To try and estimate how brilliant, how overwhelmingly influential on all 19th and 20th century literature was Gogol is near impossible. It would be very interesting to see a sort of scatter chart, demonstrating which authors read Gogol and subsequently which authors read them, and down to today - and I am confident we would find Gogol bearing on the majority of writer's ideas, style, comedy - all the things that characterise modern fiction.
Gogol is a mystery himself, and that he wrote short stories so incredibly ahead of their time gives Gogol the air of a cosmonaught, someone stranded on earth and condemned to writing parables, fables, farces and something unnameable - a precursor to the absurd, existentialism and surrealism (among other things). He can be found almost everywhere in modern literature having made branches from these formidable schools of thought.
He stands alone, as much as he has been branded (ironically) with realism, magic realism, surrealism, black comedy, the absurd - none of these catchphrases figured in his writing, none of them existed in the 1800s. He was without the framework that so many writers, who cited him as their style's progenitor, depended on. He acted freely within nothing but the restraints of his imagination. And there are few author's who could claim to imagine with such depth, humour and at times with such feverish, hallucinatory power which Gogol pulled off with apparent ease. Even of the early stories, the majority of which used Ukrainian folk tales and customs as their launching pad (Little Russia was a fashionable export at the time)were imbued with something otherworldly, unliterary in some senses, crude, elegant - defying all the rules of literature at the time.
Greatly enhanced by Pushkin's endorsements and praise Gogol went on the write full time and created the greatest body of short stories and one novel, Dead Souls. The story that has garnered the most attention has been Diary of a Madman. Approaching the story for the first time readers are forgiven for thinking this would be a standard unravelling of a mind got awry. But in Gogol the pace, the slow development of the narrators madness is both extremely, very, very funny and artful to the point that Gogol disappears from the story. When I read it first I kept expecting to run into clichés, but on each new date (which in themselves are ingenious indicators of the narrators state of mind, with things such as 'There is no date today' written as the header) Gogol manages to notch the level up a little higher, until the story reaches its exhaustion point. In the first post on D Barthelme I mentioned the formula used to diagram the short story format, rising tension, resolution etcetera ... It seems that Gogol was the one that both created this formula and simultaneously dismantled it.
He could also be a traditional tall tale teller, in stories like The Portrait, which are told in a very standard form. But even in these more conventional stories the content is where Gogol expresses Gogol, where we find the Gogolisms.
The Nose is one of my favourite stories. It seems to reach the heights of the absurd that would only re-emerges decades, even over a century later in its matured form - in writers such as Bulgakov, Kafka, Beckett - even today Pelevin can be seen as a linear successor to the Russian Absurdist seat.
For all his thousands of (often unwittingly) of followers none can exactly match the impact of The Nose or Diary of a Madman, simply because it was so utterly, unconventionally new and unheard of and original.
In The Nose, a baker wakes up to find a nose in his morning bread. Across the city another man, someone of very minor officialdom, find his nose missing. It is revealed, after the baker fails to dispose of the nose on a bridge, that the nose has gone off and tried to pass itself off as a titular Councillor, and is actually quite successful.
It ends with the reunion of nose and face. Some say it is symbolic, some find political indications in the story - others just enjoy it for what it is and are happy not to define it (Surreal, Absurd etcetera, etcetera), myself being one.
Gogol's other well known story is The Overcoat. Rightly it takes its place among Gogol's most masterful and mature works, but at the same time it is equally absurd, funny and original. I will not go into the plot, in the hope that you will read it if you have not already. But to say that its protagonist (poor, poor man) can be viewed as the archetype for decades, coming onto centuries of anti-heroes and the classic Bartleby type character, unfortunates and geeks would not be going too far.
It was not with any sort of high minded nepotism that Nabokov said Gogol was the greatest prose writer in Russian, with Tolstoy following behind. Many would agree, and Nabokov made the statement with authority - few understood the art of Russian prose better than he. So much of what Gogol wrote is without a doubt the blueprint for so much of what followed, and is still to come. And we have to wonder, if we go further, if that world dominion of all online search engines took its name from the world’s greatest short story writer. Someone should look into that.