sept. 28, 1953; Turgenev, TIME, Sept. 27, 1954) makes clear that it was Gogol’s genius, in spite of himself, to open windows in the sealed winter cabin of the Russian soul.

Comedy or Truth? Gogol was a weedy little fellow with a tapir-like nose who was known at school as the “mysterious dwarf.” His “spoilt and corrupt character” emerges like a combination of half a dozen case histories in abnormal psychology. He disliked making love to women, avoided his mother to the point of forging foreign stamps to make her believe he was living abroad. He was morbidly dependent on his friends’ company. “Forget your wretched teeth.” he wrote to a friend who wanted to go to see a dentist. “The soul is better than teeth.”

He was a great jokester, with a neurotic’s ability to charm a world he could not master. In 1835 he wrote what brilliant Novelist-Critic Vladimir Nabokov calls the greatest play in Russian. The Government Inspector. The conception, suggested to Gogol by Pushkin, was ingenious: a character is mistaken in a provincial town for an important government official, and the whole corrupt, incoherent Russian officialdom is exposed in apparently hilarious farce. Czar Nicholas I himself saw the play and is said to have remarked (roughly translated): “Everyone gets the business here. Me most of all.” Gogol and his adored Czar thought it all comedy. But was it? The vein of unreality in Gogol himself had laid bare the basic unreality of Russian society. Gogol, says

Biographer Magarshack. brought about “what amounted to a revolution in the minds of his countrymen.”

But immediately he set about making his villains into heroes. Gogol tried to explain away the real significance of his comedies. It was almost as if the authors of Oklahoma had inadvertently turned out Hamlet and had written to the New York Times to explain there was nothing rotten whatsoever in the state of Denmark.

Sin or Art? In 1842 Gogol published the first part of his greatest work. Dead Souls, a novel that brilliantly exposed a brutal anachronism of Russian life: serfdom. Serfs, like any other property, could be mortgaged. Gogol introduced a sort of Russian spiv who speculated in “dead souls,” i.e., defunct but still financially negotiable persons.

The madness in all this mad comedy was that Gogol himself thought he was defending the system he undermined. One critic got the point that Gogol had been trying to make. “Preacher of the lash,” he called the muddled genius. After his first success. Gogol left Russia in a huff, spent twelve nostalgic years in self-imposed exile. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, slowly developed a religious mania and fell into the hands of a fanatic Russian Orthodox priest who persuaded Gogol that art was sinful. Thus an artist who all his life had been dissatisfied with his own work and had often burned manuscripts in the interests of perfection now burned his manuscripts in the interests of God.

Gogol had once said it was his duty to “die with a song on his lips.” In fact he died at 42 in a barbarous nightmare of half-savage Russian medicine, with leeches on his famous nose and mad medics trying to thump the devil out of him. Gogol had a strange power over the Russian mind. Says Biographer Magarshack in a just summary: “This conviction . . . that it was his transcendental mission to save Russia, an idea that was completely divorced from reality . . . was the tragedy of his life.” Yet, in a sense, though Gogol could not save his own reason, he came close to saving Russia’s. Hoping to uphold a dark orthodox authority, Gogol kindled flickering gleams of liberty. Those who came later established, in the name of freedom, a darker authority than Gogol could have dreamed.

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