Taras Bulba, by Nikolai Gogol (1842), translated by Peter Constantine (2003)

A few winters ago, in a small cabin in the woods full of books, I plucked Gogol’s novel Dead Souls off a shelf and passed an enjoyable evening in front of a wood stove. All I knew about Gogol at the time was that he had been the namesake for the band Gogol Bordello (which would have been named Hütz and the Béla Bartóks, but “nobody knows who the hell Béla Bartók is in the United States”), but the book was great: hilarious, cynical, and a timeless indictment of a corrupt opportunist’s exploitation of pointless bureaucracy. This and his famous short story, “The Overcoat”, inspired a generation of Russian novelists writing around the turn of the century.

I finally got around to reading something else by him this month: Taras Bulba, a romanticized history of the Cossacks of present-day Ukraine sometime in the late 1600s. Gogol, who despite writing in Russian was at heart a Ukrainian nationalist, wanted to glorify the swashbuckling warlords of the era, who were constantly at war with Poland, the Ottoman empire, or both. These people, descendants of those who were fierce enough to have survived the earlier Mongol onslaught of the area, lived in what Gogol tells us was a “grim era in which man, living a blood-drenched life of military campaigns, tempered his soul by stifling his humanity”. It’s not especially pretty, but the result is a work which Hemingway described as “one of the ten greatest books of all time”. Gogol’s writing is sparse and to the point (the book is only 140 pages long), but you can clearly see in it the inspiration for those massive Russian novels which were to follow a few decades later. Happily, I see my local library has a copy of his equally influential play “The Inspector General”, plus a collection of his short stories. I look forward to reading them.