As a novel-writer and a dramatist, Gogol appears to me to deserve a minute study, and if the knowledge of Russian were more widely spread, he could not fail to obtain in Europe a reputation equal to that of the best English humorists.
A delicate and close observer, quick to detect the absurd, bold in exposing, but inclined to push his fun too far, Gogol is in the first place a very lively satirist. He is merciless towards fools and rascals, but he has only one weapon at his disposal — irony. This is a weapon which is too severe to use against the merely absurd, and on the other hand it is not sharp enough for the punishment of crime; and it is against crime that Gogol too often uses it. His comic vein is always too near the farcical, and his mirth is hardly contagious. If sometimes he makes his reader laugh, he still leaves in his mind a feeling of bitterness and indignation; his satires do not avenge society, they only make it angry.
As a painter of manners, Gogol excels in familiar scenes. He is akin to Teniers and Callot. We feel as though we had seen and lived with his characters, for he shows us their eccentricities, their nervous habits, their slightest gestures. One lisps, another mispronounces his words, and a third hisses because he has lost a front tooth. Unfortunately Gogol is so absorbed in this minute study of details that he too often forgets to subordinate them to the main action of the story. To tell the truth, there is no ordered plan in his works, and — a strange trait in an author who sets up as a realist — he takes no care to preserve an atmosphere of probability. His most carefully painted scenes are clumsily connected — they begin and end abruptly; often the author’s great carelessness in construction destroys, as though wantonly, the illusion produced by the truth of his descriptions and the naturalness of his conversations.
The immortal master of this school of desultory but ingenious and attractive story-tellers, among whom Gogol is entitled to a high place, is Rabelais, who cannot be too much admired and studied, but to imitate whom nowadays would, I think, be dangerous and difficult. In spite of the indefinable grace of his obsolete language, one can hardly read twenty pages of Rabelais in succession. One soon wearies of this eloquence, so original and so eloquent, but the drift of which escapes every reader except some Œdipuses like Le Duchat or Éloi Johanneau. Just as the observation of animalculæ under the microscope fatigues the eye, so does the perusal of these brilliant pages tire the mind. Possibly not a word of them is superfluous, but possibly also they might be entirely eliminated from the work of which they form part, without sensibly detracting from its merit. The art of choosing among the innumerable details which nature offers us is, after all, much more difficult than that of observing them with attention and recording them with exactitude.
The Russian language, which is, as far as I can judge, the richest of all the European family, seems admirably adapted to express the most delicate shades of thought. Possessed of a marvellous conciseness and clearness, it can with a single word call up several ideas, to express which in another tongue whole phrases would be necessary. French, assisted by Greek and Latin, calling to its aid all its northern and southern dialects — the language of Rabelais, in fact, is the only one which can convey any idea of this suppleness and this energy. One can imagine that such an admirable instrument may exercise a considerable influence on the mind of a writer who is capable of handling it. He naturally takes delight in the picturesqueness of its expressions, just as a draughtsman with skill and a good pencil will trace delicate contours. An excellent gift, no doubt, but there are few things which have not their disadvantages. Elaborate execution is a considerable merit if it is reserved for the chief parts of a work; but if it is uniformly lavished on all the accessory parts also, the whole produces, I fear, a monotonous effect.
I have said that satire is, in my opinion, the special characteristic of Gogol’s talent: he does not see men or things in a bright light. That does not mean that he is an unfaithful observer, but his descriptions betray a certain preference for the ugly and the sad elements in life. Doubtless these two disagreeable elements are only too easily found, and it is precisely for that reason that they should not be investigated with insatiable curiosity. We would form a terrible idea of Russia — of “Holy Russia,” as her children call her — if we only judged her by the pictures which Gogol draws. His characters are almost entirely confined to idiots, or scoundrels who deserve to be hung. It is a well-known defect of satirists to see everywhere the game which they are hunting, and they should not be taken too literally. Aristophanes vainly employed his brilliant genius in blackening his contemporaries; he cannot prevent us loving the Athens of Pericles.
