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Languagehat on Mirgorod

August 13, 2013

For some time I’ve been enjoying Languagehat’s posts on early nineteenth-century writers I’ve read little if anything by, like Lazhechnikov and Vel’tman and Senkovskii. Now he’s on to Gogol, and it’s just as enjoyable to hear what he thinks of stories I know fairly well, like “Old World Landowners” (Старосветские помещики, 1835):

And the following paragraph is, again, pure Gogol (Russian below the cut):

But the most remarkable thing in the house was the singing doors. As soon as morning came, the singing of the doors was heard throughout the house. I can’t say why they sang: whether it was because the hinges were rusty or because whoever made them installed some hidden mechanism, but what was remarkable was that each door had its own particular voice: the door leading into the bedroom sang in the thinnest of trebles, the door to the dining room wheezed in a bass, but the one in the entrance hall emitted a strange sort of tinkling and at the same time moaning sound, so that listening to it you eventually heard very clearly: “oh, I’m so cold!” I know that many people don’t like that sound at all, but I’m very fond of it, and if here from time to time I happen to hear the squeaking of doors, then all at once I smell a country village, a low little room lit by a candle in an old-fashioned candlestick, supper already on the table, a dark May night looking in from the garden through the open window at the table with its place settings, a nightingale pouring its resonant song over the garden, the house, and the distant river, the fright and rustle of the branches… and lord, what a long string of memories wafts over me then!

Any writer might mention the squeaking of the hinges in an old house, a writer with a poetic bent might call it singing, but only Gogol would take the opportunity to create an entire set of differentiated voices making up the chorus, one of them tinkling and at the same time moaning “oh, I’m so cold!” And then the flight of the imagination from (presumably) Petersburg back to his native Ukraine, and the movement from the room with food on the table out to the night looking in at it and the nightingale and the branches (and yes, “the fright and rustle of the branches” is very odd, but that’s what he writes, and it does him no favors to normalize it to “the rustle and the murmuring of the boughs” as [translator Isabel F.] Hapgood does), and that final clause after the ellipsis, whose lyricism makes you sit back and savor it dreamily before you go on to the description of the massive chairs and the various tables and the mirror with its gold frame and its carved leaves which the flies have strewn with black dots.

or “Viy” (Вий, 1835):

Gogol’s “Вий,” one of the four stories in his 1835 collection Mirgorod, is a piece of misogynist tripe; Nabokov is actually being (uncharacteristically) kind to it when he calls it “a gooseflesh story, not particularly effective.” The opening section, describing Kiev seminary life, is pretty much taken straight from Narezhny’s novel Бурсак (The seminary student—see this post); it goes on to a bunch of ooga-booga nonsense involving the protagonist Khoma being terrified in a church late at night, ultimately by the titular Vii, some sort of Ukrainian hobgoblin.

Definitely click through and also read the one part of “Viy” LH liked, after which, he promised, you’ll have “read all you need to of the story.”

I can’t say I share LH’s vehement dislike of “Viy,” but it’s a distant third in my personal ranking of the four stories in Mirgorod.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2013 9:41 am

    I was probably unfair to “Vii” due to the hardening of my reading arteries; see my Addendum to the post.

    • August 15, 2013 10:18 am

      I have no problem with strong opinions. Thanks for making sure I saw the comment thread – I love the Fanger quote (“ordinary, solitary, kinless, and doomed”!), and of course your commenters always have insightful and unexpected things to say.

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