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am 14. Juli 2000
Perhaps regrettably obscured behind Nabokov's famous novels and even his Lectures on Russian Literature and his controversial work on Eugene Onegin lies this short critical biography of Nikolai Gogol. The main thrust of the book is to portray Gogol as a masterful, if troubled and inconsistent, writer whose work is valuable not at all for its portrayal of Russia or for any seeming advocacy of social change, but rather exclusively for its artistic merit. Nabokov takes us rather briskly through Gogol's youth and his earlier works; provides detailed, quote-filled discussions of The Inspector General and the first volume of Dead Souls; summarizes the last ten years of Gogol's life, during which he attempted to write the second volume of Dead Souls but saw his artistic creativity fading; and gives a short exposition of Gogol's most famous short story, "The Overcoat."
Nabokov's essays on The Inspector General, Dead Souls, and "The Overcoat" are all quite illuminating and entertaining. He escorts us through each work, discussing the numerous ways in which each innovatively reflects Gogol's unique and charming quirks, and including, with annotations, numerous passages (each translated by Nabokov himself) which demonstrate Gogol's excellent prose. His emphasis is not at all on the plots of the works (which he only grudgingly included at the end of the book at the request of his publisher) but rather on their style, which he successfully shows to be a much more fundamental aspect of Gogol's works than any satire that one may choose to read in to them.
At times, though, it seems that Nabokov gets a little too caught up in his own dogma. Most critics nowadays would agree with Nabokov that Gogol was much more important as an artist than as a social commentator, but it's pushing it awfully far to say, as Nabokov does, that Dead Souls is no more authentically a tale about Russia than Hamlet is authentically about Denmark. Also, Nabokov confines almost all of his attention to just three works, which put together, if memory serves, wouldn't come to much more than 300 pages. He dismisses Gogol's numerous Ukrainian tales (the last of which were written when Gogol was 25; The Inspector General, by contrast, was written at the ripe old age of 26) as "juvenilia" which are emphatically not "the real Gogol," and pays little more than lip service to any of Gogol's other acclaimed short stories. The one other slightly irritating aspect of Nabokov's book that I can think of is that in the long passages that he quotes he insists on interjecting his own comments [in brackets] mid-sentence, thus ruining the flow of the prose that he took the trouble of translating so very well.
But these are all minor quibbles, and I hope you won't let them discourage you. Nabokov makes his point very entertainingly and very well, and although it might have been nice if he'd broadened his study to more of Gogol's work, his discussions of Gogol's three most important works are really excellent. Since it would be hard for me to think of a 20th-century author more suited to writing about Gogol than Nabokov, I had high expectations for this book, and I was not at all disappointed.
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