Gogol, provincial realism, and on hearing the voice

2023-11-28 @Literature

Some time back I read two more specimens of Nikolai Gogol’s short prose that warrants commentary. Consider them lengthy stories or short novellas: Старосветские помещики and Как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем make two satirical realism exponents belonging to the cycle Mirgorod.

I won’t even refer to the stories but in unison. This way I need not reproduce nor abbreviate these titles, nor bother with translation, that frustrating and rather irrelevant affair under the circumstance.

The cycle Mirgorod comprises Gogol’s Ukrainian, provincial stories, contrasting the Petersburg ‘elevated’ cycle of most renown particularly among foreign readers. But Mirgorod is a treasure hive. Sometime (only three years) back I also read Вий, a gothic horroresque tale of the same cycle; but being my first exposure to Gogol, I didn’t yet connect.

Anyway, the two featured stories embody Gogol’s poetic prowess for the mundane. This makes sense, being the Russian/Ukrainian 19th-century realism author and among the first (if not formally so).

My non-academic lens tends to view the line delineating Romanticism and Realism as rather blurry. Both genres exhibit shared traits as far as I’m concerned. But I guess Realism caters more to the dull, if not the plain-ugly quotidian, albeit often under the Romantic guise, the frequent source of my confusion.

The interesting factor: realistic subject matter, however derisive, however petty, however ugly, doesn’t strictly make the Realism genre if not respectfully and particularly treated. Romanticism, for instance, while occasionally evincing traits of Realism, often abstracts/abbreviates such detail, at least in the clear-cut case.

As another example, a protagonist who drinks coffee, scratches his groin or listens to a vinyl record every handful of pages (I’m evoking some long-ago read Haruki Murakami prose), in my view, doesn’t yield to the genre, not in the way that particular (translated) prose conveys such events.

Let me conjure a further random sample of authors associated with Realism to a good extent (omitting the cross-genrists and magic-realists):

Back to Gogol. Those Mirgorod stories make for some of my favourite Gogol and realist prose in general. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary comes close second. Be French my intimate language, it would’ve been the other way.

What I love about Gogol: he not only revels in the humble mundane pettiness, but speaks in a voice I can hear. Out loud.

It is a rare exception that I can actually hear the author’s voice. It certainly does not come across any Romance or Baroque writing, whatever be the period.

Though I rejoice in the prose of the following authors, I cannot really hear the respective voices of Poe, Joyce, Pushkin, Melville, Nabokov, Borges, Cortazar. Their audible voices are but abstractions. Their prose and poetry lives independently to a similar extent as 2000-year-old sacred texts. Which partially makes sense, given the nature of their writing, often anything but Realist. Mind you, I’ve heard plenty of Borges and Cortazar through interviews and lectures.

Now Gogol’s provincial prose … I can evoke the very recital, however slightly antiquated the 190-year old lingo, however distant I am to the tsarist 19th century rural Ukraine.

Gogol’s language flaunts diminutives in a way that actually does not sound awkward; in a way that works: full of primitivism, the hyperbolic quarrying among petty folk, the charming, vernacular expression. Gogol …

Not long back I likewise read a pseudo-short-story/pseudo-essay Bop by Langston Hughes, the early-mid 20th century US writer embracing the African American and Jazz motives through both poetry and prose. Though of a completely different period and sub-culture, I could hear his majestic recital down to the very accent and intonation.

I think I can hear much of Vladimir Mayakovski’s poetry as he sardonically chants it: no easy matter considering the rough, futurist, far from conventional or agreeable cadence. But from repeated listening, I think I hear it. It also can’t hurt that one can find that occasional, 100-year old live recording.

Questions, comments? Connect.