Now and then I reread Gogol’s Nevsky Prospekt, and am always impressed by the potency and importance of this work. We all came from Gogol’s Petersburg stories,- myself, Dostoyevsky, Bely, Nabokov, Bulgakov, Babel, Zamyatin, Teternikov, and Turgenev. No comparison is intended among this group, except for the common influence of Gogol, without which it’s hard to imagine the development of Russian literature. Pushkin, who was already near the end of his life when Gogol appeared, was impressed with what seemed to him well ahead of the times. Gogol’s influence outside of Russia is harder to gauge, but sometimes it is unmistakable, like with Kafka.
Nevsky Prospekt is a particularly good example of many of Gogol’s trademark attributes: the fantastic city concept, the world’s absurdity, the difficulty of maintaining artistic idealism, etc. Gogol’s writing is an improbable mix of romanticism, realism, and surrealism (avant la lettre). The story’s message is that fate prevents us from ever obtaining the objects of our desire. The world is absurd and deceptive; the devil’s hand is in everything. Amidst the sordidness and poshlost’, real beauty can sometimes be discerned, but this will just make things more maddening. Only philistines can be unaffected by it all and get by, although not without some trouble of their own.
A common theme throughout many of Gogol’s works is the devastation sparked by feminine beauty. In Nevsky Prospekt a character with an artistic sensibility cannot come to terms with the horrible rift between æsthetic perfection and tangible reality.
The girl he meets is beautiful, pure, and young – 17; her face is “eloquent of an inner nobility”. But her actual essence, as becomes evident later, is the exact opposite of what her appearance implies. For such perfection to be combined with such internal corruption is something impossible to reconcile for someone used to living in the abstract, an artist. His ideals shattered, his is led into a spiral of increasing opium use that only increases the mistakenness of his trust in perception and beauty.
I know of no other work of writing in which is better described such a situation and its implications. The deep sorrow inherent in the conflict between ideals and reality is vivid here. Even Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) – although the very title implies the concept of this æsthetic conflict – doesn’t describe it as potently, I believe.
Gogol’s descriptive skills are superb; he even rivals Hugo in this respect. Both of them manage to convey, not how something looks, but at least some of the underlying emotions generated when seeing it. “The curve of her lips was suggestive of a throng of the most enchanting reveries. It was as though every cherished relic that survives our childhood memories, the quiet inspirations of sweet daydreams by the light of an icon-lamp, was joined together and reflected in those lovely lips.”
In this compact story, there is more description of the girl than there is of Anna in the 800-page Anna Karenina. After finishing the voluminous novel one still does not get a powerful image of what Anna looks like. The descriptions of her are mostly confined to the beginning, and although one does get the idea that she is beautiful, Tolstoy does not explain why and how.
Most writers are content in just listing a girl’s tangible attributes, and then making her seem attractive by describing the emotional reactions of the male characters towards her beauty. They usually do not go far enough in explaining what it is that makes her beautiful. On the other hand, writers such as Gogol, Turgenev, and Flaubert do take the time to explain.
Gogol is also noteworthy for creating many characters who have become universal “types”. One frequently comes across references to them in the works of other authors, and some have even entered the Russian language as adjectives, like Plyushkin from Dead Souls, whose name is now applied as the Russian equivalent of ‘obsessive hoarder’. I’ve seen Pirogov, the philistine officer from Nevsky Prospekt appear in The Idiot and Smoke (Dostoyevsky and Turgenev), and I reference him myself in Idée Vixe. I also indirectly reference Piskaryëv, the artist from the story. When I describe Elena in chapter 15, I do it gradually through three sets of eyes: first Vixey, then Karl (who is helped by a quotation from Pushkin), and then through a hypothetical Piskaryëv.
There is more literature about St. Petersburg than any city in the world, besides Paris and London. Petersburg was the capital of imperial Russia, the world’s vastest empire, and Nevsky Prospekt was the central street of the capital city. Descriptions of the street and its environment are a large part of the story. “Here you will encounter waists unlike any you have ever seen, even in your dreams.” Gogol speaks the truth: indeed in a Кофе Хауз café a bit off Nevsky, among other things, I saw a girl with such bewildering curvatures in her waist that I could not have imagined it myself without seeing it. I’ve been to Petersburg twice, in ’06 and ’09 – in one of those visits actually living on Nevsky Prospekt (just before the Anichkov Bridge) – and have had some small adventures on the street myself.
Oddly, in my life I’ve never met anyone who has told me they’ve read Gogol, despite my occasional suggestions. If even Gogol, who ranks, in my estimation, in the top 5 writers of all time, has such a poor result in today’s times, how can I expect anyone to read my own much lesser work? I can’t – that’s why I write the novels primarily just for myself.