Pushkin set the stage for the great writers that would follow, the poet Mikhail Lermontov and the playwright and novelist Nikolai Gogol.
Lermontof was the poet of the Caucasus, which he made the scene of all his poems. His short life of twenty-six years was spent among those mountains; and he was, like Pushkin, killed in a duel, just as he was beginning to be recognized as a worthy successor to him. Byron was also his favorite model, whom he, unhappily, strongly resembled in character.
Lermontov wrote outspoken political verses attacking the hypocrisy and stupidity of the ruling class. He produced subjective poems that prefigure the psychological probings of later writers. In the Demon he imagines a malign figure who proclaims:
I am he, whose gaze destroys hope,
As soon as hope blooms;
I am he, whom nobody loves,
And everything that lives curses.
And he dwelled on the Russian’s ambivalent but stubborn love for their land. In a brief poem, “My Country”, Lermontov opens with: “I love my country, but that love is odd: My reason has no part in it at all!” and continues:
Ask me not why I love, but love I must
Her fields’ cold silences,
Her sombre forests swaying in a gust,
Her rivers at the flood like seas.
His most celebrated poem was “The Demon”; but he wrote many most picturesque and fascinating stanzas and short pieces, which are full of tenderness and melancholy. Though less harmonious and perfect than Pushkin’s, his verses give out sometimes a sadder ring. His prose is equal to his poetry, and many of his short sketches, illustrative of Caucasian life, possess a subtle charm.
Gogol loved his country equally, or said he did. He was a political conservative and a defender of the tsarist autocracy. But when he wrote, his fantastic imagination created a nightmare land, a sprawling, ugly, ramshackle place peopled by grotesques. His satiric play The Inspector General presents a hilariously inept group of petty officials in a provincial town. The mayor, Gogol says, is “a grafter” adept at quick switches from “servility to arrogance”; the judge, who also takes brides, “wheezes and huffs like an antique clock that hisses before it strikes the hour”; the postmaster opens everybody’s post; the Director of Charities neglects his patients – “stick some clean gowns on the patients”, the mayor tells him. “I don’t want them looking like chimney sweeps” – and the teachers and policemen are lunatics or drunks, or both.
But The Inspector General is outdone by Gogol’s great (and only) novel, Dead Souls (finished in 1842), which offers an unmatched rogues’ gallery of bizarre creatures. The plot is itself a mordant Gogolian joke. A swindler named Chichikov travels the countryside, buying dead serfs (or “souls”) from provincial landlords and, armed with the papers providing his ownership of these deceased workers, sells them to unsuspecting buyers as if they were alive. In the course of his dealings, Chichikov encounters what seems to be the entire rural population – landlords, innkeepers, serfs, coachmen, petty officials. Everyone is misshapen, physically and spiritually, in some way.
The great novelists of modern Russia have been encouraged by advice of the critic Bielinski, the only critic of his country really worthy of the name. In spite of his admiration for Pushkin, he points out many of the weak points of romanticism, and seems to fully realize the intellectual necessities of his time. The first sketches and tales of Gogol revealed to Bielinski the birth of new art. He declared the age of lyric poetry was past forever, and that the reign of Russian prose romance had begun. Everything has justified this great writer’s prophecy.
Since the time of Pushkin, their literature has undergone wonderful developments. The novelists no longer draw from outside sources, but from the natal soil, and it is they who will show us what a rich verdure can be produced from under those Arctic snows.