Gogol generally goes to the country districts for his characters, imitating in this respect Balzac, whose writings have undoubtedly influenced him. The modern facility of communication in Europe has brought about, among the higher classes of all countries and the inhabitants of the great cities, a conventional uniformity of manners and customs, e.g. the dress-coat and round hat. It is among the middle classes remote from great towns that we must look to-day for national characteristics and for original characters. In the country, people still maintain primitive habits and prejudices — things which become rarer from day to day. The Russian country gentlemen, who only journey to St Petersburg once in a lifetime, and who, living on their estates all the year round, eat much, read little and hardly think at all — these are the types to which Gogol is partial, or rather which he pursues with his jests and sarcasms. Some critics, I am told, reproach him for displaying a kind of provincial patriotism. As a Little Russian, he is said to have a predilection for Little Russia over the rest of the Empire. For my own part, I find him impartial enough or even too general in his criticisms, and on the other hand too severe on anyone whom he places under the microscope of his observation. Pushkin was accused, quite wrongly in my opinion, of scepticism, immorality, and of belonging to the Satanic school; however he discovered in an old country manor his admirable Tatiana. One regrets that Gogol has not been equally fortunate.
I do not know the dates of Gogol’s different works, but I should be inclined to believe that his short stories were the first in order of publication. They seem to me to witness to a certain vagueness in the author’s mind, as though he were making experiments in order to ascertain to what style of work his genius was best adapted. He has produced an historical romance inspired by the perusal of Sir Walter Scott, fantastic legends, psychological studies, marked by a mixture of sentimentality and grotesqueness. If my conjecture is correct, he has been obliged to ask himself for some time whether he should take as his model Sterne, Walter Scott, Chamisso, or Hoffmann. Later on he has done better in following the path which he has himself traced out. “Taras Bulba,” his historical romance, is an animated and, as far as I know, correct picture of the Zaporogues, that singular people whom Voltaire briefly mentions in his “Life of Charles XII.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Zaporogues played a great part in the annals of Russia and of Poland; they then formed a republic of soldiers, or rather of filibusters, established on the islands of the Don, nominal subjects sometimes of the Kings of Poland, sometimes of the Grand Dukes of Moscow, sometimes even of the Ottoman Porte. At bottom they were extremely independent bandits, and ravaged their neighbours’ territory with great impartiality. They did not allow women to live in their towns, which were a kind of nomad encampments; it was there that the Cossack aspirants to military glory went to be trained as irregular troops. The most absolute equality prevailed among the Zaporogues while at peace in the marshes of the Don. Then the chiefs, or atamans, when speaking to their subordinates always took their caps off. But during an expedition, on the contrary, their power was unlimited, and disobedience to the captain of the company (Ataman Kotchevoï) was considered the greatest of crimes.
Our filibusters of the seventeenth century have many traits of resemblance to the Zaporogues, and the histories of both preserve the remembrance of prodigies of audacity and of horrible cruelties. Taras Bulba is one of those heroes with whom, as the student of Schiller said, one can only have relations when holding a well-loaded gun in one’s hand. I am one of those who have a strong liking for bandits; not because I like to meet them on my road, but because, in spite of myself, the energy these men display in struggling against the whole of society, extorts from me an admiration of which I am ashamed. Formerly I read with delight the lives of Morgan, of Donnais, and of Mombars the destroyer, and I would not be bored if I read them again. However, there are bandits and bandits. Their glory is greatly enhanced if they are of a recent date. Actual bandits always cast into the shade those of the melodrama, and the one who has been more recently hung infallibly effaces the fame of his predecessors. Nowadays neither Mombars nor Taras Bulba can excite so much interest as Mussoni, who last month sustained a regular siege in a wolf’s den against five hundred men, who had to attack him by sapping and mining.
