Gogol, along with Pushkin, is one of the fathers of modern Russian literature. I wanted to see to what extent he might have influenced Chekhov, but after reading a collection of his short stories, I’m not sure that Gogol had direct influence on Chekhov in a way that can be easily picked out in their writing. Their narrative voices are quite different, with Gogol having a lot of fun with his narrators, who often make their presence known with constant asides and background stories. Chekhov tends to adopt a more neutral narrative voice. Gogol is also more overtly satirical than Chekhov (the one story I read of Chekhov’s that was clear satire, “the Princess” is so harshly critical it lacks much of the humanising impartiality that often makes Chekhov so emotionally affective).
Gogol is satirical in a way that reminds me of Roman new comedy: to the point, but also with a sense of fun. The first two stories in the collection, “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt” and “How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Nikoforovich” are straightforward bits of comical satire. The remaining stories also veer into moments of the uncanny and the fantastical. “Nevsky Prospekt” includes opium dream sequences and a hilarious (non-dream) encounter with two men named Schiller and Hoffman (with Hoffman attempting to drunkenly cut off Schiller’s nose). “The Nose” details the marvellous events between 25 March and 7 April when a man wakes up to discover his nose has left his face and assumed a new identity. ‘The Overcoat” includes a vengeful, overcoat-stealing ghost, and “The Diary of a Madman” tells the story of a man who thinks he is the King of Spain. The final story, “The Carriage” is, like the first two stories, more plain satire than fantasy, but it ends with a scene that draws on Gogol’s talent for creating absurd spectacles — such spectacles are often at the root of Gogol’s more uncanny stories.
The play at the end of the collection, The Government Inspector, is a comic farce, simple and predictable in its first few pages, yet its narrative predictability in no way affects how funny it is.
I still prefer Chekhov, but am very pleased to have made a beginning with Gogol. I predict new collected stories on my shelves soon.
3 March 2013 ~ Hamilton
Gogol, Nikolay. The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories. Trans Ronald Wilks. London, Penguin, 2005.