Gogol’s Appetites

Adapted from remarks at the 92nd Street Y, New York, March 30th, 2009

Nikolai Gogol, whose 200th birthday added literary luster to April Fool's Day this year, has inspired some offbeat readings of his work. The most famous of these is Vladimir Nabokov's 1944 biography, Gogol, which with Olympian style dismissed the prevailing view of the writer as a social commentator. There's also a very fine short story by the Italian surrealist Tommaso Landolfi, "Gogol's Wife," that reveals the heretofore unknown Mrs. Gogol to be a life-sized balloon, inflatable through a valve placed in her anal sphincter. Alas, the marriage comes to a bad end, due to over-inflation, and perhaps Landolfi would argue that over-inflation is what doomed the second volume of Dead Souls as well. What's left of Gogol's wife, named Caracas, inevitably finds its way to the fireplace. Landolfi writes, "Nikolai Vassilevitch, like all Russians, had a passion for throwing important things in the fire."

I recently discovered on my shelves a curious book that I would like to add to this canon of Gogoliana. It's titled Food-notes on Gogol, a pun that's heavy as a meatball and perfectly descriptive. The book may be categorized as criticism, but it's criticism with a single mad and delightful purpose: to retell Gogol's major works, and some of his minor ones, with only the food parts left in. 

My copy, a flimsy paperback with a plain manila cover that omits the title on its spine, was published in Winnipeg in 1972, under the auspices of the Department of Slavic Studies at the University of Manitoba. I must have acquired it sometime in the '70s, but the volume lurked anonymously among my unread books for decades, carted from one place of residence to the next, until surfacing just in time for Gogol's bicentennial. A few minutes in the Times' digital archives reveal that its author, Alexander Petrovich Obolensky, was a prince - in fact a descendent of Rurik, the ninth century founder of the Russian nation. Born in Petrograd during the first world war, and married in Paris during the second, Prince Obolensky published many scholarly works in Russian history over a long career. He died in 2002, in New Bedford, MA.

Obolensky was hardly the first critic to draw a connection between Gogol and food. Nabokov remarked that "the belly is the belle of his stories, the nose is their beau." The critic Marc Slonim counted in Dead Souls eighty-six varieties of food. Yet in writing about Gogol and his digestive life almost exclusively, Obolensky provides freshly ties together insights on Gogol's literary themes, his manner of composition, and his tragic personal obsessions.

In Obolensky's view of Gogol, food overwhelms typical considerations of story and character. "Broadly speaking, Gogol did not have the gift of constructing plot..... Many of his tales merely take us from one meal to the next; the characters seem to be forever eating and drinking, when they are not sleeping or talking about food." This is especially true for the hero of Dead Souls, who crosses Russia buying title to deceased serfs, in a scam to increase his apparent wealth. He says, "Certainly Chichikov's epic journeys are, seen from one point of view, journeys between dinners."

Casually flipping through the pages of Dead Souls, I wondered if Slonim's eighty-six distinct dishes were undercounted. A typical lunch is served at the estate of the landowner Sobakevich. Chichikov and his host, first polishing off several varieties of pickles and unnamed appetizers, consume nyanya, "a well-known dish served with cabbage soup, consisting of a sheep's stomach stuffed with buckwheat groats, brains, and trotters." Then a rack of lamb. Then "cheesecakes, each much bigger than a plate, then a turkey the size of a calf, chock-full of all sorts of good things: eggs, rice, livers... they went to the drawing room, where a saucer of preserves was already waiting..." The preserves, by the way, are "black radish, cooked in honey." At the court where Chichikov goes to register his purchase of Sobakevich's dead serfs, he joins another blowout in progress. "While the guests were hard at their whist, there appeared on the table beluga, sturgeon; salmon, pressed caviar, freshly salted caviar, herring, red sturgeon, cheeses, smoked tongues, and balyks....", which is a kind of dried sturgeon. Then "a fish-head pie into which went the cheeks and cartilage of a three-hundred-pound sturgeon, [and] another pie with mushrooms, fritters, dumplings, honey-stewed fruit."

These Rabelaisian feasts are portrayed as grotesque as well as typically Russian. But when Gogol, a native of Ukraine, writes about Ukrainians, his banquets include big helpings of gentle nostalgia, especially for rustic Ukrainian peasant food. Tales from a Farm Near Dikanka, published a decade before Dead Souls, celebrates their melons and watermelons, pumpkins, cucumbers, galushki (dumplings), blini and kasha. In "The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich," Gogol recalls with gusto: "I will not describe the dishes that were set on the table! I will say nothing of the mnishki with sour cream, nor the tripe served with the borscht, nor the turkey with plums and raisins, nor the dish that looked very much like boots soaked in kvass, nor the sauce that was the swan-song of an old-style cook - a sauce served all enveloped in a spiritous flame, which greatly amused and at the same time frightened the ladies. I will not speak of these dishes, because I much prefer eating them."

