I read two short stories (The Overcoat and The Nose) by Russian author, Nikolai Gogol and part one of his masterpiece novel, Dead Souls. I am severely under Gogol effect and I should write it off. I will jot down some of my random observations.
Gogol's Naming Conventions
I am really intrigued by Gogol's Naming Conventions, they are lyrical and based on ample use of alliteration and thus obtusely or rather tangentially signify the repetitive nature of his weird characters who according to Gogol are not conventional heroes but just some person ignored to be chosen to lead a story or a novel for a painfully long time. In his celebrated short story, The Overcoat, the full second paragraph is devoted to the baptism of our hero Akaky Akakyevich and Gogol, without referring to the obvious redundancy in his name, just tells the readers that it is the only name for him, and he was not named so by chance or choice but by his fate to be so. Our hero moves in his pursuit of repeatedness and redundancies in his life and work. Gogol gives an amusing account of his day at work and night at home and echoes that duplicating effect that his name resonates with.
Anyway, we can say that what's there in the name, but in Gogol's world baptism is a big event which he immensely enjoys and which he uses for infinite effect ranging from the unimportance of a peasant in a society, or the smugness of a outwardly dear but a filthy character. Here the names assumes utmost priority whether it is some Uncle Mityay and Minyay who try in vain to get Chichikov's troika up from tangle or the officers at provincial office named Ivan Grigoryevich, Ivan Antonovich, Ivan Andreyevich, probably to show their sameness in spite of their different parentage or Captain Kopeikin, who by his name itself doesn't sound like a great hero, or the magnificent Greek name, Themistocleus, of one of the child of a meek land lord, Manilov or in one of funniest episodes he refuses to name the two agreeable ladies because he laments that nowadays people of all ranks and classes in our country are so sensitive that they think everything in a book refers to them personally and he goes on to positively insult the whole breeds of ladies agreeable in all respects and also those who are just simply agreeable!
Even Nabokov was under Gogol-effect, when he named his characters Pnin (To get the "pn" right, try the combination "Up North", or still better "Up, Nina!", leaving out the initial "u". Pnorth, Pnina, Pmn...), Lo-le-ita (the first syllable should be as in "lollipop", the "L" liquid and delicate, the "lee" not too sharp, the suffix "-ita" has a lot of Latin tenderness) or rhythmic Humbert Humbert. After thinking about the Gogol's Naming Conventions, I managed to understand some of Nabokov's lament of not writing in Russian. See yourself, which sounds better John Johnson or Akaky Akakyevich ? There are also some more meaning to these name, the syllable kak means “like” in Russian which corresponds to the sameness of his name and sameness of act of copying. A person who knows Russian must get amusing, lyrical and meaningful depths out of those names.
I feel too stooped to write anything about Gogol's style, but here are some frivolous observations.
Lot of authors don't give clues about writing or why they are writing or what should or shouldn't be written but Gogol does that especially in Dead souls. There are passages devoted to Gogol's justification for talking devilish Chichikov as his hero, and how authors have written and written about the virtuous man that there is hardly any virtue left in him. One more striking facet of Gogol's style, as I saw it, is his composition of sceneries from start to finish, mildly moving from some romantic idealism to a practical distortion and searching beauty in both the extremes. This passages traces a river from loftiness of mountains to the hurdles of the bridges and dams.
The river, true to its banks, twisted and turned with them, sometimes leaving them for the meadows and sometimes, after taking several serpentine turns, flashing like fire in the sun and then disappearing in a copse of birch trees, aspens and alders and running out of it in triumph accompanied by bridges, mills and dams which seem to be pursuing it at every turn.
Gogol at times, makes you gape after reading and pushes you into a fabricated world and then make you understand it and allows you to laugh at your silly gapes and in all this business of gaping and ungaping while you see weird characters and sublime descriptions you are never ever overwhelmed by what you have read and you actively think of what unwritten text Gogol is pointing to and what written text he is fabricating for that and that's how an ultimate comedy and satire points to the rampant tragedy of our times and lives.
