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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

The fallability of literary biography: Gogol's Wife

Tomaso Landolfi's totally weird and funny story Gogol's Wife seems at first just spoof on literary studies: in this instance, a "scholar" of Russian literature writes this memo or essay to the members of the literary academy - it recalls Kafka's Address to an Academy, in a way, though it's presented as a written report - to explain at last the mystery of Gogol's wife. The narrator seems to have been a biographer or literary executor who spent a great deal of time w/ Gogol and now is revealing the big secret that have puzzled many who had known the man quite well but had never for some reason met his beloved wife. It's because, as the narrator says, Gogol's wife was a balloon. And the story takes it from there - he was "married" to in inflatable doll, whom he truly loved - and whom the narrator describes in great detail (including how Gogol would inflate her thru a pump he inserted into a valve in her anus, and deflate her from a valve at the back of her throat; how he could transform her in various ways to suit his changing tastes as desires, how in the end he tired of her and took his vengeance - I won't go into that but it's pretty funny and grotesque as well.) So what's the point? I have no idea if Gogol's wife was mysterious or even if he had a wife, but one can see why Landolfi picked Gogol as his subject - the author who brought a nose and an overcoat to life in his two most famous stories. So one might imagine that Gogol would be the writer most likely to attach human qualities and his own affections to an inanimate object (altho, in one scene, she does speak, or squeak, some words). But I think there's also a level in which Londolfi is skewering the literary-bio industry: do we need to know anything (everything?) about an author's life to understand and appreciate his or her works? Shouldn't the writing stand on its own, as a work of art? "Knowing" that Gogol was "married" to a balloon does not help us understand the genius who could write The Overcoat - in fact, it may make his achievement all the more mundane. Gogol's Wife, which seems to be an invasion of the author's privacy (and reputation) is in fact I think a plea to leave the author, all authors, alone.

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