Gogol has made brilliantly coloured pictures of his Zaporogues, which please by their very grotesqueness; but sometimes it is too evident that he has not drawn them from nature. Moreover, these character-pictures are framed in such a trivial and romantic setting that one regrets to see them so ill-placed. The most prosaic story would have suited them better than these melodramatic scenes in which are accumulated tragic incidents of famine, torture, etc. In short, one feels that the author is not at ease on the ground which he has chosen; his gait is awkward, and the invariable irony of his style makes the perusal of these melancholy incidents more painful. This style which, in my opinion, is quite out of place in some parts of “Taras Bulba,” is much more appropriate in the “Viy,” or “King of the Gnomes,” a tale of witchcraft, which amuses and alarms at the same time. The grotesque easily blends with the marvellous. Recognising to the full the poetic side of his subject, the author, while describing the savage and strange customs of the old-time Cossacks with his usual precision and exactitude, has easily prepared the way for the introduction of an element of uncanniness.
The receipt for a good, fantastic tale is well known: begin with well-defined portraits of eccentric characters, but such as to be within the bounds of possibility, described with minute realism. From the grotesque to the marvellous the transition is imperceptible, and the reader will find himself in the world of fantasy before he perceives that he has left the real world far behind him. I purposely avoid any attempt to analyse “The King of the Gnomes”; the proper time and place to read it is in the country, by the fireside on a stormy autumn night. After the dénouement, it will require a certain amount of resolution to traverse long corridors to reach one’s room, while the wind and the rain shake the casements. Now that the fantastic style of the Germans is a little threadbare, that of the Cossacks will have novel charms, and in the first place the merit of resembling nothing else — no slight praise, I think.
The “Memoirs of a Madman” is simultaneously a social satire, a sentimental story, and a medico-legal study of the phenomena presented by a brain which is becoming deranged. The study, I believe, is carefully made and the process carefully depicted, but I do not like this class of writing; madness is one of those misfortunes which arouse pity but which disgust at the same time. Doubtless, by introducing a madman in his story an author is sure of producing an effect. It causes to vibrate a cord which is always susceptible; but it is a cheap method, and Gogol’s gifts are such as to be able to dispense with having resort to such. The portrayal of lunatics and dogs — both of whom can produce an irresistible effect — should be left to tyros. It is easy to extract tears from a reader by breaking a poodle’s paw. Homer’s only excuse, in my opinion, for making us weep at the mutual recognition of the dog Argus and Ulysses, is because he was, I think, the first to discover the resources which the canine race offers to an author at a loss for expedients.
I hasten to go on to a small masterpiece, “An Old-time Household.” In a few pages Gogol sketches for us the life of two honest old folk living in the country. There is not a grain of malice in their composition; they are cheated and adored by their servants, and naïve egoists as they are, believe everyone is as happy as themselves. The wife dies. The husband, who only seemed born for merry-making, falls ill and dies some months after his wife. We discover that there was a heart in this mass of flesh. We laugh and weep in turns while reading this charming story, in which the art of the narrator is disguised by simplicity. All is true and natural; every detail is attractive and adds to the general effect.
In a certain Russian ministerial department —
But it is perhaps better that I do not mention which department it was. There are in the whole of Russia no persons more sensitive than Government officials. Each of them believes if he is annoyed in any way, that the whole official class is insulted in his person.
Recently an Isprawnik (country magistrate) — I do not know of which town — is said to have drawn up a report with the object of showing that, ignoring Government orders, people were speaking of Isprawniks in terms of contempt. In order to prove his assertions, he forwarded with his report a bulky work of fiction, in which on about every tenth page an Isprawnik appeared generally in a drunken condition.
In order therefore to avoid any unpleasantness, I will not definitely indicate the department in which the scene of my story is laid, and will rather say “in a certain chancellery.”
