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Great Grotesque

Nikolai Gogol
By Vladimir Nabokov
Norfolk, Conn: New Directions. 172 pages. $1.50.

One fairly accurate cardiogram of just how violently the Anglo-American heart palpitates over one of Russia's supreme geniuses is furnished by the Britannica (fourteenth edition), GOGOL, NIKOLAI VASSILIEVICH, rates one column and a grudging third, a bibliography of four lines listing as many items (only one in English), and not even a cut of the man. GOLF, however, earns 18 columns (glossary, 3 columns; bibliography, one-third column; 10 line cuts and one plate of 9 halftones). And the never-to-be-praised-enough Slavonic Division of the New York Public Library lists, among hundreds of entries, in ever so many languages, under Gogol, Works About, five additional items written in English--all scholastic scrapiana. Gogol, in English criticism, has long since degenerated into a quintain for the professors and a whipping boy for ex-Russians who show themselves indubitably greater geniuses at engineering blood-ritual trials than at appraising literature and its creators.

It might therefore sound invidious to say that Nabokov's thoroughly mannered critical and biographical study of Gogol is the best in English--although it is precisely that.

Nabokov is a particularly rare orchid of the aerophyte Russian-literature-in-exile, and his fantasticism and exoticism received the cachet (something like fifteen years ago) from none other than the great and patriarchal Amphitheatrov. And Knee biography and even criticism are, for some reason, considered creative, Nabokov may be said to have created his own Gogol, adding one more to his phantasmal gallery of "strange creatures" where, in crepuscule, hang his Potato Elf, his chess-mad genius Luzhin. And one can't help feeling that he would have done as excellently with Hoifmaji, with Poe, with Baudelaire, with De Quincey, with St. John of the Apocalypse--save that, by choice, he would have made them all as realistic as bunion plasters.

The critic's main thesis (superbly defended) seems to be that Gogol was no realist, that he had an unreal, a looking glass world of his own, that his catoptrics were not those of a mirror merely crooked but a mirror "of Gogol's own making and with a special refraction of its own," and that it wasn't necessarily nature he was holding it up to. If Chekhov could maintain (quite rightly) that his plays were really comedies, why shouldn't Nabokov describe "The Government Inspector" as a "dream play," "poetry-inaction," rather than a comedy? And in calling "Dead Souls" a "tremendous epic poem" he is simply adding an adjective to Gogol's own tag. 

Of course, this approach will hardly create the uproar that Briussov's "He Who Has Burned Utterly into Ashes" ("Ispepelennyi") did three and a half decades ago'. Rozanov also, even before Briussov, had shown that Gogol had created his own world and his own people, and to Merejkovsky Gogol was a phantast and a mystic--but then, Merejkovsky could make a Blakian tiger out of a tabbycat.

Gogol no realist? Perhaps. Yet the present writer believes (on the basis of experimentation) that "The Government Inspector," at least, would play Broadway to SRO merely by transposing the dialogue into American idiom, transferring the scene to any one of the hellholes in our own camellia-drenched, magnolia-stenchy South, and without changing the characters in any way save putting them in modern dress and trimming the oviches and ounas into mint julepy yet thoroughly Gogolian names. What was Huey Long save Skvoznik-Dmuhanovski, the amoral and immortal Mayor of the play?

Nabokov's brilliant causerie is concerned chiefly with "The Government Inspector" "Dead Souls" and "The Overcoat," with a kind word for only one comparatively insignificant fragment among Gogol's marvelous (in the Russian) Ukrainian stories (and a somewhat kinder nod for some of the "Arabesques"), since Gogol is to him a "false humorist." This attitude, it is very much to be feared, belongs to that dubious sophistication which in the United States expresses itself in a superior air toward the great arts of variety and the circus and poor old Longfellow, and which (at least in old Russia) was manifested in a let's be indulgent-about-the-humor-of-that-quaint-'beggar-Chekhov. All Gogolators know of the Heresy of Kulish, who criticized the Ukrainian tales of Gogol and there are pamphlets in Ukrainian plaintively entitled "Come, Was Gogol Really One of Us?" At any rate the reviewer, despite all the reasoned arguments, was caught utterly off his guard by certain passages given in Mr. Nabokov's own translation. And, after all, what other test of a humorist is there save his ability to make the reader (calloused or otherwise) laugh?

There are ever so many valiant gestures. for which the author deserves a cluster of Distinguished Literary Service Medals: his attempt to introduce foshkat (in the sense of vulgarity, Philistinism) into English; his excoriation of Garnettian, Thousand-Pieces-Execution translations--so deep is his utterly correct feeling on this point that he spells Isahel Hapgood's name throughout as Hepgood; his refreshing attitude toward psychoanalysis: he doesn't exactly stick his tongue out at it, but, definitely and sensibly, keeps it in his cheek. He takes only a neat phrase or two to annihilate Gogol's very own Tsar, pulls no punches about Gogol's evil daemon, an ignorant lout of a country priest, and shows quite objectively that when a good writer gets religion the result is inevitably had writing.

It is therefore all the more regrettable to come upon a sour note or two. Nabokov creates every opportunity (coherent or otherwise) to flick out at the Soviets. Of course the author's anti-Sovietism (even if it be so very passe as not to be even sophisticated) has nothing to do with his book--which is precisely what makes it so very irritating. And such arbitrary pronouncements as that the written word has been dead in Russia for the last twenty-five years are (since Soviet literature is by no means a closed, even though a smudged, book in English) likely to prejudice the intelligent reader against better reasoned contentions where the author is fully able to maintain his ground. Then there is the over enthusiasm in implying (or seeming to imply) that his idol was somehow unique in creating what Nabokov calls peripheral, secondary, dream characters. Surely, there is a Mrs. Harris, and there are the Dream Children. And in playwriting the creative, evocative use of this exceedingly > ancient device ranges from the Falstaff cycle ("And is June Nightwork alive?"), through (good) French comedy, down to the "Toplitski Says" skits which died only with the music halls. And certain translations strike one irresistibly as an attempt to salvage exercises \n that curious dead language, Anglo-English (wigging, waggish, bigwigs; little beggar, conjuror; old chap, old boy, old fellow). Everywhere else, where Mr. Nabokov has made something very like an anthology of next-to-impossible-to-English Gogolian passages, he has turned them into living Amer-English and acquitted himself nobly.

The work is, in the main, creative criticism, and as such quite often attains the caliber of "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth." The author's perceptiveness is not only as keen but as bright and chill as a razor. Or (to use his own persistent figure of escamotage): Nabokov on Gogol is Dunninger eclaircissizing the modae opcrandi of Houdini. Biography is by no means scamped, but the critic handles it in his own way--fortunately. He is most fastidious in his use of anything smacking of the apocryphal or anecdotal, but there is no niggardliness as to fascinating and (occasionally) illuminating sidelights. (It is amusing to learn that Gogol was as great a facial contortionist as Morimoto.) He dismisses (quite correctly) Gogol's sex-life in a single sentence; but it is a pity that he has not devoted more than a sentence each to Gogol the actor (no one but a born actor could have written "The Inspector General"), to Gogol the draughtsman, and to that minor Ukrainian playwright but true theatromane, Gogol's father.

There is one English biography of Gogol, stoutly enough built but a slow-coach, available to the plodding student. But the creative reader (and student) who wishes to soar on Gogol's own winged-steed troika will choose Nabokov as his exhilarating courier.