Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809–52) was Russia’s greatest comic writer, recognized as the fountainhead of the Russian drama, short story, and novel. Together with his friend, the poet Alexander Pushkin, Gogol is regarded as a progenitor of modern Russian literature.
Born in a small Ukrainian town, Gogol’s mother inculcated in him a strong spiritual belief in the certainty of both heaven and hell. His father was a civil servant who wrote Ukrainian folk comedies and familiarized his son to the beauty of the countryside and its legends, songs, and stories.
Gogol left home for St. Petersburg at age 19 to become a bureaucrat, an actor, and a writer. Detesting the boring clerical position he was offered and with his acting skills rejected, Gogol finally focused on writing. He absorbed the influence of German romanticism and the fairy tale, and achieved his first success with a collection of comic folktales set in Ukraine. Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831) presents Gogol’s idiosyncratic literary style that unites elements of realism, fantasy, comedy, satire, and the grotesque, in which dreams and magic concur with the mundane.
Gogol made friends with Alexander Pushkin, and their resultant association shaped Gogol’s literary career extensively. His The Inspector General (1836) is considered “the greatest play ever written in Russian” and was based on a story idea suggested by Pushkin. The Inspector General narrates what happens when the corrupt bureaucrats of a small provincial town trust that a destitute young civil servant is the august government inspector they believe is visiting their province undercover.
Criticism of The Inspector General as a libel on the Russian society pushed Gogol into exile to Rome where he remained for most of the next 12 years, writing his masterpiece Dead Souls (1842,) again based on an idea suggested by Pushkin. Gogol produced numerous books of short stories; his most famous stories include “The Nose,” about a nose that takes off on its own, dressed in uniform and acting like any other human being; and “The Overcoat,” which has been endlessly interpreted.
Sadly, Gogol became a religious fanatic. He became a devotee of a Russian Orthodox priest who persuaded him to forsake literature and purify his soul. In 1852, after burning the almost finished second part of Dead Souls, Gogol fasted himself to death in an act of spiritual mortification and died at the age of 42.