nikolai gogol: 3 posts

Reading Nikolai Gogol in 2017

I celebrated Nikolai Gogol’s birthday on March 31st by picking up a volume of Dead Souls. The last time I read it in its entirety was during my school days, and many scenes were so vivid in my memory that picking up the novel again felt less like re-discovering than wandering through a familiar landscape. Gogol, the Russian and Ukrainian dramatist, playwright and novelist, is unrivaled for his sharp satire and colorful language, but what struck me this time is how relevant his observations were to our present day affairs. Today everyone is re-reading Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’d like to make a case for adding Dead Souls to the list.

Let’s start with one of my favorite quotes in the book. “Absolute nonsense happens in the world. Sometimes there is no plausibility at all.” Yes, a similar thought in different formulations has been coursing through my head a lot lately. Or, “You can’t imagine how stupid the whole world has grown nowadays. The things these scribblers write!” What would be Gogol’s take on our world of “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and “fake news”?

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Petrykivka and Gogol : Colors and Scents

The colors and images of Petrykivka, one of the traditional Ukrainian arts, are vivid and joyous. Fire birds take flight among branches laden with fruit and fantasy blossoms. The artists believed that such colorful images protect people from evil spirits, and looking at the complex and happy ornaments of Petrykivka I can’t help thinking that there is something to the idea of art as talisman.

Petrykivka is considered as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and the village of Petrykivka in the Dnipropetrovsk region still boasts many artists. I wrote about my visit two years ago, and anyone can tour the art studios, take a class or simply admire the paintings. Those of you in New York, however, have a unique chance to experience this art in person as The Ukrainian Institute of America hosts the exhibit Petrykivka: A Ukrainian Folk Phenomenon and Living Tradition from April 8 to April 30. The collection presented is based on discoveries by Natalie Pawlenko and Yuri Mischenko and features 47 paintings by some of the most renowned Petrykivka artists.

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Beautiful Prose

Halfway through my graduate studies, I remember experiencing an intense craving for beautiful prose. I was training as a political scientist, and the texts on politics and economics, written by academics for other academics in a dry style favoring passive construction, began to make me listless. Respite arrived in the form of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which remains one of my favorite pieces of writing–clear, concise, powerful.

books

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, or reader. When I think of the books that left the biggest impression on me, they are written in a crystalline clear style, poetic but without unnecessary embellishments. Beautiful prose to me is a harmony between substance and style.

I don’t intend to compile a comprehensive list, merely a snapshot of my favorites today, but if I were to create an anthology of beautiful writing, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) would be one of the star contenders. Set before the Second World War, it is the story of one man’s infatuation with the aristocratic family and their world. There is passion, loss, betrayal and reflections on faith and religion. Waugh’s most introspective novel and also his most masterful, it combines beautiful writing with sharp observations on upper class society and its decline.

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