I should confess up front that I’ve never heard of this book until I came across Tuesday in Silhouette‘s Russian Reading Month. This is one of the featured books and as it has the wonderful Nabokov writing about the equally wonderful Gogol, it definitely was a must! I’ve read a fair amount of both authors and I was interested to see what Nabokov’s take would be on the writer behind “Dead Souls”.

Of course, with Nabokov it would be foolish to expect a traditional biography or literary study – this book is very definitely not that. It’s highly subjective, opinionated and sharp – and also very funny in places. The first chapter starts with the death of Gogol and then goes on to discuss his early years. Nabokov opts to discuss Gogol in the light of what he considers his three major works – the play “The Government Inspector, the novel “Dead Souls” and the short story “The Overcoat”. He dismisses a lot of Gogol’s other work as trivial, but rates GI as “the greatest play ever written in Russian (and never surpassed since)”. The book ends up with a somewhat humourous section entitled “Commentaries” in which Nabokov discusses with his publisher whether he should provide a more traditional section with summaries of the stories and biographical detail. Clever, this section does provide the necessary details about plot (which is cross referenced in the body of the book) and there is a chronology for those in need of this kind of information.

Gogol – Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

However, this book is a joy to read, not only because we have a classic Russian writer giving us his thoughts on another, but because Nabokov’s writing is just so good (and it’s one of the easiest to read volumes of his I’ve come across). It’s full of insight as to general reading habits, why we read, what we get from a work:

“Gogol’s play is poetry in action, and by poetry I mean the mysteries of the irrational as perceived through rational words. True poetry of that kind provokes – not laughter and not tears – but a radiant smile of perfect satisfaction, a purr of beatitude – and a writer may well be proud of himself if he can make his readers, or more exactly some of his readers, smile and purr that way.”

There is also sarcasm and plenty of biting wit – Nabokov is refreshingly opinionated:

“The old translations of Dead Souls into English are absolutely worthless and should be expelled from all public and university libraries.”

(It is worth bearing in mind that this book was first published in 1944 since when there has been, amongst others, the acclaimed Robert Maguire translation)

By Walter Mori (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The book is littered with gems like this totally unrelated aside – “(beautiful word, stratagem – a treasure in a cave)” and I found myself smiling and purring all the way through it. What comes out is not only the achievement of Gogol, but also Nabokov’s deep understanding and love of books and the written word. I can’t sum up better than this wonderful quote:

“…literature… appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.”

Even if you know nothing about Gogol, for the quality of writing alone I would highly recommend this book.