Writers Take Heart from Gogol!
My English professor Anthony Hilfer, in the midst of teaching J.D. Salinger’s works, asked our class, “Can any of you think of any good stories that are about happy people?” He paused only long enough for us to blink. “No,” he continued, “because that wouldn’t be interesting, nor a story.”
He was right. Readers want tension in a tale. Thus, the work of writers is tough. Writers must see life in a glaring light.
Writers must see drama.
In order to see the world in such a way, writers, like most artists, are often burdened-and-gifted with manic depressive personalities. That means highs and lows. 2016 was, for me, typical. I had a health crisis in January; some friends thought I was dying and I wondered myself. I was still struggling in February. Then in March I began jogging and in the next two and a half months worked up to seven miles distance. Unfortunately, I became greedy, and on a mild, sunny day loped down country lanes smelling the flowers and hearing the birds sing and thinking perhaps this wouldn’t be possible again soon, and ran on for ten miles, and sure enough, it broke me. For months, I could only hobble.
The lesson to be learned here: there is no normal day in the life of a writer. Since a normal day is boring, a writer has trouble getting through the tedium and it can lead to depression. Professor Hilfer also said, “Many writers take themselves too seriously, even while inserting wry jokes in their works.” For example, one of Hilfer’s friends, a humor writer, always thought that any twinge or soreness in his middle-aged body was probably cancer. “And in the end, he was right,” said Hilfer.
I believe there are exceptions to this corporate group of sombre literary folk.
For instance, there is Vasily Aksyonov, a great 20th Century Russian writer, who was my professor once, too. “Before becoming a writer, [he] went to medical school,” writes Jay Parini in an article. “‘I did it under duress,’ [Aksyonov] said in a . . . telephone interview from Moscow. ‘My mother demanded that I become a physician because, she said, ‘Doctors survive better in the labor camps.’”*
As is apparent in this quote, he saw the world as encompassing a great joke. With a smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes, Aksyonov told our class the story of how he and many other children in Stalin’s time were taken away from their parents in order to give them to new parents who had the correct political beliefs. Then in the knick of time, he was claimed by his aunt and uncle, and thus, did not lose his family.
Aksyonov taught my class about his Russian literary predecessor, Nikolai Gogol, who definitely also had a grand sense of humor. I myself identified with Gogol, because he too felt tortured in his life by his nose, which he considered too long. In fact, Gogol wrote a short story about a nose that develops a life of its own and eventually reaches a higher social status than its original owner.
There are a number of famous quotations by Gogol which illustrate his comic sensitivity:
“The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.”
“I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone.”
“We have the marvelous gift of making everything insignificant.”
“Perfect nonsense goes on in the world. Sometimes there is no plausibility at all.”
Now these are not lines that make one laugh happily. However, Gogol had a sage view of both the writers’ quandary and his gift.
From the novel Dead Souls
“[F]or contemporary judgment does not recognize that much depth of soul is needed to light up the picture drawn from contemptible life and elevate it into a pearl of creation…”
“Ah, steeds, steeds, what steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes? Is there a sensitive ear, alert as a flame, in your every fiber? Hearing the familiar song from above, all in one accord you strain your bronze chests and, hooves barely touching the ground, turn into straight lines cleaving the air, and all inspired by God it rushes on!”
*The New York Times, July 17, 1994, article titled, Counterrevolutionary Families Are All the Same by Jay Parini.
Photo source: Journal i, 21/08/2017. Article by Filipa Melo.