A Reading Life

Celebrating Gogol and irony’s power

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / July 26, 2009

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Somehow it escaped my attention until now that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Nikolai Gogol. The actual date of this happy event was in March, either the 19th or the 31st depending on whether you consult the Julian or the Gregorian calendar. In any case, I have been celebrating this bicentennial by reading “The Collected Tales,’’ translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which, though first published in 1998, appeared some months ago as a snug little cloth-bound Everyman’s Library edition ($24).

I was first smitten by Gogol when I was around 14, chiefly because he is funny. I liked his festive approach toward chicanery, greed and suspicion; his insouciance in bringing the world down upon his characters’ heads; and his great appreciation for the ridiculous, the pompous, and the vainglorious. Indeed, no one has ever matched Gogol on the subject of mustaches, the outward sign of the swollen dignity and ostentation that bloom out of tiny gradations of rank, military and civil. Put simply, Gogol appealed to me just as I was waking to the joys of satire and developing a taste for the tannins of irony.

Born in the Ukraine, Gogol came to St. Petersburg with an outsider’s eye that noticed the essential provincialism of city folk, their secure belief that their little world is the big one. Here, in the story “Nevsky Prospect,’’ we find a certain Lieutenant Pirogov, a man about town with exceptional social skills - among them a talent for blowing smoke rings - following a beautiful blond woman into a building. He pursues her through a door and is “struck by an extraordinarily strange sight.

“Before him sat Schiller - not the Schiller who wrote ‘Wilhelm Tell’ and the ‘History of the Thirty Years’ War,’ but the well-known Schiller, the tinsmith of Meshchansky Street. Next to Schiller stood Hoffmann - not the writer Hoffmann, but a rather good cobbler from Ofitserskaya Street, a great friend of Schiller’s.’’

This is an excellent joke between narrator and reader, one which practically restores my youth when I remember how brilliantly funny I thought it was - and still do.

The characters of Gogol’s Ukrainian stories, though villagers, live in a much larger world than city folk, especially the people of St. Petersburg, the capital city. For Gogol’s villagers, the world is huge and strange and unknowable, mostly because the membrane that separates the earthly realm from the supernatural one is permeable. These people believe that what they see could well be delusion, for the devil is always up to his tricks.

Gogol’s townspeople are, in a way, more naïve than their country brethren, for they live under the thrall of appearances, seldom questioning what exists behind, or other than, them. “It lies all the time, this Nevsky Prospect,’’ Gogol writes at the end of this great story of St Petersburg. “But most of all at the time when night heaves its dense mass upon it and sets off the white and pale yellow walls of the houses, when the whole city turns into a rumbling and brilliance . . . and the devil himself lights the lamps only so as to show everything not as it really looks.’’

The thrust of that line, syntax torque and all, could be said to be at the heart of both satire and irony. In trying to nail down where satire ends and irony begins, a friend of mine remarked that the word “irony’’ has put on some pounds in recent times. It has become flabby and heavy and obvious. It has taken on a popular meaning that is scarcely different from camp or smug knowingness. Still, neither one of us felt that Jonathan Swift’s angry and disgusted irony, a decoction of satire really, was the kind of irony that we missed. What we wanted was that piquant elixir that - speaking for myself, anyway - fends off despair. This is the irony manifest in Russian writing, the sort that expresses itself in the old Soviet joke: “Why is there no more flour for sale? Because they’ve started adding it to bread.’’

One of the great exemplars of this brand of irony is Nikolai Leskov (1831--1895), spurned by critics of his own day, admired by Turgenev, championed by Gorky, and adored by ordinary Russians and most other readers lucky enough to stumble upon him. His wonderful collection of stories, “The Enchanted Wanderer: Selected Tales’’ (translated by David Magarshack with an introduction by V.S. Pritchett) keeps going in and out of print. Leskov is a clear heir to Gogol, his stories being garrulous journeys through immeasurable spheres of Russian existence: natural, preternatural, and supernatural, religious and secular, waking and dreaming, the dead and the living. And he is master of the judicious non sequitur upon which much of Russian ironic humor rests: “It’s quite true,’’ one of his characters admits, “that we haven’t advanced far in science, but we’ve always been loyal sons of our motherland.’’ That is from “The Left-handed Craftsman,’’ a many-legged tale concerning an English steel flea, a technical miracle that Russian craftsmen attempt to emulate. They fail, and the English, in their soullessness, attribute this to Russian reliance, in technical matters, on the Psalms and “The Book of Half-dreams.’’

The stories in this collection are all, in some respect, funny - ghoulishly so, as often as not. Even the first and best known, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,’’ has a grim humor despite its horror. It is the story of a merchant’s wife, Katerina Lvovna Izmaylov, whose loveless marriage and idle existence have poisoned her soul with that fatal, distinctively Russian species of boredom, “the sort of boredom that, people say, would make one glad even to hang oneself.’’ Instead, she embarks on an affair with one of her husband’s ne’er-do-well workmen, an undertaking that Leskov describes with the deadpan, confidential manner that is at the heart of his genius: “A hush fell over the room,’’ he tells us of the couple’s first guilty encounter, “broken only by the regular ticking of Katerina’s husband’s watch, which hung over the head of the bed; but this did not interfere with anything.’’ Katerina’s passion for her lover grows to be consuming and reckless, and out of it comes murder and betrayal, all related with a mix of frightful directness, arresting imagery, and devastating irony.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at

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