Well, in a certain chancellery there was a certain man who, as I cannot deny, was not of an attractive appearance. He was short, had a face marked with smallpox, was rather bald in front, and his forehead and cheeks were deeply lined with furrows — to say nothing of other physical imperfections. Such was the outer aspect of our hero, as produced by the St Petersburg climate.
As regards his official rank — for with us Russians the official rank must always be given — he was what is usually known as a permanent titular councillor, one of those unfortunate beings who, as is well known, are made a butt of by various authors who have the bad habit of attacking people who cannot defend themselves.
Our hero’s family name was Bashmatchkin; his baptismal name Akaki Akakievitch. Perhaps the reader may think this name somewhat strange and far-fetched, but he can be assured that it is not so, and that circumstances so arranged it that it was quite impossible to give him any other name.
This happened in the following way. Akaki Akakievitch was born, if I am not mistaken, on the night of the 23rd of March. His deceased mother, the wife of an official and a very good woman, immediately made proper arrangements for his baptism. When the time came, she was lying on the bed before the door. At her right hand stood the godfather, Ivan Ivanovitch Jeroshkin, a very important person, who was registrar of the senate; at her left, the godmother Anna Semenovna Byelobrushkova, the wife of a police inspector, a woman of rare virtues.
Three names were suggested to the mother from which to choose one for the child — Mokuja, Sossuja, or Khozdazat.
“No,” she said, “I don’t like such names.”
In order to meet her wishes, the church calendar was opened in another place, and the names Triphiliy, Dula, and Varakhasiy were found.
“This is a punishment from heaven,” said the mother. “What sort of names are these! I never heard the like! If it had been Varadat or Varukh, but Triphiliy and Varakhasiy!”
They looked again in the calendar and found Pavsikakhiy and Vakhtisiy.
“Now I see,” said the mother, “this is plainly fate. If there is no help for it, then he had better take his father’s name, which was Akaki.”
So the child was called Akaki Akakievitch. It was baptised, although it wept and cried and made all kinds of grimaces, as though it had a presentiment that it would one day be a titular councillor.
We have related all this so conscientiously that the reader himself might be convinced that it was impossible for the little Akaki to receive any other name. When and how he entered the chancellery and who appointed him, no one could remember. However many of his superiors might come and go, he was always seen in the same spot, in the same attitude, busy with the same work, and bearing the same title; so that people began to believe he had come into the world just as he was, with his bald forehead and official uniform.
In the chancellery where he worked, no kind of notice was taken of him. Even the office attendants did not rise from their seats when he entered, nor look at him; they took no more notice than if a fly had flown through the room. His superiors treated him in a coldly despotic manner. The assistant of the head of the department, when he pushed a pile of papers under his nose, did not even say “Please copy those,” or “There is something interesting for you,” or make any other polite remark such as well-educated officials are in the habit of doing. But Akaki took the documents, without worrying himself whether they had the right to hand them over to him or not, and straightway set to work to copy them.
His young colleagues made him the butt of their ridicule and their elegant wit, so far as officials can be said to possess any wit. They did not scruple to relate in his presence various tales of their own invention regarding his manner of life and his landlady, who was seventy years old. They declared that she beat him, and inquired of him when he would lead her to the marriage altar. Sometimes they let a shower of scraps of paper fall on his head, and told him they were snowflakes.
But Akaki Akakievitch made no answer to all these attacks; he seemed oblivious of their presence. His work was not affected in the slightest degree; during all these interruptions he did not make a single error in copying. Only when the horse-play grew intolerable, when he was held by the arm and prevented writing, he would say “Do leave me alone! Why do you always want to disturb me at work?” There was something peculiarly pathetic in these words and the way in which he uttered them.
