Colloquial English translation enlivens Gogol's comic tales

The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol, edited with an introduction and notes by Leonard J. Kent. Chicago and London: University of Chicago. 2 volumes: 259 pp., 351 pp. (bibliography). $9.95 each (paper). The strangest and most disturbing case of genius among the classic 19th-century Russian writers was that of Nikolai Gogol (1809-52). That he had genius is unquestionable. Gogol's single completed novel, ``Dead Souls'' (1842), about a scheming landholder who buys up ownership rights to deceased serfs, intending to mortgage his imaginary ``estate,'' is one of the world's imperishable comic fictions -- a masterpiece of cumulative inventiveness. His most celebrated play, ``The Inspector General'' (1836), turns a farcical case of mistaken identity -- a nondescript civil servant is believed to be a government inspector -- into a satire on both bureaucratic vanity and small-town ignorance that has proved itself one of the most stageworthy delights in the modern repertoire.

But Gogol's brief life was bounded by extremes of insecurity and confusion that outdid even the grotesque excesses his fiction features. He was born and raised in the Ukraine. He moved on, when a young man, to St. Petersburg, fired by dreams of literary success. He struggled along as an obscure clerk, though only briefly -- for in less than 10 years Gogol managed to produce the tales that earned him widespread recognition as an unusual and important writer.

Then, in a reversal stranger than any he'd ever contrived, ``burning up with religious fever and consumed by a messianic complex,'' he renounced his artistic successes, vowed his commitment to Christian principles and hortatory literature -- and attempted to expand ``Dead Souls'' into a monitory trilogy modeled on Dante's ``Divine Comedy.'' Though he died cruelly young, there seems little doubt that all of Gogol's significant literary work lay behind him.

Gogol's stories are now available again in this attractive reissue of a collection first published in 1964 (it had originally included his plays; they're excluded here), based on the Constance Garnett translations made in the 1920s. Editor Leonard Kent has revised and updated Garnett's versions, and the result is a lively colloquial English that renders quite successfully the color, vigor, and dense comic detail Gogol is known for.

The earliest stories, most of which appeared in two volumes entitled ``Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka'' (1831 and 1832), deal with Ukrainian peas- ant life and are rife with legend, folklore, and (often forced) supernaturalism. ``The Fair at Sorochinsky'' is a charmingly raucous tale of young love vs. middle-aged pessimism and hypocrisy, with its ostensibly happy ending shadowed by a typically Gogolian qualification. ``St. John's Eve'' and ``A Terrible Vengeance'' are energetic melodramas propelled by garish demonology -- as is the later ``Viy,'' which verges on ludicrous excess. Another story of this general type is the historical romance ``Taras Bulba,'' an extravaganza perhaps best forgotten.

A transitional story, ``Ivan Fiodorovich Shponka and His Aunt'' (about an oldish young man who fears women and permits his domineering ``Auntie'' to arrange his life), points the way to the realistic (or at least anti-romantic) stories set in the provincial village of Mirgorod. The best of these are ``Old-World Landowners,'' a brilliant portrayal of a blissfully smug married couple whom Gogol both praises and satirizes; and ``The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled With Ivan Nikiforovich,'' an ingenious tragicomedy in which a minor argument provokes an interminable lawsuit and produces a climate of bitterness that engulfs the whole town.

Finally, there are Gogol's ``Petersburg Tales'' -- stories of innocents and incompetents adrift in a bustlingly efficient city that seems cheerfully indifferent to their needs and dreams. ``Nevsky Prospect'' is a tale of two love affairs that end in destroyed illusions. ``Diary of a Madman'' traces the deterioration of a poor copying-clerk driven insane by the injustices he suffers (and imagines). ``The Nose,'' a fantasy spun out of another civil servant's paranoid fears, is a comic nightmare riddled with bizarre images that surely justify the Freudian inferences many have drawn from them.

Yet the greatest of these stories is the simplest. Gogol's masterpiece, ``The Overcoat'' (1841), details the ordeal of the poor clerk Akaky Akakievich, who is robbed of the splendid new overcoat for which he has saved and sacrificed -- and who, following his pathetic death, becomes a ghost that haunts the Petersburg streets, robbing terrified passers-by of their overcoats.

The tale's influence is legendary, and it has been called an early example of the realistic story of social concern. In fact, it's the quintessence of Gogol's bizarre picturings of ``little'' men surviving, and failing to survive, in worlds to which they know they don't belong. Such stories help explain editor Kent's suggestion that Gogol ``is perhaps the most genuinely original of writers.'' The more we read him, the likelier this seems.

Bruce Allen is a regular reviewer for the Monitor.

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