Tolstoy, Gogol, and me: 2 questions for Fred McGavran

Fred McGavran is the author of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol, currently appearing in serial form on our site.


Tell us what drew you, in your roundabout yet clearly adoring way, to Gogol - and to rewriting Gogol, after a fashion, in something like the language of Tolstoy?

mcgavranI discovered Gogol years ago when I was reading the nineteenth century Russian novelists. His novel Dead Souls, a satire about a man buying up the names of dead serfs while they were still on the tax roles to amass a phantom estate and obtain a mortgage loan, is a masterpiece. Then I read The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonosky, and learned that Gogol was the inventor of the Russian short story. In particular “The Overcoat” intrigued me, because of the moving portrait of the clerk Akaky Akakievich and the almost magical ending where, robbed of his precious overcoat, Akakievich "was fated to live noisily for a few days after his death, as if in reward for his unnoticed life."

I thought it would be fun to write a story using the conventions of the nineteenth century Russian novel in English translation. Originally I conceived it as a literary forgery, but no one can forge Gogol. So, instead of mimicking him, I adopted somewhat similar descriptions of the Russian landscape and people, at the same time not hesitating to criticize society to the extent a nineteenth century Russian author was free to do so. Gogol may be more our contemporary than Tolstoy, because Gogol saw the absurdity of the social structure while still delighting in it.

Your fiction is of a different, more traditional sort than almost anything else we've run. That's one of the things that drew us to it - and we are particularly taken by your gradual development of your story and introduction of your characters, and your limpid, clear prose. What writers do you take as your models, in the area of style? And do you see your style as a reaction against that of many contemporary writers, who aim less for clarity and complexity, than for immediacy and flash?

I relied on my memories of Russian literature in translation in particular and nineteenth and early twentieth century literature in general. Henry James had the leisure and the sensibility to describe an English lawn, and Tolstoy the ancient oak Prince Andrei saw as he lay wounded. Both used such descriptions to drive and give depth to their stories. Amy Hempel and Ann Beattie are not so inclined to linger. When I took Robert McKee’s Story Seminar, he said that the only reason to write a "period piece" or historical script was to get at emotions that we cannot express with contemporary characters. Similarly, by writing in a more expansive style about early nineteenth century people, I discovered that I could cross the divide set between us by the First World War and modernism to develop characters and express emotions not easily accessible today.

Currently I am reading Ann Beattie’s The New Yorker Stories and The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg and wonder if I can finish them. The characters and situations and emotions become indistinguishable when read side by side, as I am doing. I can’t remember any one story by either author, but I can remember several by Gogol, Tolstoy, and Chekov. In addition to vivid characters and language, their stories have plots. Without any action to maintain the reader’s interest, much contemporary literature has flat lined, allowing the bored reader to wander off to other media for the pleasures short stories once offered.

Most of my writing, however, is not like this novella. For many years I was heavily influenced in both style and content by Ambrose Bierce, Peter Taylor, Jorge Luis Borges, W. Somerset Maugham, and a host of American and English authors who wrote between the First World War and the Vietnam War. I will leave it to the reader to judge whether the novella shows the influence of any of the nineteenth century Russian authors I so admire.