The Canon: Nikolai Gogol. By Vladimir Nabokov

February 18, 2010

What a happy task to be asked to choose a definitive title from one's "personal canon". I recommend Nabokov's Nikolai Gogol. Written in 1944, this little book about the 19th-century Russian writer brims with inaccuracies, gaping lacunae and strong opinions. Why is it important? How can it hold its own against critical giants such as Michel Foucault, Wayne C. Booth, Jacques Derrida or Judith Butler? Well, it can't - but reading it can introduce you to your own sensibility. Moreover, the critical writings of poets and fiction writers offer enticing simultaneous glimpses into their own creative landscapes and those of their subjects - witness Henry James, T.S. Eliot, or another strong contender on my bookshelf, W.H. Auden.

Before the term "reader-response criticism" entered our vocabulary, Nabokov practised it with gusto. He begins with an account of Gogol's horrific death by self-induced starvation. Almost in passing he characterises the essential strangeness of Gogol's art. "Although the scene is unpleasant and has a human appeal which I deplore, it is necessary to dwell upon it a little longer in order to bring out the curiously physical side of Gogol's genius. The belly is the belle of these stories, the nose is their beau. His stomach had been his 'noblest inner organ'."

Nabokov's real project, developed subsequently, is to convey the universal strangeness of all enduring art. "Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange; it is only your healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader to be a wise old friend, nicely developing the reader's own notions of life. Great literature skirts the irrational. The sudden slanting of the rational plane of life may be accomplished ... in many ways."

This book raises a general hymn to the significance of detail and how a single word can recast the meaning of an entire work. "Here and there in the most innocent descriptive passage, this or that word, sometimes a mere adverb or a preposition, for instance the word 'even' or 'almost', is inserted in such a way as to make the harmless sentence explode."

By writing only about what interests him (Gogol's death, boyhood, relationship to his mother, the novel Dead Souls, a few of the stories and, more generally, a hilarious account of "poshlust", insights on vision and colour), Nabokov signals to readers to allow themselves a similar selectivity. And fine tennis player that he was, he engages us in a game where he assumes we play better than we do, with the unsurprising result (as in tennis) that we do.

Nabokov's lepidopterist insights frequently come into play as he ponders how writers seem to create life. "As in the scaling of insects the wonderful colour effect may be due not to the pigment of the scales but to their position and refractive power, so Gogol's genius deals not in the intrinsic qualities of computable chemical matter ... but in the mimetic capacities of the physical phenomena produced by almost intangible particles of recreated life." Readers of this book take a bracing dip in the wellspring of creativity.

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