Gogol N. V.

Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol (born Yanovski) was born on March 20, 1809 in the town of Sorochintsy of the Poltava governorship. According to a family legend, he was a direct descendant of a famous Ukrainian cossack Ostap Gogol, who was a West Ukraine Hetman (cossack chief) in the late 17th century.

The last name “Yanovski” was adopted by the family following the adoption of Russian citizenship by Gogol’s great-great-grandfather Yan (Ian or Ivan) Yakovlevich. Having received a nobleman’s title in 1792, Gogol’s grandfather Afanasi Demyanovich changed the family name to Gogol-Yanovski to honor all of the ancestors. Gogol himself later discarded the second half of the name, saying it was made up by the Polish and that the name “Gogol” suited his personality better. “Gogol” is an old-fashioned Russian word for a duck, and the writer himself joked that he always knew how to come out dry from any deluge.

Gogol’s father Vasily Afanasyevich died when Nikolai was only 15 years old. Nevertheless, the boy was old enough to remember and appreciate his father’s theatrical activities, his talent as a storyteller and a writer of short plays for the home theater.

Gogol’s mother Maria Ivanovna (nee Kosyarovskaya), was married off very young. She was merely fourteen years old, with her husband twice her age at the time of their marriage. According to those who knew her, Maria Ivanovna was a very beautiful woman. The couple’s life was not easy. Of the twelve children, only five survived to adulthood: Nikolai and his sisters Maria, Anna, Elizabeth, and Olga.
While technically the Gogols lived in the Russian territory, their country lifestyle followed Ukrainian tradition. These impressions served as the foundation to many of Gogol’s stories, his mother becoming one of his main sources regarding the details of the local life and customs.

At the age of ten Gogol was taken to a private tutor in Poltava to prepare him for school. He then entered the Higher Science School in Nezhin, where he spent the next nine years. Gogol was not a particularly diligent student but thanks to his fantastic memory he was able to prepare for the exams in a few days and pass from one grade to the next.

The school was not particularly well-organized or progressive at the time, favoring mindless drilling over true understanding and dismissing scientific and literary achievements of the contemporary authors.

To fill the gaps in the school program, Gogol joined a circle of students interested in more than rote memorization. The friends pooled their funds to publish a hand-written school magazine, to which Gogol contributed poems, novellas and satirical pieces. Known even then for his impeccable comedic timing and his wicked sense of humor, Gogol frequently got into trouble with the school authorities for attacking risky subjects of government, poverty, and nationalism in his works.

The death of Gogol’s father made young Nikolai the head of the household. He did whatever he could to advise his mother and sisters. At the same time, he started giving serious thought to what his own career might be. While Gogol’s mother never truly understood the inclinations of her son, she believed in his talent implicitly and trusted his judgment. She gave up her own meager savings to help him set up an independent living in Nezhin and, later, in St. Petersburg
Gogol himself was confident that he could achieve prominence, although initially, he was inclined more toward political activities rather than making a career in literature. His enthusiasm, however, was curbed abruptly, when he moved to St. Petersburg in 1828 and realized that his meager fortune was nothing against the demands of the big city.

Being an enterprising young man, Gogol did what he could to establish himself in a profession of some kind. He tried theater, but was rejected. He briefly held a small office post, but the service was so dull that he could not commit himself to it. All that was left was to rely on his literary talent and hope that the fates favor him in this endeavor.

While experimenting and looking for his own style, Gogol noticed a curious phenomenon – the St. Petersburg high society considered Ukrainian history and tradition a subject of great interest. People found it fascinating that a region so close to Russia geographically could offer so many more colorful characters and so much primitive exoticism, as they called it.

All the bashing about between jobs and literary experiments yielded some good. Gogol eventually attracted the attention of a prominent circle of St. Petersburg writers, including Orest Somov, Baron Delwig and Peter Pletnyov, as well as the followers of Zhukovski and Pushkin. The influence proved to be beneficial, as Gogol finally gained the courage to stop following the European romantic tradition and create something of his own. He showered his mother with letters asking for information about Ukrainian customs, legends, costumes and everyday details and began assembling material for the future story collections. In 1830, his story The Eve of Ivan Kupala appeared in the magazine Motherland Essays, followed by The Sorochinsk Fair and May Night.

Baron Delwig offered Gogol several spots in his publications Literary Newspaper and Northern Blooms. Delwig also introduced Gogol to Zhukovski, who became a close friend and confidant.

Between Zhukovski and Pletnyov, Gogol was finally given a job he could keep – that of a teacher at the Patriotic Institute. Given the first opportunity, his friends introduced him to Pushkin, whose style Gogol did not particularly like, but whose talent and influence he greatly respected and admired. The new connections, the private lesson recommendations and the new clarity regarding his literary style allowed Gogol to finally improve his financial situation.

While his new friends understood and respected his slow meticulous manner of writing with a lot of preliminary research and note taking, they made a point of pushing him toward publication and expanding his society. This combination of Gogol’s own work ethics and the boost provided by his new circle resulted in the most prolific period in his creative life.

The Evenings at the village near Dikan’ka were published in 1831 and took off like wildfire, followed by Arabesques and Mirgorod in 1935. Gogol’s humor, attention to detail, and ability to take his readers from the utmost merriment to the deepest horror and back secured him the title of the new literary master.

