Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, Russia’s great absurdist, was born on the first of April in 1809. He died 42 years later, wasted from fasting, wracked with neuroses, and tormented by an attendant doctor with a jarful of leeches. Gogol had a hysterical constitution and an intense loathing for all things parasitical, so he may have died of horror. Haunted in life by a fear of devils incarnate, he expired in the tiny grip of their suckers.
Gogol wrote tales of a profound but pedestrian phantasmagoria: The underworld was snow-covered and its apparitions crawled from hayricks like Bosch’s own darlings. Gogol believed in the devil—and though he gave him a pig’s snout and a sports coat and sent him skittering about in knock-kneed constipation, Gogol was afraid of him.
The writer’s last years coincided with the advent of photography, which claimed its place alongside gaslight and locomotives in the industrial exposition during the 1855 International Exhibition in Paris. The souvenir postcards from the Exhibition, said the chattering class, were proof that painting and portraiture were in retreat before the camera’s all-seeing lens. Sun, look out for yourself, warned one awed painter when he viewed the Daguerre panoramas.
Gogol, I think, would have been inspired by the mysteries of a darkroom—where living images are summoned out of an infernal red cloud, ghosts become flesh, and his own doppelganger resides with his hair parted on the right side.
The most common representation of Nikolai Gogol is the 1857 engraving by Iordanov. In it the writer’s shiny black hair falls just below his ears and drapes coyly over his wide brow. His eyes are kind and intelligent and have no trace of lunacy. His lips are dark and sensuous, partially hidden by a small mustache that resembles the wings of a furry moth. His famously long, pointed nose is the most unnerving aspect of his physiognomy. In short, it is the image not of a raving madman, but of a fey eccentric.
The engraving is made from an 1840 oil painting by Fyodor Moller, who is said to have expressed some exasperation with his subject’s features, as they seemed to change frenetically from one sitting to the next. I once spent a summer reviewing Gogol’s full iconography (he was captured in over 40 portraits, including an amateur sketch by Pushkin himself). I became convinced that Moller was right. From one image to the next Gogol is petulant then good-natured, youthful then sickly, remarkable and then quite ordinary. One sketch shows an utterly unrecognizable Imperial fop. Another gives Gogol the odd face of geisha mixed with a Shih Tzu.
In his left hand he holds the cane of a dandy—one that, Vladimir Nabokov tells us, Gogol used to bludgeon lizards who lay sunning in the paths of his Alpine hikes. And it isn’t just the free hand that allows his features to change—a slight shift in shading that occurred in reproduction somewhere between the publications of the 1958 Selected Works and 1978 Complete Works reveals that the naïf with the pallid face wears, not a floppy bow-tie, but a deliberate and constricting cravat; a slight elongation present in the frontispiece of the Italian edition of The Overcoat banishes the softness of Gogol’s open gaze and replaces it with an unbecoming archness; here his goatee has been trimmed, there his double-breasted jacket pulled tight. Judging from a half-dozen different facsimiles of the Iordanov engraving, the sheen of Gogol’s hair, the weight of his lower lids, the fullness of his jaws are all as malleable to chemicals as they are to a brush or pen. Wreckage replaces wonder in the minuscule grooves of the engraver’s plate.
In 1845 in Rome, Gogol sat for a daguerreotype. That image shows a different man altogether; here, he leans forward in a self-consciously masculine pose and his mouth shows tension. In his left hand he holds the cane of a dandy—one that, Vladimir Nabokov tells us, Gogol used to bludgeon lizards who lay sunning in the paths of his Alpine hikes. Here is a hint of Mephistopheles, the handsome devil. Dark, suspicious, and angry, Gogol in his stillness is free, at long last, of ridiculousness. Until—that is—his head is cropped from the full portrait, inverted on a flat horizontal, and washed with a subtle jaundice. Under these tamperings, Gogol becomes a pathetic miniature, a helpless creature trapped under a silver plate and encased in a tasteless gilt frame. I fancy I can even detect the whirled traces of the developer’s thumb. Though he doesn’t wriggle or squirm, I see him now full of alarm, the absurdity of his position dawning on him like revulsion.
Nabokov begins his curious quasi-biography of Gogol with the pathos of the great writer’s deathbed. Nabokov writes in outrage, insisting that the sadistic doctor treated Gogol “as if he were an average Bedlamite.”
In fact, as Gogol lay dying (indeed, quite out of his head), the specialists at London’s notorious asylum had begun a photographic crusade. With a hope that even the darkest delusions might be dispelled by the power of focused sunlight, the patients at Bethlehem Royal Hospital were all made to sit for the camera. The portraits, apparently, were used both as treatment and as evidence of progress. A patient was forced to reflect upon his mad countenance for a period of days, at the end of which, in some cases, a second picture was taken, showing the beatific tracks of remission.
As he neared age 40, Gogol experienced a spiritual crisis. His literature turned mystical, confessional, and—his fellow intellectuals stammered aghast—”reactionary.” What had once been a proclivity to find the amusement in the grotesque had become, by the time of his death, an inability to recognize humor, distortion, or even a reflection of the human condition in the light of day. Gone were the scampering ghouls and simpleton’s devils of his early folktales. Gone too, were the author’s caricatures of an even more appalling cabal: the vanity, lewdness, vulgarity, and gluttony of Russian society showcased in his masterpieces, The Nose, Dead Souls, and The Overcoat.
But all these figures stayed with the misunderstood satirist, I am sure, to the bitter end, trapped in the bell jar of his own creation, rapping at the glass, wondering aloud at their predicament. I imagine them, a close circle of specimens in monk’s robes and frock coats, taking flight and dancing a minuet—and in their centers the framed image of Gogol himself, a self-conscious and willing subject for examination.
And I wonder what the good doctors of Bedlam would have scribbled on their pads if, instead of the bloodsuckers and bellows, the dying Gogol had simply been presented with his photograph.