If Gogol's characters aren't chewing their food, they're using it allusively. A young blacksmith twists a five-kopeck piece in his hand like a pancake. A courting lover says to his girl, "Khavronya Nikiforovna, my heart thirsts for a gift from you sweeter than any buns or doughnuts!" Ivan Nikiforovich's nose is described as a "ripe plum." A lady's fat legs quiver like blancmange. A pretty lady has "a straw hat as light as whipped cream." In one battle scene, Taras Bulba is described "cutting down the enemy, shredding like cabbage everyone who stood in the way." Obolensky informs us that Bulba is the Ukrainian word for potato.

Most readers of Dead Souls in Russian note the aptness with which Gogol names his characters: the coarse, dog-like Sobakevich is named after the Russian word for dog, sobaka. But Gogol goes further in employing symbolic external attributes to signal each protagonist's essential substance. Obolensky notes, "the personality of the characters is revealed both through the kinds of foods they eat and the preferred textures and savors, whether centered predominantly upon the 'soft' or the 'hard,' the 'bitter' or the 'sweet.' For example, Sobakevich will have nothing to do with food that is mucous, liquid, or insipid. If the victuals set before him are too soft and slippery he will not consider them, for, in a way, 'it is already eaten.' Sobakevich's taste in food is definitely 'brutal,' in keeping with his character. Manilov, on the other hand, seems to have a predilection for everything that is fluid and lacking in consistency.... Thus, their respective tastes in food provide us with an outline of their personalities: Sobakevich the uncouth, Manilov the mawkish, Korobchka the sordid, and Nozdrev the alcoholic."

Gogol clearly enjoyed his feed, but it's clear that it was also a source of profound uneasiness. In some accounts of Gogol's life, there's the suggestion that he may have been transferring to food some of his hang-ups about sex. Gogol was never married, neither to a balloon nor to anyone else, and he avoided romantic entanglements his entire life. He was also a sexless writer. If the women in his books are not impossibly virtuous, then they are almost always witches, either figurative or actual. Simon Karlinsky, in The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, another singular biography, strongly argues that Gogol was a closeted, fiercely repressed homosexual. His distaste and fear of women may have found their way onto the plate.

It's no wonder then that Gogol often associated food with the devil, especially in the Dikanka tales. In the story, "The Fair at Sorochintsy," Satan appears as an old woman selling bagels. In another story, "Christmas Eve," the devil commands piroshki to jump from a bowl into his mouth, after making the obligatory detour into a dish of sour cream. Whenever Gogol suffered stomach upset, a frequent occurrence, he wrote to his friends: "A devil sits in my stomach."

This conflict, between self-gratification and personal shame, deepened after the publication of Dead Souls. Gogol became more devoted to the Orthodox Church and sought to impose a religious vision on the novel's sequel, which he now saw as completing a Russian Divine Comedy. He renounced the pleasures of the flesh, even when it was properly grilled. He found himself in an epic struggle for his soul against his body's most loathsome demands - or what we would today call an eating disorder.

The great Russian-born French biographer Henri Troyat, who has written definitive lives of all the major 19th century Russian writers, describes the extreme fasting that Gogol underwent to obtain spiritual purification: "He ate less and less: a few spoonfuls of kasha or borscht, a piece of holy bread, a glass of water. His legs could hardly carry him, and still he called himself a gluttonous pig." The doctors were called in. Their attempts to save him from self-starvation were well-meaning, brutal and absurdly inept. The suffering man was told to rub his stomach with alcohol, drink cherry-laurel water and take rhubarb pills to relieve constipation. He refused, instead multiplying the icons to which he genuflected. They tried mesmerism. After that failed, "Gogol was seized bodily and thrust into a tub of hot water, while a servant poured hot water over his head. Then he was put naked into his bed and Dr. Klimentov applied a half dozen leeches to his nose." They forced a cup of bouillon down his throat. They inserted a soap suppository.

The result was fatal, at the age of forty-two. Nabokov calls forty-two "a reasonably ripe age for him, considering the ridiculously short span of life generally allotted to other great Russian writers of his miraculous generation."

Gogol's last words were, "A ladder, quick, give me a ladder!" That was the pietist's request. But I like to think of the other Gogol, the foodie, the bon vivant, the celebrant of peasant cuisine, the satirist, the prodigious fantasist and the comic genius who captured on paper the Russian enthusiasm for living expansively. I prefer to think of that Gogol, on his deathbed, crying, "A larder, quick, give me a larder!

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