The issue of Nikolai Gogol’s romantic life has long vexed biographers and critics. With significant gaps in his biography, especially during his travels and years spent abroad, and with Gogol elusive on the subject in his letters to friends, interest has often centred upon his fiction, which has been navigated and interpreted for all manner of clues.
All we know is that Gogol never married; and despite several close relationships with women – notably Alexandra Osipovna Smirnova, who was one of his closest and most enduring confidantes – he never appears to have come close. Indeed, it is unclear whether Gogol ever participated in a sexual relationship. In the midst of such uncertainty, the nature of Gogol’s sexuality has become a matter of debate. Meanwhile where Gogol’s fiction is criticised, it is often for depictions of women which – particularly in later works like ‘The Nose’ – are viewed as either misogynistic or lacking in nuance. Vladimir Nabokov once termed himself ‘depressed and puzzled’ by Gogol’s ‘inability to describe young women’.
In his study Nikolai Gogol, Nabokov translates in full an exceptional letter, which Gogol sent to his mother upon unexpectedly departing Saint Petersburg and travelling abroad in July 1829. In the letter, Gogol alludes to some ‘exalted’ being, ‘a goddess slightly clothed in human passions’, who ostensibly caused his resolution to flee suddenly abroad.
Amidst the lofty, hyperbolic language of the depiction, it is difficult to discern whether he ever so much as spoke to this supposed woman; and Gogol concludes that this creature who so disturbed his peace was a product of the ‘Invisible Hand’, in fact ‘no woman’ but ‘a goddess whom He had created as part of Himself’. Analysing the letter, Nabokov writes:
‘First of all, whatever his sexual life was (he showed complete indifference towards woman insofar as the facts of his riper years show), it is quite obvious that the allusions to the “exalted creature,” to the pagan goddess so strangely created by a Christian God, is a purple patch of shameless fiction.’
Nabokov further affirms the ’emphatic declaration’ of Gogol’s closest friends, ‘who have testified that nothing remotely resembling any romantic disaster ever came young Gogol’s way’.
Gogol landed at Lübeck on 13 July. At the time he was twenty years old, and had just published under a pseudonym the vaguely Byronic poem Hanz Küchelgarten, which he had written a couple of years previously. After a devastating review in the Moscow Telegraph, Gogol and his servant at once rushed round all of Petersburg’s bookstores, bought up all of the available copies of the poem, and burned them. In Gogol: His Life and Works, Vsevolod Setchkarev suggests that Gogol’s ill-feeling over this failed poem was responsible for his hasty departure. Whatever, after a month spent in Lübeck and Travemünde – although Nabokov notes that one biographer considers the whole trip a deceit – Gogol returned, only to find a letter from his mother that concluded he must be suffering from venereal disease.
Gogol’s literary career took off back in Petersburg. Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka was published in two volumes in 1831 and 1832; Arabesques and Mirgorod appeared in 1835; and ‘The Nose’, ‘The Carriage’, and the play The Government Inspector were all completed between 1835 and early 1836. But in June 1836 he once again abruptly left the country, journeying again to Travemünde, and on to Lübeck and Hamburg.
Gogol would spend the next twelve years living abroad, only returning to Russia for a couple of brief business-related visits. Setchkarev writes that he stayed first in Paris, before settling in Rome after the shock of Pushkin’s death in February 1937. Discussing Gogol’s self-imposed exile in The Creation of Nikolai Gogol, Donald Fanger writes:
‘from this point on, dedication to the work in progress largely drains the biography (as opposed to the career) of visible content […] In all those years, as before, no scandals, no duels, no arrests; no wife, no mistresses, no sex’
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Romance conventionally conceived appears more often in Gogol’s earlier works. Married life is portrayed in ‘Old World Landowners’ (1835); but the bachelor’s fear of marriage is given its fullest rendering in ‘Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt’ (1832). Nabokov feels that the closing paragraphs of this story provide ‘the first intimation of the weird rhythms which later on made the pattern of The Overcoat‘. They are so pertinent as to be worth quoting in full twice, first in Nabokov’s translation, then in the translation undertaken by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:
‘He dreamt that he was already married; and everything in his small house was so very unusual and eerie: instead of a bachelor’s bed a double one stood in his room; sitting on a chair was his wife. He felt all queer not knowing how to approach her, or what to say, and presently he noticed that she had a goose-face. Happening to turn aside he saw a second wife and she had a goose-face too. He glanced in another direction and lo, there was a third wife standing there; he looked back and saw yet a fourth wife. Dull panic seized him: he ran out into the garden; but it was hot outside and so he took off his hat – and saw a wife sitting in his hat. He felt the sweat on his face, groped for his handkerchief – and there was a wife in his pocket; he took the cotton wadding out of his ear – and there sat yet another wife. Then he dreamt that he was skipping on one foot while his aunt looked on and said gravely: ‘Yes, you must skip, because now you are a married man.’ ‘But, auntie,’ he began. Too late: his aunt had become a belfry. Then he felt that he was being dragged up that belfry by means of a rope. ‘Who is dragging me up?’ – he moaned in a pitiful voice. ‘It is I, your wife, dragging you up, because you are a church-bell.’ ‘No, I am not a bell, I am Ivan Shponka,’ he cried. ‘Yes, you are a bell,’ said a passer-by, Colonel P. of the Such-and-such Infantry Regiment. Then he dreamt that a wife was not a live person at all, but a kind of woolen fabric and that he was entering the shop of a merchant in Mogilev. ‘What cloth would you like?’ asked the merchant, and added: ‘You had better take some wife, it is the most fashionable stuff, and very solid too – all the gentlemen are making themselves coats of it nowadays,’ – and the merchant started to measure and cut the wife. Ivan Shponka took what he was given under his arm and went to a Jewish tailor. ‘No,’ said the Jew, ‘that stuff is no good, nobody makes himself clothes of that stuff nowadays.”