One day it happened that when a young clerk, who had been recently appointed to the chancellery, prompted by the example of the others, was playing him some trick, he suddenly seemed arrested by something in the tone of Akaki’s voice, and from that moment regarded the old official with quite different eyes. He felt as though some supernatural power drew him away from the colleagues whose acquaintance he had made here, and whom he had hitherto regarded as well-educated, respectable men, and alienated him from them. Long afterwards, when surrounded by gay companions, he would see the figure of the poor little councillor and hear the words “Do leave me alone! Why will you always disturb me at work?” Along with these words, he also heard others: “Am I not your brother?” On such occasions the young man would hide his face in his hands, and think how little humane feeling after all was to be found in men’s hearts; how much coarseness and cruelty was to be found even in the educated and those who were everywhere regarded as good and honourable men.
Never was there an official who did his work so zealously as Akaki Akakievitch. “Zealously,” do I say? He worked with a passionate love of his task. While he copied official documents, a world of varied beauty rose before his eyes. His delight in copying was legible in his face. To form certain letters afforded him special satisfaction, and when he came to them he was quite another man; he began to smile, his eyes sparkled, and he pursed up his lips, so that those who knew him could see by his face which letters he was working at.
Had he been rewarded according to his zeal, he would perhaps — to his own astonishment — have been raised to the rank of civic councillor. However, he was not destined, as his colleagues expressed it, to wear a cross at his buttonhole, but only to get hæmorrhoids by leading a too sedentary life.
For the rest, I must mention that on one occasion he attracted a certain amount of attention. A director, who was a kindly man and wished to reward him for his long service, ordered that he should be entrusted with a task more important than the documents which he usually had to copy. This consisted in preparing a report for a court, altering the headings of various documents, and here and there changing the first personal pronoun into the third.
Akaki undertook the work; but it confused and exhausted him to such a degree that the sweat ran from his forehead and he at last exclaimed: “No! Please give me again something to copy.” From that time he was allowed to continue copying to his life’s end.
Outside this copying nothing appeared to exist for him. He did not even think of his clothes. His uniform, which was originally green, had acquired a reddish tint. The collar was so narrow and so tight that his neck, although of average length, stretched far out of it, and appeared extraordinarily long, just like those of the cats with movable heads, which are carried about on trays and sold to the peasants in Russian villages.
Something was always sticking to his clothes — a piece of thread, a fragment of straw which had been flying about, etc. Moreover he seemed to have a special predilection for passing under windows just when something not very clean was being thrown out of them, and therefore he constantly carried about on his hat pieces of orange-peel and such refuse. He never took any notice of what was going on in the streets, in contrast to his colleagues who were always watching people closely and whom nothing delighted more than to see someone walking along on the opposite pavement with a rent in his trousers.
But Akaki Akakievitch saw nothing but the clean, regular lines of his copies before him; and only when he collided suddenly with a horse’s nose, which blew its breath noisily in his face, did the good man observe that he was not sitting at his writing-table among his neat duplicates, but walking in the middle of the street.
When he arrived home, he sat down at once to supper, ate his cabbage-soup hurriedly, and then, without taking any notice how it tasted, a slice of beef with garlic, together with the flies and any other trifles which happened to be lying on it. As soon as his hunger was satisfied, he set himself to write, and began to copy the documents which he had brought home with him. If he happened to have no official documents to copy, he copied for his own satisfaction political letters, not for their more or less grand style but because they were directed to some high personage.
When the grey St Petersburg sky is darkened by the veil of night, and the whole of officialdom has finished its dinner according to its gastronomical inclinations or the depth of its purse — when all recover themselves from the perpetual scratching of bureaucratic pens, and all the cares and business with which men so often needlessly burden themselves, they devote the evening to recreation. One goes to the theatre; another roams about the streets, inspecting toilettes; another whispers flattering words to some young girl who has risen like a star in his modest official circle. Here and there one visits a colleague in his third or fourth story flat, consisting of two rooms with an entrance-hall and kitchen, fitted with some pretentious articles of furniture purchased by many abstinences.
