Nikolai Gogol was born 200 years ago on April Fool’s Day 1809. Peter Craven, writing in The Australian, says it’s an appropriate time to honour one of the greatest comic writers, who made comedy seem not breezy hilarity but the wisdom and the woebegone melancholy of the fool. But it was no less funny for that.
As a stylist Gogol had what Edmund Wilson described as a “maddeningly arrested” style. Like Herman Melville in Moby-Dick or Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, he has an absolute richness of texture and stately progress.
This does not produce tedium. It leads to stories such as The Overcoat or Diary of a Madman, which are towering works even though they look on paper like the merest short stories.
Gogol was one of the greatest among a group of writers that includes Honore de Balzac and Charles Dickens, and which has its ultimate culmination in the vertigo and tragic intensities of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In their writings, the smoke and fog of the city curls like a nemesis and seems to have fables to tell that will delight and appal.
Dostoevsky once said, “I came out from under that Overcoat too.” Certainly Notes from the Underground would have been impossible without Diary of a Madman.