‘Suddenly someone grabs him by the ear. “Aie! who’s that?” “It’s me, your wife!” some voice said noisily. And he suddenly woke up. Then he imagined that he was already married, that everything in their house was so odd, so strange: in his room, instead of a single bed, there stood a double bed. On a chair sits the wife. It’s strange to him; he doesn’t know how to approach her, what to say to her, and he notices that she has a goose face. Inadvertently, he turns away and sees another wife, also with a goose face. He turns another way – there stands a third wife. Behind him, one more wife. Here anguish came over him. He rushed into the garden; but it was hot in the garden. He took his hat off and saw: a wife is sitting in the hat, too. Sweat broke out on his face. He went to his pocket to get a handkerchief – there’s a wife in the pocket as well; he took a wad of cotton out of his ear – there sits another wife…Then suddenly he was hopping on one foot, and his aunt, looking at him, said with an imposing air, “Yes, you must hop, because you’re a married man now.” He turns to her, but the aunt is no longer an aunt but a belfry. And he feels that someone is pulling him on a rope up the belfry. “Who is pulling me?” Ivan Fyodorovich asks pitifully. “It’s me, your wife pulling you, because you’re a bell.” “No, I’m not a bell, I’m Ivan Fyodorovich!” he cries. “Yes, you’re a bell,” says the colonel of the P- infantry regiment, passing by. Then he suddenly dreamed that his wife was not a person at all but some sort of woolen fabric; that he was in Mogilev, going into a shop. “What kind of fabric would you like?” says the shopkeeper. “Take some wife, it’s the most fashionable fabric! very good quality! everybody makes frock coats from it now.” The shopkeeper measures and cuts the wife. Ivan Fyodorovich takes it under his arm and goes to a tailor, a Jew. “No,” says the Jew, “this is poor fabric! Nobody makes frock coats from it…”’
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Detailing the significance of Chichikov’s travelling chest in Dead Souls, Nabokov recalls:
‘Andrey Bely, following up one of those strange subconscious clues which are discoverable only in the works of authentic genius, noted that this box was the wife of Chichikov (who otherwise was as impotent as all Gogol’s subhuman heroes) in the same way as the cloak was Akaky’s mistress in The Overcoat or the belfry Shponka’s mother-in-law in Ivan Shponka and his Aunt. It may be further observed that the name of the only female landowner in the book, “Squiress” Korobochka means “little box”‘
When it comes to ‘The Overcoat’ and Gogol’s peculiar sense of marriage, in The Pragmatics of Insignificance: Chekhov, Zoshchenko, Gogol, Cathy Popkin identifies a resonance in the stories of Mikhail Zoshchenko. Zoshchenko was Soviet-era satirist, whose style is marked by the use of compact sentences. Popkin argues that ‘the traumatic loss of a coat’ is one of the ‘quintessential plots’ which recurs throughout Zoshchenko’s fiction; but that ‘each time he rewrites Gogol’s “Overcoat” it is with little compassion and less obeisance’.
In Zoshchenko’s ‘The Wedding’ (1927), after a brief acquaintance, a young groom fails to recognise his new bride once she has taken off her overcoat. Eager to recover his love, ‘the bewildered groom resorts to trying out his charms on each of the young women present. Since this is viewed as radically unacceptable behavior for a newlywed, he is cast out by the bride’s family. The divorce is finalized the next day’.
In ‘A Trivial Incident from Private Life’ (1933), the story’s hero procures a secondhand coat that he believes will win him newfound female attention. To his pleasure, an elegant lady soon does notice him – but only because she recognises the coat as that recently stolen from her husband. Popkin explains, ‘Again, in this association of coat and wife, erotic possibilities are ironically foreclosed by the removal of body covering’.