In The Overcoat, we never know whether to laugh at or not and if at all to laugh at it, whom to laugh at, the characters, the situations or ourselves. At one point we tend to stress our cheek muscles to prepare ourselves for a grin which we feel is well-deserved for the well-written text, the other moment we are allowed to think before we can proceed to consummate a smile, we anyway almost oblige by giving a smirk but with broken heart that the overcoat, that spoilt a lovely monotonous live, is robbed off. There is a satisfaction that its gone now but their is pain too, that the poor soul is robbed of it. I don't know whether to laugh at it or feel sad, but an intelligent and a sophisticated reader can let it go, I can't ! The point is Gogol's mastery of juxtaposing comic episodes with the moving ones with blurred lines that are almost non-existent.
Gogol has a mastery of social satire. Here goes one of very fine observation about human nature that Gogol makes.
If he did acquire a superficial knowledge of one branch of science, he would afterwards, as soon as he occupied a prominent position, make those who really knew something of that branch of science feel it. And may be he would say afterwards: "Let me just show them the stuff I'm made of!", and invent so wise a regulation that many people would be sorry they were ever born...
Or a more funny observation
The governor, who was at that moment standing beside some ladies, holding a raffle ticket in one hand and a lap dog in the other, dropped both the ticket and lap dog on to the floor on seeing him, the dog yelping piteously; in short Chichikov spread an atmosphere of joy and quite extraordinary gaiety.
Here a excellent satire on authors and characters alike.
I cannot reproduce governor's wife's word with any accuracy but something extremely polite was said in the manner in which ladies and gentlemen converse in the words of our society novelists who are so eager to describe drawing rooms and boast of their knowledge of aristocratic manners, something in the style of: 'Have they so taken possession of your heart that there's no longer any place in it, not even the tiniest corner, for those you have so mercilessly forgotten?'
And this one:
But the simply agreeable lady could think of nothing to say. She only knew how to be alarmed, but did not possess enough reasoning power to form any sensible idea as to what it was all about, and that was why she more than any one else was in need of tender friendship and advice.
Apart from these small doses of satire and humor, there are glorious long passages about man made garden taken over by wilds of nature, about our hero taking nap on a 'highway', postman's hilarious short story about an invalid captain and lot more, all done with a unique Gogol-style.
When you read about a characters vividly drawn on paper, his each contour inscribed by words, his each emotional high and low reported on print, you are damned to connect to it, some of the greatest characters sketches are like that, but Gogol delays the so-called character sketch of the hero, Pavlovskoe Chichikov, to the last chapter of part one of Dead Souls, by the time reader have seen enough of him and probably made some serious opinions (good, bad, ugly, and for some as always ok-types) for him, Gogol unfolds the life history of Chichikov and all those who have formed some opinion about it feel bad about him or themselves, which is actually one or the same entity. Gogol miraculously proves that we are all in this secret quest to acquire phoney dead souls.
Given my weakness on fixating too much on characters, (the last time I found out that my office is full of Gregors peeping from every nook and corner with Squealers trying to hunt them down, and Gregors trying to turn the table by sometimes metamorphosing themselves to Travis Bickles while they are cheating on lots of Cabirias, who try to be Charlottes but there are no full-time Werthers left now !), now I am seeing a Chichikov in everybody including myself. I too had a discussion with one of my friends where I told the Dead Soul "story" to him and he joyously exclaimed what a go-getter he is, what a fantastic, fast and furious achiever. I felt that if some self-help guru ever has the time to read the first 10 chapters he can even write about the "10 ways to acquire Dead Souls and be a winner". And this is all the travesty of our Chichikovian times. As pointed out in the character sketch, Chichikov try to make a quick fortune by his marvelous dressing sense and callous hind designs, but it doesn't turn out to be that quick, given our hero's bad fortune to run into carefully uninvited troubles, it do points about the Chichikovian mirage we live in, we become more careful, more artful, more masterful in all our eloquent foreground and virtuoso background patterns as we move for our own quests.
I wish Gogol may have completed and published his next two full volumes, his grandiose ambition, where he projected to somehow bring his scoundrel hero, to what he called , a spiritual regeneration and where he claimed that his work will give some genuine answers to the abyssal mystery of abominable existence, but I am afraid that there could be any easy answers and any art cannot put any morality into dead souls, the best it can do is to point to the the aberration or rather claim that there is one which we cannot see using our unaided eyes, and can help someone to know himself better or to say it grandiosely, can help him move closer to truth, or may be just give a direction, right or wrong, he is only to decide.
The picture above shows Gogol's statue at St. Petersburg, the location of his short stories.