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A Week to Remember: Nikolai Gogol

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol was born on March 31, 1809. Gogol wrote mostly short stories and plays. He is generally thought of as the first great Russian realist, but his stories often contain elements of the surreal and the bizarre, occasionally leaning into horror.

Gogol was born in what is now Ukraine, and was raised speaking both Russian and Ukrainian. He was exposed to the theatrical world from a young age; his father was a Ukrainian-langage playwright whose plays were often staged by Gogol's uncle, who ran a theater.

He spent most of his twenties as a student at one of Ukraine's oldest universities. Gogol was a moody and ambitious young man who did not make friends easily. He discovered that he had a gift for mimicry, and briefly considered going into the family business as an actor; he later put those skills to use doing public readings of his own writing.

Upon leaving school in 1828, Gogol went to St. Petersburg. At his own expense, he published a lengthy poem he had written. The critics were harsh in their dislike; Gogol purchased as many of the copies as he could and destroyed them, vowing never to write poetry again.

He had much better response to his first volume of short stories in 1831. Gogol's early stories were set in Ukraine, and critics read them as sophisticated commentaries on the differences in national character between Ukraine and Russia. Gogol's stories have been regrouped and published in various collections over the years, usually with no particular connection to the groupings in which they were originally published. The best of his work is gathered in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (e-book | print).

3 books by Nikolai Gogol

At about the same time, Gogol became interested in Ukrainian history and attempted to get a professorship at Kiev University. He failed, but did get a position at a smaller school, teaching medieval history. He was spectacularly unqualified for the job. Students reported that he bluffed his way through an introductory lecture of vague generalities, then missed most classes and muttered incomprehensibly when he did show up. He was dismissed from the position after a year.

His stories continued to be well received, though, and he published several volumes in 1835. In 1836, his first great play was produced. The Inspector General  —sometimes translated as The Government Inspector  (e-book | print) —was a satire of provincial bureaucracy, so sharp and cutting that the St. Petersburg State Theater only agreed to produce it after Emperor Nicholas I intervened to approve the production.

Gogol's only novel, Dead Souls (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was published in 1841. He described it as an "epic poem in prose," and inteneded it to be the first part of a trilogy that would parallel Dante's Divine Comedy; Dead Souls was to be the analog to Dante's Inferno.

Gogol spent the next several years traveling through Europe. When he returned to Russia in 1848, he reconnected with an old friend who had become an Orthodox spiritual leader; that relationship turned out not to be healthy for Gogol or for his writing. He became convinced that he was doomed to damnation for his sinful writing, and became sickly and depressed.

On February 24, 1852, Gogol burned most of his manuscripts, including the novel that would have been the second part of the Dead Souls trilogy, the Purgatory to the first novel's Inferno. He took to his bed, refusing to eat, and died on March 4.

Gogol's writing has frequently been adapted into other forms; Russian composers have been particularly fond of his work. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's 1880 opera May Night is based on the Gogol story of the same name; Gogol's "Christmas Eve" is the basis for Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's 1885 opera Cherevichki. A century later, Rodion Shchedrin turned Dead Souls into an opera in 1976, and Alfred Schnittke wrote an orchestral Gogol Suite in 1980 (it's listed here as "The Census List Incidental Music").

Film adaptations of Gogol's work have often been much looser. The 1952 Italian film The Overcoat is a relatively faithful adaptation of Gogol's story, but Mario Bava's 1960 horror classic Black Sunday is only loosely based on Gogol's story Viy, and the 1949 version of The Inspector General is a very loose interpretation, turning Gogol's biting satire into a musical comedy starring Danny Kaye.

Also This Week

March 27, 1899

Gloria Swanson was born. Swanson was one of the biggest silent film stars of the 1920s. When the sound era began in the early 1930s, she made several unsuccessful movies, and mostly retired from movies for fifteen years, focusing on the stage. You can see Swanson in all stages of her long career: the 1921 silent film The Affairs of Anatol; her great comeback in the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard; and her final film appearance in the 1974 disaster movie Airport 1975.

March 28, 1909

Nelson Algren was born. Algren was one of the most popular and respected American novelists of the mid-20th century. His books usually featured corrupt politicians, petty criminals, prostitutes, and hoodlums, all of them struggling to survive. Algren's best remembered novels are The Man With the Golden Arm (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), about a World War II veteran fighting morphine addiction, and A Walk on the Wild Side (e-audio | print | audio), about a drifter making his way to New Orleans during the Depression.

March 31, 1939

Volker Schlöndorff was born. Schlöndorff is a German director who won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film in 1980 for The Tin Drum. Much of his American work was in television, including a 1985 version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.

March 29, 1951

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and sentenced to death; they were executed on June 19, 1953. The Rosenbergs were believed to be part of a ring that leaded atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Their case has always been controversial, and many believed that the death penalty was too harsh a sentence, particularly in Ethel's case. Sam Roberts explores the Rosenberg case in The Brother (e-book | print).