Nikolai Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov’s book on Nikolai Gogol is my favorite sort of thing: one writer I love writing about another writer we both love. And I loved it. Nabokov is a joy to read, period, and his insights about Gogol were helpful in articulating the swirling mess of thoughts I had about him. But if Nabokov is an intimidating writer of fiction (which is a stronger word than I would use), he is much more so writing about fiction.

He has tastes, he knows what they are, and he has no problem putting them up as simply correct. He is harsh, he pulls no punches, and his disdain for any number of things is right there on the surface, totally unhidden and unvarnished. E.g.:

There is nothing more dull and sickening to my taste than romantic folklore or rollicking yarns about lumberjacks or Yorkshiremen or French villagers or Ukrainian good companions. It is for this reason that the two volumes of the Evenings as well as the two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod…leave me completely indifferent.

Also unhidden is the scorn for the wrong kind of reader:

It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a “true story.” Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself? Or is something added to the poor strength of our imagination when we know that a tangible fact is at the base of the “fiction” we mysteriously despise? Or taken all in all, have we here that adoration of the truth which makes little children ask the story-teller “Did it really happen?” and prevented old Tolstoy in his hyperethical stage from trespassing upon the rights of the deity and creating, as God creates, perfectly imaginary people? …
I have a lasting grudge against those who like their fiction to be educational or uplifting, or national, or as healthy as maple syrup and olive oil, so that is why I keep harping on this rather futile side of The Government Inspector question.

This sort of thing gives me a lot of discomfort. First, I abase myself before true genius. And I also note that Nabokov has an enormous amount of that self-confidence that comes seemingly so easily to men (whom I’m not intimidated by, but cannot mimic) and the upper classes (whom I am intimidated by, despite my best efforts). And so much of Nabokov’s particular critique in this case revolves around a concept tied very closely to class issues: the idea of poshlost’ (or, here, poshlust).

Poshlust is one of these untranslatable concepts and important to Gogol’s work. Some English words in the nearby semantic space include “cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, high falutin’, in bad taste…inferior, sorry, trashy, scurvy, tawdry, gimcrack.” In the realm of literature, poshlust does not apply to actual trash, but to “the best sellers, the ‘stirring, profound and beautiful’ novels; it is these ‘elevated and powerful’ books.” In other words, any amount of your average, garden-variety “literary fiction.” And the real damnation of it all:

The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion, and can hold the reader’s attention ‘on a theme far removed from the discordant events of the day’ is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap.*

So what is poshlust but tawdry, bourgeois taste, and who can be the arbiter of real taste other than someone very much like a Vladimir Nabokov? How is it possible, even for those not infected with appreciationism, to trust oneself?

Because as much as you might want to write this all off as the exercise of an ego beyond all reasonable bounds, there is a small problem with that: he is right, about pretty much everything. And that’s after I’ve stripped out (most of) the class shame and resentment and general self-abasement of the student. So many of these were already my ideas, both about Gogol and about literature, and despite certain matters of taste (I still like folklore and rollicking yarns; sorry, I am hopelessly tawdry). I don’t disagree with Nabokov about, say, the purpose of fiction, as many would. I am completely with him here:

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.

I know that smile and purr. Here I am rewarded for being “the right kind of reader,” and reminded that I do know what does it for me. And rewarded further when he describes the course of a Gogol story in terms even I could articulate:

So to sum up: the story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all had derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

I suppose I could simply say that reading Nabokov on fiction is as rewarding and humbling as reading his novels; the experiences are not dissimilar. But I was much more unsettled after this. There are so many obstacles. I cannot understand Russian literature without speaking Russian—or, let’s be real, being Russian—I cannot understand any of it without understanding my own feelings about fiction more deeply, and being able to justify them; and even after all that I cannot trust myself or my own judgment. This is the periodic problem that stalls my blogging. I will continue to fend it off and write the muddled mediocrities of a poor poshlyáchki.

*Another, and an amazing, example of his real damn-you’re-so-rightness is the takedown in this section of a (made-up?) review of such a book, through a devastating close reading. An editing as well as a writing superhero.

13 comments to Nikolai Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov

  • An excellent consideration of this book. Thank you. I must read it if only to fully appreciate the concept of poshlost.