Popkin recounts an essay entitled ‘Comrade Gogol’, written by Zoshchenko in 1926. In the text, Zoshchenko asserts that if Gogol lived in the present day, his big works like Dead Souls would be inadequate, replaced instead by the composition of ‘various little trifles’. In a suggestive use of critical language, Popkin describes the relationship between Gogol and Zoshchenko less as a junior writer borrowing from a master, but rather as one of ‘shrinkage’.
Such psychological analyses of marriage, romance, and sexuality in Gogol are given a different slant in Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism, by Edyta M. Bojanowska. Bojanowska discusses the writings of V. Chizh, who across 1903 and 1904, in the Russian journal Questions of Philosophy and Psychology, published a series of articles which diagnosed Gogol as mentally ill. Chizh placed Gogol’s ‘stunted sexual drive and the resultant atrophy of the relevant organ’ in the context of a purported sanity whenever Gogol was writing about his Ukrainian homeland, and a purported insanity whenever he came to write about Russia.
Against such a dearth of information, insufficient to assert even a sole romantic dalliance, and with women posing such a problematic role within Gogol’s texts, in The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, Simon Karlinsky posits the ‘missing key to the riddle of his personality’. Karlinsky argues that Gogol’s ’emotional orientation’ was homosexual; and that throughout his life he withheld an ‘overpowering emotional attraction to members of his own sex and aversion to physical or emotional contact with women’.
Karlinsky, writing in 1976, believed this was a fruitful but crucially undeveloped area of study; alleging that Setchkarev was prevented from broaching the topic in his biography by a senior Harvard colleague, who threatened to disrupt his career. Karlinsky’s argument – accepting the lack of biographical support for his assertion – rests on close readings of Gogol’s work. He attempts to show how women are continually either dismissed or drawn as disruptive presences, debarring intimate relations between men.
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Gogol published ‘The Overcoat’ and Dead Souls in 1842. Creatively, the remainder of his life was beset by an agonising struggle over the second part of Dead Souls. Religion became his chief mode of outlet, and in early 1847 he notoriously published Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. Despite his lack of practise in the area, Gogol readily proselytised on marriage, with essays titled ‘What a Wife Can Do for Her Husband in Simple Domestic Matters, as Things Now Are in Russia’, ‘What the Wife of a Provincial Governer Is’, and ‘Woman in the World’.
In his introduction to the English edition of Selected Passages, Jesse Zeldin calls the advice contained in the first of these essays ‘downright silly’ – although it is not quite what one might expect, with Gogol opening bluntly, ‘For a long time I have thought about which one of you to attack – you or your husband? Finally I decided to attack you: the wife is sooner capable of coming to her senses and getting herself moving’. As for the rest of the essays, Zeldin describes them as ‘at best naive, the work of a man who had so far withdrawn from the world that he no longer had the least idea of what it was like’.
Gogol left Italy in January 1848 and, after an unhappy pilgrimage to Jerusalem, returned to Russia for the first time in six years. Moving between Petersburg and Moscow, and reading frequently from the second part of Dead Souls and from Vasily Zhukovsky’s translation of the Odyssey, Setchkarev posits at this time a fledgling relationship with the young Countess Anna Vielgorskaya. According to Setchkarev, ‘It appears certain that Gogol proposed marriage to her, although through the mediation of a third party; and that the family, proud of their nobility and taken aback at the idea of such a marriage, rejected his proposal’. Falling ill, less than a month before his death on 4 March 1852, Gogol burned the majority of the second part of Dead Souls.
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The Italian writer Tommaso Landolfi was born in Pico in 1908, and studied Russian language and literature at the University of Florence, graduating in 1932 with a thesis on the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. In a career which brought him considerable critical acclaim – including the Strega Prize in 1975, four years prior to his death – but little reception amongst the public, Landolfi was associated variously with Modernism, Postmodernism, and Surrealism, and compared to writers including Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Jorge Luis Borges.
His fantastical fiction commenced with the short story collection Dialogo dei massimi sistemi, published in 1937. His first novel, the grotesque La pietra lunare, appeared two years later. Similarly gothic in style, 1947’s Racconto d’Autunno remains perhaps his best-known work; and it was the basis for a 1980 television film of the same name, directed by Domenico Campana.
While his fiction proved unique in the mid-century of Italian letters for drawing on such an array of writers, cultures, and forms, in the realm of translation, Landolfi stuck resolutely to the Russians, starting with a translation of Gogol’s Petersburg Tales in 1941. Through the end of the 1960s, he translated works by Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Leskov, Bunin, and three collections of Pushkin’s stories and lyrics. After Landolfi’s death, in 1982 Italo Calvino brought together and introduced a selection of his short stories and non-fiction writings.
