Henri Troyat V. S. Pritchett - Essay

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Henri Troyat's "Dostoyevsky" and "Pushkin" were sound biographies. His "Tolstoy" was quite exceptional in its intimacy. Its merit lay in the use of the lived quality of Tolstoy's writing, so that the man was assimilated through the writer and interwoven with him. Troyat had found the man in the innumerable details of his novels, autobiography, and ethical writings, had even caught the limpid surface of the prose, and his book had no overtones of pastiche. The task of dealing with Gogol ("Divided Soul: The Life of Gogol" …) is far more difficult. In him autobiography is either secretive or fantastic to the point of mania…. Gogol has the dubiousness of a swami. And the prose is no help. It loses enormously, we are told, in translation. One can see simply that he was indeed a divided soul, who proceeded from a minute vegetative realism which collected facts and then broke into wild, comic, lyrical eloquence and passages of dense and extravagant imagery. The most the biographer can do is to speculate, from the outside, upon the Joycean slither of Gogol's peculiar mind….

[Gogol's character] is perfectly split. His leaps from shrinking depression and melancholia to boasting and euphoria mark him down as a manic-depressive. His comic sense depends a good deal on the hilarious sneer. Troyat avoids the well-known psychological jargon and, because he is himself a novelist, employs an artist's mercy and lets the phases of Gogol's tormented and tormenting life speak for themselves. (p. 176)

V. S. Pritchett, "Shadow and Substance," in The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 49, No. 37, November 5, 1973, pp. 176-84.∗