  • nicole

    Thanks, especially considering there’s not a whole lot of Gogol in the post. But highly, highly recommended—there’s so much more about poshlost’ that would be impossible to convey without simply repeating half of VN’s words.

  • To be honest I’d probably rather read, and read about Nabokov, than Gogol. Nothing against Gogol; when he is good he is first-rate but I find his work rather inconsistent.

  • nicole

    As does Nabokov! Though he is a bit harsher than I would be.

  • laura

    I don’t think Nabokov dislikes genuine folklore. Fairy tales, Nordic legend and lore from all languages and literatures are intricately woven into every one of his novels. So what is he referring to? A sort of glorification of “the people” that is in itself a form of poshlust?

  • The complete set of phrases is crucial here. Don’t pull off “romantic folklore” or “rollicking yarns” as separate concepts. It’s “(r.f. or r.y.) about (lumberjacks or etc.)”. Anyway, the Brothers Grimm and the Prose Edda aren’t poshlust, and aren’t romantic.

    Anthony – you don’t find Nabokov inconsistent? What writer is not inconsistent? Don’t fall into the semantic trap, which is part of VN’s point. Although we say we’re “reading Gogol” or whatnot, we’re really reading Dead Souls, and that’s not true, we’re reading a page, no that’s not it, a sentence, a phrase. Mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble. That’s not just Gogol – VN is describing his own books.

    Although, on the other hand, to the contrary: take a look at the timeline of Nikolai Gogol, Winter 1836-1837, p. 159.

    I’m about to link to this post. Here I go.

  • nicole

    AR right about everything as always. I will just further note a bit of what comes before that quote: “Couleur locale has been responsible for many hasty appreciations, and local color is not a fast color.”

    I feel like I should put this stuff up around my house on post-its for personal mental training. “No hasty appreciations!!!”

  • Amateur Reader – Yes, Nabokov is inconsistent. Your point is well made. The comparison ends in horse-trading, Gogol is less consistent than Nabokov; Flaubert is more consistent than Nabokov. I’ve read a few sentences written by Woolf today that both writers would envy.

    My tipping point is breached. I have ordered this book.

  • Hi, Nicole-

    Just found your blog, and I’ve been enjoying perusing your writing. As for poshlost’, there’s an excellent essay by Sergei Davydov that examines Nabokov’s notions of poshlost’ (which of course, as you discuss above, Nabokov examines in Gogol’s writing; I almost envision a poshlost’ palimpsest of sorts). I think the best definition of poshlost’ I’ve come across is “self-satisfied mediocrity”; concerning the examples you cite above, it would be the mediocre/cheap art that everyone reveres as spectacular and meaningful. Gogol, as I’m sure you know, viewed this as the work of the devil.

    Have you read Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature? He grades Dostoevsky’s work, and gives him a “C”.

  • nicole

    Hi, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the tip on the essay. I have not (yet) read the lectures, as my knowledge of Russian literature is at this point too patchy to make it seem worthwhile. But as I’ve been filling in some of those holes lately, it’s definitely something I’d like to get to. Now I’m really looking forward to reading him on Dostoyevsky.

  • Hi, again!
    I should also mention that there’s a collection of his Lectures on just “regular” literature (by “regular,” I mean “not Russian”). He talks about Dickens, Proust, Austen, Joyce, and Flaubert. I haven’t yet read these, but hope to get to them some day (I thought his Lectures on Russian lit were both incredibly insightful and incredibly hilarious [due their pompous nature!])

  • nicole

    That one I’ve got, though I’ve limited myself to reading the passages on novels I’ve read. My little Nabokov quote at the top right comes from the discussion, I believe, of Bleak House (or perhaps just the introduction).

    More than once I have been tempted to read books just so I can read essays/lectures on them by people I like; this one, the Russian lectures, and Lawrence’s book on American lit all come to mind in that category.

  • I believe it is in “The Art of Literature and Commonsense” that Nabokov produces a fine local example of poshlust: a 1950s American magazine ad, featuring a 50s housewife gazing lovingly at the object of her affections: a set of spoons. Nabokov calls it “the adoration of spoons”. Every once in a while, I catch myself adoring “spoons” and I am horrified.