‘La moglie di Gogol” (‘Gogol’s Wife’) emerged with Landolfi’s 1954 collection, Ombre (‘Shadows‘). The story was translated into English in 1963, as part of Gogol’s Wife and Other Stories, compiled for New Directions by Raymond Rosenthal, John Longrigg, and Wayland Young. Commenting in The New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag stated that on the basis of ‘Gogol’s Wife’ – with its ‘clean, deliberate style’ and ‘lovely freedom of invention’ – ‘one instantly and gratefully acknowledged Landolfi as a writer of the first rank’.
In ‘Gogol’s Wife’, Landolfi’s narrator introduces himself as Gogol’s biographer, beginning on a wary note:
‘At this point, confronted with the whole complicated affair of Nikolai Vassilevitch’s wife, I am overcome by hesitation. Have I any right to disclose something which is unknown to the whole world, which my unforgettable friend himself kept hidden from the world (and he had his reasons), and which I am sure will give rise to all sorts of malicious and stupid misunderstandings?’
The revelation which this biographer has for his readers is summarised several paragraphs later:
‘Let me say it at once: Nikolai Vassilevitch’s wife was not a woman. Nor was she any sort of human being, nor any sort of living creature at all, whether animal or vegetable (although something of the sort has sometimes been hinted). She was quite simply a balloon. Yes, a balloon; and this will explain the perplexity, or even indignation, of certain biographers who were also the personal friends of the Master, and who complained that, although they often went to his house, they never saw her and “never even heard her voice.”
Gogol’s so-called wife was an ordinary dummy made of thick rubber, naked at all seasons, buff in tint, or as is more commonly said, fleshcolored. But since women’s skins are not all of the same color, I should specify that hers was a light-colored, polished skin, like that of certain brunettes. It, or she, was, it is hardly necessary to add, of feminine sex.’
In this imaginative swoop, Landolfi assumes the blow-up doll and prefigures such a popular representation of an inanimate partner as that embodied in the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl. The details of the biographer’s account become no less remarkable, and in fact more sordid: Gogol reportedly devised a name for this wife, ‘Caracas, which is, unless I am mistaken, the capital of Venezuela’; and ‘Nikolai Vassilevitch blew his wife up through the anal sphincter with a pump of his own invention, rather like those which you hold down with your two feet and which are used today in all sorts of mechanical workshops’.
In what reads almost as a parody of Borges’ ‘Funes the Memorious‘, the narrator gives his memories of this Caracas. As the years pass, she encounters problems of disease and ageing, and is accused of masturbation and adultery. ‘Nikolai Vassilevitch’s distaste for his wife became stronger, though his love for her did not show any signs of diminishing. Toward the end, aversion and attachment struggled so fiercely with each other in his heart that he became quite stricken, almost broken up’.
Caracas’ religious excess is construed as a possible influence on Gogol’s own moral position in his later life. Eventually, distraught, the artist deliberately pumps too much. Gogol’s ‘Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt’ ends curiously promising a conclusion: ‘Meanwhile, in the aunt’s head a totally new plot was hatching, which you will hear about in the next chapter’. This next chapter, alas, never comes, and the story stops cold. In what is surely more than an echo, Landolfi’s tale ends likewise:
‘In the next chapter I shall tell what happened to him afterwards, and that will be the last chapter of his life. But to give an interpretation of his feelings for his wife, or indeed for anything, is quite another and more difficult matter, though I have attempted it elsewhere in this volume, and refer the reader to that modest effort. I hope I have thrown sufficient light on a most controversial question and that I have unveiled the mystery, if not of Gogol, then at least of his wife.’
Bojanowska, E. M. Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism (Harvard University Press, 2007)
Fanger, D. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol (Harvard University Press, 2009)
Gogol, N. The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol trans. Pevear, R. & Volokhonsky, L. (Granta, 2003)
Karlinsky, S. The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol (University of Chicago Press, 1976)
Landolfi, T. Gogol’s Wife and Other Stories, trans. Rosenthal, R., Longrigg, J., & Young, W. (Connecticut: New Directions, 1963)
Nabokov, V. ‘Interview with Vogue‘ (1969): http://lib.ru/NABOKOW/Inter14.txt
Nabokov. V. Nikolai Gogol (New York: New Directions, 1961)
Popkin, C. The Pragmatics of Insignificance: Chekhov, Zoshchenko, Gogol (Stanford University Press, 1993)
Setchkarev, V. Gogol: His Life and Works (New York University Press, 1965)
Sontag, S. ‘Gogol’s Grandson’ The New York Review of Books (23 January, 1964 Issue): http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1964/jan/23/gogols-grandson/
‘Gogol’s Wife’ by Tommaso Landolfi, translated by Rosenthal, Longrigg, & Young: Landolfi_Gogol