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10th October 2012

Portrait of an author: Nikolai Gogol

The beginner’s guide to Nikolai Gogol, author of Dead Souls and The Overcoat

Life: Nikolai (or Nikolay depending on how you like your Russian) Vasilyevich Gogol was born in 1809 in Poltava, part of the Russian Empire. Although Gogol is routinely lauded as one of the top “four of five masters of Russian prose fiction”, Poltava was actually in the Ukraine, and Gogol was not Russian by descent. Whether Gogol was a Russian writer or not is of some dispute, but the category under which the author takes his place amongst the greats is seemingly now immutable. Gogol lived in St Petersburg, and abroad, mainly in Rome, for much of his life.

Death: He died in 1852, “a little before eight” on a Thursday morning, and a little before the age of 43 – a relatively ‘ripe’ age, according to Nabokov, considering the contracted life spans of contemporaries, and Russian writers in general.

Myth and misrepresentation surrounds Gogol’s death, making it, fittingly, seem as surreal, and fittingly grotesque, as one of his stories. Shortly before his death the author burned much of the manuscript of the second part of Dead Souls, apparently at the behest of the devil. He also may have died of self-starvation, or possibly of (or at least exacerbated by) despair. It also could have been typhus. When his body was dug up in 1931, as Moscow authorities were demolishing a monastery, it was discovered face down, leading to the next conjecture that Gogol had been buried alive.

Employment: Perhaps one of my favourite piece of Gogol trivia is his patchy-at-best employment history. In 1828 the writer was employed by an obscure government ministry (name unknown), after which he attempted, and failed to obtain a position at Kiev University as a professor of history, for which he was unqualified. In 1834 he finally made it as the Professor for Medieval History at the University of St Petersburg (again, no qualifications). After not teaching his students, he apparently set silently in the final exam with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, ‘simulating’ a toothache, whilst a colleague questioned the students. Perhaps, on settling as writing as his true vocation, Gogol had merely run out of options and job offers as a societal insider. He exiled himself instead to outsider-ship and commentary.

Works: Gogol experimented with many forms including poetry, play, short story, the novel and non-fiction. His best-known works are prose fiction, Dead Souls, The Nose, The Government Inspector, The Portrait. His writing has been placed under the umbrellas of various -isms: Realism, Romanticism, Surrealism, grotesque(ism), demonstrating more than anything how the stories defy categorization. Stories in which a man finds a nose in his bread, and then meets that nose on the street (The Nose), and men resemble their furniture (Sobakevich in Dead Souls). Gogol wrote subtle, probing satires – in some cases, so subtle that it is hard to tell what is being satirised; in others it is clear he is unpicking the fabric of corruption in daily political life in Russia.

More than anything, Gogol’s writing is defined by its pervasive and precise detail: “mounds of details heaped upon details”. Whilst living in Europe, Gogol wrote to his mother asking her for a detailed description of special Ukranian costumes and customs – which were to be used for his stories set in the Ukranian countryside. This level of attention and precision to so small a detail demonstrates the nature of Gogol the writer in general; nothing was insignificant enough not to require a deep and careful conveyance to the reader. But of course, the combined effect, as refracted through Gogol’s strange mind, a specific and slightly twisted whole.

– Gogol was a very talented mimic, so much so that he almost became an actor.
– In Ukranian Gogol’s name should be pronounced Mykola Hohol.
– The post-punk gypsy band, Gogol Bordello, of ‘Start Wearing Purple’ fame, are, of course named after Gogol.

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