GOGOL IN PERFORMANCE
(excerpt from forthcoming novel by U.R. Bowie, “Gogol’s Head: The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull”)
In October, 1839, Gogol travelled with members of the Aksakov family, by stagecoach from Moscow to St. Petersburg: S.T. Aksakov, his daughter Vera, and his fourteen-year-old son Misha—whom Aksakov planned to enroll in the page corps of the Tsar. Gogol spent most of the trip reading Shakespeare in French. When he was not reading Gogol was putting on a show, joking around and entertaining the others.
They stopped off in the city of Torzhok to eat the famous “Pozharsky cutlets,” what Troyat describes as “chopped-chicken croquettes.” When they were served they noticed immediately that the food was full of long blond hairs. The children began pulling out the hairs, holding them up, making funny faces, and Gogol started laughing. He conjured up a few imaginary scenes, episodes featuring the hairs and their former owners, describing how the hairs had made their way into the food. Everyone laughed.
–We’ll call for the waiter and complain (said Aksakov).
–Yes (said Gogol), but before he comes let me tell you what he’ll say.
Gogol drew himself up, looked down his nose and put on a different face, the face of a fastidious, self-important waiter, and they all laughed. Then he acted out the role, while his audience went on laughing.
–You say hairs in the food, my dear sir? What sort of hairs could there be, my dear sir? From where could there come any hairs? No, my dear sir, nothing of the sort, no hairs of any sort, my dear sir.
They called for the waiter. He approached the table, wearing the same face that Gogol had just put on. They laughed. They complained of the hairs in the food, and that’s when the waiter, Gogol’s involuntary straight man, proceeded to say exactly what Gogol had just said, using the same expressions and the same tone of voice. Everyone at the table roared with laughter, and that laughter was better for their insides than the best chicken croquettes could ever have been.
On another occasion, out on the street with Aksakov, Gogol stopped to buy some pryaniki (spice biscuits). Approaching the biscuit huckster, an old lady in a kerchief, wearing the usual sour face of the marketplace, Gogol went into his act.
–When were these biscuits baked?
–Just this morning, sir. Fresh as the daisies that bloom in spring.
–But it’s not spring now. It’s winter.
–It is, sir, indeed winter.
–And these look like pretty wintry biscuits to me.
No reply. Gogol screwed up his face, and the audience of one, Aksakov, smiled. Then Gogol went on.
–Let me have a look.
Contorting his mouth into a sideways grimace, Gogol picked up a pryanik and said “Ugh.” Then he said it again: “Ugh.” He put down the biscuit and wiped his hands on his trousers. He adopted an accusatory tone of voice.
–No, young lady, what you’re selling is not biscuits. What you’re selling is soap.
The appreciative audience of one began laughing.
–How do you mean, ‘soap,’ my dear sir (asked the straight woman huckster)?
–Soap, soap, indeed soap you’re selling, and nothing else on earth but soap.
–No, sir, these are fine pryaniki, baked only this morning, and you see—
Gogol interrupted, continuing on with the same stern tone of voice.
–No no no. Don’t try to tell me otherwise, young lady. What we have here is soap, soap soap, and not the best quality soap at that. How dare you sell soap and sponge it off on people as spice biscuits? I have known innocent people who’ve bought your soap, yes indeed. Some of them are my dear friends, and I have seen the soap bubbles on their lips, as they choke and gasp, young lady!
And so on.