In between publications Gogol had a chance to visit his home and family. While he was delighted by the sight of his familiar surroundings, his difficult experiences, poverty and disappointment placed everything against a much darker backdrop. Soon, he began to see The Evenings not as the success the collection truly was but as merely a youthful experiment, which explains the much darker mood of Mirgorod.
Another period of searching and confusion followed. Fascinated by the idea of influencing younger generations, Gogol obtained a professorial position at the history department of St. Petersburg University with the help of his friends.
However, he did not realize that it was still a job, not limited to merely giving a few promising lectures. Turned away by the paperwork and having to lecture even when he was not interested in a particular topic, Gogol quit shortly after.
Following The Evenings, 1830s yielded The Portrait and The Notes of a Madman, as well as early plans for The Inspector General and Taras Bulba.

The idea for The Inspector General and The Dead Souls was given to Gogol by Pushkin. However, the rest of the work was done exclusively by Nikolai Vasilyevich, who turned two amusing society anecdotes into epic works touching upon the subjects unprecedented in Russian literature.

When The Inspector General finally premiered in Russian theaters, the public did not quite know how to react to it. People laughed – of course. People were outraged – naturally. People walked away deep in thought, with something to ponder for weeks and months on end, unaccustomed of such effect following what was supposed to be a bit of entertainment.

Fatigued by the efforts of the mid 1830s and the strain associated with writing, publishing and promoting The Inspector General, Gogol decided to take a vacation abroad.

The trip that began in June of 1936 ended up lasting nearly ten years and having the effect Gogol did not anticipate. Early in his travels, he was grateful for the period of rest and calm, which enabled him to work on The Dead Souls uninterrupted. However, the subject matter of his works combined with controversial response to them, which Gogol had to deal with on his own, created a mental shift. The idea of power and influence of his own work over the minds of his contemporaries grew into a notion of a mystical prophetic mission, for which he was placed on this earth. The news of Pushkin’s sudden tragic death in 1837 only strengthened Gogol’s mindset. With the great Russian bard dead, he felt it was up to him to pick up and carry the banner of Russian literature and enlightenment.

In March of 1937 Gogol traveled to Rome and fell in love with it. During subsequent years Rome would become his second home. He loved nothing more than exploring the spectacular scenery, architecture and art, frequently treating his visiting friends to some of his favorite places.

In the fall of 1839 Gogol briefly returned to Russia, visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg where he took the opportunity to read several completed chapters of The Dead Souls to his closest friends. He then went back to Rome to put finishing touches on volume one of The Dead Souls. By the summer of 1841, the volume was ready and Gogol braced himself for the anxieties and hardships of publication and criticism. His concerns were not entirely unfounded – Moscow censure office nearly blacklisted the book, and it was only thanks to the influence of his friends that Gogol was able to get it onto bookshelves with a few minor changes.

Once again, Gogol sought comfort abroad, leaving immediately after the publication and traveling between Italy, Germany and France. With increasing concern, his friends observed his growing mania of being a literary prophet, destined to reveal human vices and elevate societies toward perfection. It was not uncommon for Gogol to experience periods of exaltation, during which he proselytized to anyone who would listen, including his older and more experienced mentors and advisers.

After a health and spiritual crisis during the summer of 1845, Gogol burned the second volume of The Dead Souls, wrote his will and considered becoming a monk. Talked out of monkhood by his friends and family, Gogol then resolved to serve God through literature, believing that he finally gained full understanding how to write “to point all of society toward all things beautiful.”

To communicate his mindset and ideas to the society as quickly as possibly, he collected all the letters written between 1845 and 1846 into a book called Select notes from correspondence with friends and asked Pletnyov to publish it.

The book was a disaster. Not only was its content difficult to comprehend, but its proselytizing tone turned away all but a handful of Gogol’s closest friends. For a long time, Nikolai Vasilyevich refused to admit that the book was a mistake and ascribed its lack of success to lack of understanding among the ignorant readers and jealousy among his more educated colleagues.

Gogol focused on his religious studies, going so far as taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He hoped that his visit to Jesus’ grave would bring him peace. Instead, he returned with an acute sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction with himself, berating himself heavily for his arrogance.

The writer spent the next few years drifting between his mother’s country home and houses of his friends. Fortunately, there were those among his devoted circle who recognized his depressed state and set aside the differences associated with the 1847 publication, opening their hearts and their homes to the lost man.

While Gogol attempted to rewrite the second volume of The Dead Souls, he soon gave up the effort, unable to resolve the struggle between his inner artistic and religious selves. The sudden death of a friend’s sister pulled him further away from literature, as he became obsessed with the notion that he would die soon. To make peace with God, Gogol stopped leaving his house and began fasting. He once again burned everything written since 1847, including the rewrite of volume two of The Dead Souls. When asked by a friend why he did that, Gogol blamed evil demons who possessed him. Despite his friends’ concerns and arguments, he continued fasting and refused all help.

On February 20, 1852 a group of doctors assembled by Gogol’s friends made a decision to forcefully treat the writer. However, by that point Nikolai Vasilyevich was so emaciated and weak that he was beyond any help. He died the following day, leaving behind less than 45 rubles’ worth of personal possessions.

His friends and family were stunned to discover that, having led a destitute existence during the last few weeks of his life, Gogol nevertheless left 2,000 rubles – a princely sum of money in those days – to assist poor Moscow University students who had no other means of support.

The university Professor Timophey Granovsky insisted on holding a public funeral to honor the memory of the great writer. Gogol was buried at the St. Daniel Monastery in Moscow. His tombstone was inscribed with the quote from prophet Jeremiah, “May they laugh at my bitter words.”

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