Akaky Akakievich from Gogol’s “The Overcoat” by Yuri Norstein
I signed up to Matt Taibbi’s Substack recently and one of the first things that caught my eye was his paean to Nikolai Gogol — “my childhood hero,” as Matt described him. Well, Gogol is one of my favorite writers too. And I couldn’t believe how inane and lame Matt’s take was. I started to write him a short email telling him about all the things he got wrong, but it turned out longer than I expected. So I figured I might as well turn it into a public post — for educational purposes.
For someone who’s supposedly an expert on Russia, your cultural analysis of Nikolai Gogol is so far off the mark it’s offensive. If your readers are learning about Gogol for the first time through your post, you’re doing them a great disservice.
Just look at the way you describe him — “It was as if God whacked him with a shovel, locking his brain in the moment of hearing the funniest joke ever told.” Whacked by a shovel? Forever locked in the funniest joke ever told? What are you even talking about? For someone who says they’ve been a Gogol fan since childhood, you’re surprisingly deaf and blind to his talents.
I don’t know if you’ve really read him in Russian, but Gogol wasn’t some sort of shock jock satirist, he was a mystical and religious writer — closer to Kafka, if anyone. Yet you make him seem like some kind of ridiculous buffoon, a cheap slapstick comedian, and a clown, which he was not.
His magnum opus, Dead Souls, which you refer to but are too sloppy to even name in your post, except to describe it as “lunatic, paragraphless prose,” is the best book on Russia there is — and probably will be for the next thousand years. There is nothing lunatic in the prose at all. The language is methodical and lyrical and brutally precise.
Dead Souls is genius because it manages to comically capture Russia’s essence in a way that seems to stand outside of time. Despite being written in the 1830s, all the characters in it feel modern and recognizable in Russian society today — its officials, its businessmen, and its various society men and women. Gogol gets at something deep and mystical about Russia — something that has remained basically unchanged, despite multiple revolutions and the changing of the ruling elite and the passing of almost two centuries. (Another one of his timeless works is his play The Government Inspector, which remains one of the funniest depictions of servility and sycophantic obsession with power and rank.)
The short stories you mention — “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” — they’re not just funny political satire, but sublime and surrealist poems in prose. “The Overcoat” is famous for being a big influence on Dostoevsky, not because it’s about “a dim and nervous clerk” but because it’s a heartbreaking and touching story about a harassed and bullied small person who finally gets his fantastical postmortem revenge.
As for your commentary on Gogol’s later writing, you seem to be missing the point again. Gogol initially envisioned Dead Souls as a depiction of Hell — the first part of a trilogy that was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. He wrote the second part of Dead Souls, which he intended to be a depiction of Purgatory and was supposed to write a third one — Paradise. But he failed in his mission. He never wrote the third part and burned the second (although some of the chapters remain and are not that bad). I think he failed and burned his work not because he was sick or crazy, like you say, but because it’s actually impossible to write a genuine and honest novel about Russia that’s solely populated by good, angel-like people. Nikolai Chernishevsky tried it in What Is to Be Done and it turned out sentimental and dogmatic. It was bad literature, even if it was avant-garde and politically inspiring to Russia’s revolutionaries. So in a sense, Gogol didn’t really fail. He set himself up with an impossible task.
You write, “Reading Gogol is a gluttonous, frenzied, disgusting experience” — again, what? Gogol’s prose is sublime and never “disgusting.” If anything, it’s overly polite and humorously proper and surgically exact. And that’s true of his descriptions of the lavish dinners that Russia’s landed aristocracy consumed — these meals are funny and saliva-inducing. They’re not disgusting. They’re there to set the mood and to show the interests and the manners of the people he was writing about — like in his great short story, “The Old World Landowners.” In fact, Lev Tolstoy used the same exact technique but without Gogol’s humor.
Matt, if you’re trying to identify yourself with your literary hero, it’s not working well. Gogol was a dark and tragic genius, not a bourgeois armchair journalist who sort of has — or mostly had — a way with words.
Lastly, I’d like to move on to your obsession with cancel culture.
You say that Gogol would probably be cancelled in the horrible puritanical America of today. Again, what are you talking about? Don’t you know basic Russian history?
Censorship didn’t only exist in the Soviet Union — a society that seems to be your reference point for everything evil. There was severe censorship in the Russian Empire as well. All the great Russian writers, Gogol’s included, had to navigate a system of censorship. All of them were pre-cancelled, so to speak. They had to figure out ways to un-cancel themselves and get around dimwitted czarist censors to get their work published. And yet, they somehow managed to produce timeless books.
Makes one think about all this cancel culture outrage that you’re manically producing these days. You constantly write about how dangerous this new wave of censorship is to art and culture and speech and self-expression, and how stifling it is. But Gogol — your literary hero — proves the exact opposite of your argument: writers have been able to publish radical political novels while under heavy censorship.
And one more thing regarding a very specific American cancel culture phenomenon — Gogol was most likely a virgin, at least he never had any known intimate relationship with women and never wrote about sexual matters. So there would be no chance to “cancel” him that way, even in today’s America.
After making it to the end of your sloppily written post, I remembered the epic apology you wrote on Facebook a few years ago, when you were under the threat of cancellation and hoped to placate the cancel mob. It was a sad moment in your career, but you did show a glimmer of self-awareness.
“It took all those years at the eXile to learn that this unvarnished, on-the-ground reporting style was where I had something to contribute, while in other areas – like trying to be cool, or offering commentary on sex or gender relations, or being a public personality – it was clear I had nothing to offer to anyone.”
If I were you, I’d add “literary criticism” to the list as well.
P.S. I recommend reading this short book on Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov. He got Gogol right.