In short, at this time every official betakes himself to some form of recreation — playing whist, drinking tea, and eating cheap pastry or smoking tobacco in long pipes. Some relate scandals about great people, for in whatever situation of life the Russian may be, he always likes to hear about the aristocracy; others recount well-worn but popular anecdotes, as for example that of the commandant to whom it was reported that a rogue had cut off the horse’s tail on the monument of Peter the Great.
But even at this time of rest and recreation, Akaki Akakievitch remained faithful to his habits. No one could say that he had ever seen him in any evening social circle. After he had written as much as he wanted, he went to bed, and thought of the joys of the coming day, and the fine copies which God would give him to do.
So flowed on the peaceful existence of a man who was quite content with his post and his income of four hundred roubles a year. He might perhaps have reached an extreme old age if one of those unfortunate events had not befallen him, which not only happen to titular but to actual privy, court, and other councillors, and also to persons who never give advice nor receive it.
In St Petersburg all those who draw a salary of four hundred roubles or thereabouts have a terrible enemy in our northern cold, although some assert that it is very good for the health. About nine o’clock in the morning, when the clerks of the various departments betake themselves to their offices, the cold nips their noses so vigorously that most of them are quite bewildered. If at this time even high officials so suffer from the severity of the cold in their own persons that the tears come into their eyes, what must be the sufferings of the titular councillors, whose means do not allow of their protecting themselves against the rigour of winter? When they have put on their light cloaks, they must hurry through five or six streets as rapidly as possible, and then in the porter’s lodge warm themselves and wait till their frozen official faculties have thawed.
For some time Akaki had been feeling on his back and shoulders very sharp twinges of pain, although he ran as fast as possible from his dwelling to the office. After well considering the matter, he came to the conclusion that these were due to the imperfections of his cloak. In his room he examined it carefully, and discovered that in two or three places it had become so thin as to be quite transparent, and that the lining was much torn.
This cloak had been for a long time the standing object of jests on the part of Akaki’s merciless colleagues. They had even robbed it of the noble name of “cloak,” and called it a cowl. It certainly presented a remarkable appearance. Every year the collar had grown smaller, for every year the poor titular councillor had taken a piece of it away in order to repair some other part of the cloak; and these repairs did not look as if they had been done by the skilled hand of a tailor. They had been executed in a very clumsy way and looked remarkably ugly.
After Akaki Akakievitch had ended his melancholy examination, he said to himself that he must certainly take his cloak to Petrovitch the tailor, who lived high up in a dark den on the fourth floor.
With his squinting eyes and pock-marked face, Petrovitch certainly did not look as if he had the honour to make frock-coats and trousers for high officials — that is to say, when he was sober, and not absorbed in more pleasant diversions.
I might dispense here with dwelling on this tailor; but since it is the custom to portray the physiognomy of every separate personage in a tale, I must give a better or worse description of Petrovitch. Formerly when he was a simple serf in his master’s house, he was merely called Gregor. When he became free, he thought he ought to adorn himself with a new name, and dubbed himself Petrovitch; at the same time he began to drink lustily, not only on the high festivals but on all those which are marked with a cross in the calendar. By thus solemnly celebrating the days consecrated by the Church, he considered that he was remaining faithful to the traditions of his childhood; and when he quarrelled with his wife, he shouted that she was an earthly minded creature and a German. Of this lady we have nothing more to relate than that she was the wife of Petrovitch, and that she did not wear a kerchief but a cap on her head. For the rest, she was not pretty; only the soldiers looked at her as they passed, then they twirled their moustaches and walked on, laughing.
Akaki Akakievitch accordingly betook himself to the tailor’s attic. He reached it by a dark, dirty, damp staircase, from which, as in all the inhabited houses of the poorer class in St Petersburg, exhaled an effluvia of spirits vexatious to nose and eyes alike. As the titular councillor climbed these slippery stairs, he calculated what sum Petrovitch could reasonably ask for repairing his cloak, and determined only to give him a rouble.