Tag Archives: A Russian Affair (web site)

thoughts about Gogol



Elisabeth van der Meer has another great post at


which is about the Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

I responded as follows.






Great post, Elisabeth. Very interesting and insightful.

A couple of things that come to mind.

The comparison to Dickens is very apt. The ability to create characters who are hilarious, idiosyncratic, total originals, and almost like distortions of real life, yet who — in their incongruity with what we think of us as “average” — are fully human and totally believable.

I read Henri Troyat’s biography of Gogol. I recall it as being very good.

Regarding Gogol’s sexuality, Simon Karlinsky’s monograph The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol (1976) is excellent. Karlinksy, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCal-Berkeley, was a top-notch scholar who produced another outstanding work on Chekhov (letters plus extensive commentary). I have read both books; they were well worth it.

The Wikipedia entry on Gogol contains the following paragraph:

In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories. After an introductory lecture made up of brilliant generalizations which the “historian” had prudently prepared and memorized, he gave up all pretense at erudition and teaching, missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth. At the final examination, he sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, simulating a toothache, while another professor interrogated the students. This academic venture proved a failure and he resigned his chair in 1835.

Troyat does a good job of describing this incident.

I will be eagerly awaiting your next post.





Ms. van der Meer’s site is one of the best sites devoted to literature I have found. If you happen to be interested in or love Russian literature, it bears checking out. I keep recommending it to friends, including those whose literary tastes I am not sure of, but who I feel would appreciate the site.

Her site, “A Russian Affair,” is at



— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017





a colloquy regarding Vladimir Nabokov




At Elisabeth van der Meer’s awesome site on Russian literature,


there was a post the other day about Dostoevsky.

The following is an exchange between myself and another respondent to the post, based on an observation I made about Vladimir Nabokov.



— Roger W. Smith

   December 2016






Roger W. Smith:

This is a typical post for this site. Which is to say that it is extremely well — I should say, beautifully — written and very informative. And, it makes one want to go back and read an author one hasn’t read for a long while. It seems that everything essential has been said about Dostoevsky, with nothing superfluous. Critics write whole books and never get as close as this to the heart of the matter.

A couple of thoughts re Dostoevsky. I am wondering, is he not — as regards style — somewhat like a writer such as Balzac, in that he didn’t give a hoot about style, basically. it was the story and the characters that mattered?

An opinion that I have formed, not based on an extensive acquaintance with his works, is that Nabokov is overrated. Brilliant, but nonetheless, overrated. I recall reading critical writings of Nabokov in which he refers slightingly to Dostoevsky and seems to rank him much lower than contemporaries such as Tolstoy.

A final comment. The illustrations on this site are always chosen, one can see, with great care, and they enhance appreciation and understanding.



Benn Bell:

I would like to say that I agree with him that your article is an excellent piece. You already know that I love Dostoevsky and have read him extensively. But I must disagree with Roger’s comment on Nabokov and cannot let it go unchallenged. I have also read Nabokov extensively and I find the notion that he is over rated as a writer quite absurd. Between the two of them I would rather read Nabokov any day.



Roger W. Smith:

I have taken note of your comment and see why you might differ with me.

In response, I would be inclined to say the following.

I don’t know Nabokov that well, having read some of his stuff, e.g., “Speak, Memory,” “Despair,” “Pnin,” and “Lolita” (in part).

“Lolita,” frankly, left me feeling wanting, impoverished. I could not get into it.

I have also read, in whole or part, the following critical works of Nabokov: “Nikolai Gogol” and “Lectures on Russian Literature” (parts)

Does this make me an authority? No.

But, I got the feeling that Nabokov is:

— undoubtedly brilliant;

— somewhat superficial or arid in terms of the emotional depth of his works.

Regarding the second comment – so called superficiality – I feel that Nabokov does not have or achieve in his writings the emotional depth of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, that his works do not strike the same deep chords. It seems to me, from my personal experience as a reader, that often one, while being impressed if not amazed by the pyrotechnics of Nabokov auteur and his ingenuity and linguistic ability, finds oneself left wanting more emotional nourishment from his works.