There is an English expression without an equivalent in my language.  (It isn’t every day that one hears a Russian obscurantist admitting such a thing, and, for once, I beg the incredulous reader to rein in his disbelief.)  The expression is a labor of love, a combination of words in itself precise and profound enough to describe just about any miracle of creation, yet unpretentious enough to be used in ordinary speech to laud a work such as this.  Almost mechanically, as a person might say “darn” upon dropping a pencil, the phrase springs to the lips the moment one unwraps the bundle containing Leon Steinmetz’s love child.

The package is something of a metaphor.  What it literally contains is a limited edition of a new translation of Gogol’s novella The Portrait, alongside an album of 21 drawings by Steinmetz illustrating the work.  Of the printer’s art, it need only be said that it is a triumph of taste over genre, where the thoughtfulness of design and the austerity of typography, not ponderous quantities of gilt and leather, carry the day.  As for the draftsman’s skill, I can only offer my own disinterested impression—namely, that I cannot think of an historical instance when the spirit of an author, or of a work, was more preternaturally conveyed by an illustrator’s pen than it is here.  Somebody mentioned Doré and Daumier, but personally I doubt that even Gogol’s contemporary from Marseilles would have drawn The Portrait’s inferno as masterfully as Steinmetz.

But let us carry on with the unwrapping.  The hero of Gogol’s novella, in the variant published in 1835 and translated here, is a painter by the name of Chertkov, chert meaning “devil” in Russian.  In the variant of 1842, which is the one I read in childhood, the name became Chartkov, taking on the additional meaning of “spell.”  Both names are suggestive of the draftsman’s métier, as cherta means “line,” and chertit’ is “to draw,” but what is remarkable is that the two notions, of the devil and of the delimiting boundary, are etymologically connected in Russian.

Moreover, the very word for art in our language, iskusstvo, is a cognate of temptation, something along the semantic lines of attempt.  Still more significant is the fact that the word painter (khudozhnik) literally means “evil worker.”  Hence, etymologically speaking, it is perfectly obvious that the primitive Slavic mind was quite as perceptive about the eventual meaning of aesthetic progress as the indigenous tribal soul that, until the present century, trembled before the photographer’s camera.  The residual connotations of artful, still working in English today to contrast it with truthful, are evidence that the primitive Anglo-Saxon mind was no less astute:

“What is it?” he thought to himself.  “Art or some kind of supernatural magic that is emerging independently of the laws of nature?  What a strange, incomprehensible problem!  Or is there a certain boundary line for a human being, up to which higher cognition can go, but when he steps over it, the human being steals something that is not to be created by human labor, he tears something living out of the life that animated the original?  Why is it that this passing over the line set as a boundary for the imagination is so horrible?  Or is it that after imagination, after impulse, there finally follows reality, that horrible reality onto which the imagination is pushed off its axis by an external shove, that horrible reality that appears to the one who thirsts for it when, wishing to comprehend a beautiful person, he arms himself with an anatomical knife, opens up the person’s viscera and sees a repulsive person?”

In purely historical terms, what this means is that Gogol’s tale of the artist—let us call him Professor Hellart, or Dr. Linespell, or Sir Andrew Crossline, R.A., because, as the plot unfolds, he becomes successful and respected—who has sold his soul to the Devil anticipated Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray by 56 years, with the difference that Wilde’s hero does not grow gray.  The gift proffered to Professor Hellart is acceptance by the world, not eternal youth, and the ethical pintle on which Gogol’s plot turns is the artist’s conscious acceptance of the deal in the cold light of day, rather than in that gray moral fog where supping with the Devil is but one of a Belgravia homeowner’s many diversions.  In other words, Gogol gives his hero a much shorter spoon.

What if it had been longer?  What if immorality were the price of immortality, rather than of splendidly appointed apartments with views of Cadogan Square, or Nevsky Prospect, or Central Park?  Of champagne, of trinkets, of tarts?  For Gogol as for Wilde, the Faustian quid pro quo was a kind of autobiographical caveat emptor, complete with a long list of ghostlike lemurs which every writer contemplating success and fame, on the one hand, with selling out and spiritual bankruptcy on the other, might draw up in his anxiously divided mind.  The truly frightening thought is that, had Gogol lived to have Wilde’s immoral opportunities, it is quite possible that he would have grabbed the deal accepted by Dorian Gray.  Every writer is something of a vampire.  Even in our age of base longings, immortality is a lure much harder to resist than an American Express Black Card.

The temptation set up by Wilde is thus, paradoxically, more realistic and vivid than its Gogolian counterpart.  At first glance, it may even appear more contemporary.  The incubi of poverty, still capable of spurring portrait painters and their models alike to lives of compromise, crime, or demonic consort, are more easily imaginable today as the faces of club secretaries, impatient doctors, and venal lawyers than those of nasty landlords, hardhearted bakers, and artists with frayed sleeves.  Yet it is the very literal-mindedness of the talent-for-gold swap, naively relying for its plausibility on the narrative convention of folklore, that seems to allow Gogol to create the dense rococo superstructure of imagery that is, in some ways, far more sophisticated, and from the literary point of view unquestionably more modern, than anything one finds in Wilde.  If Wilde was what he was, a Pre-Raphaelite, Gogol was a German Expressionist, a paint-throwing Nihilist, an Edvard Munch whose straightjacket sleeves some well-meaning Samaritan of a passer-by had untied.

There is hardly any reason to tell the tale of Gogol’s tale, of the revisions it underwent and the circumstances under which it was first written, as this has been done here by Olja Tielkes in a fine introductory article entitled “The Story Gogol Wrote Twice.” Instead, one wants to go on unwrapping the package from Steinmetz, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his Preface to an emigréedition of Gogol’s Tales when he noted how

the matter coincides with the manner, the intricacies of life with the writer’s style.  Here and there, in a most innocuous paragraph, some simpleton of a subservient word, an “even” or an “almost,” will be set in such a way, find itself in such unsound semantic surroundings, in a context of such ambiguity, that at once the whole innocent paragraph will explode, though explode on the sly, quite soundlessly, like a distant bomb in old, silent films.

This is the reason why Gogol’s writing, and The Portrait in particular, would so willingly lend itself to Steinmetz’s ministrations.  The intricacies of the writer coincide with the artist’s style.  Here and there, from what at first glance appears a most innocuous-looking and messy doodle, a cinematic image will leap upon the reader, like the phantom of a vaudeville anarchist with an infernal machine under the folds of a tattered overcoat:

Here the narrator stopped, and the listeners who had heeded him with undistracted sympathy involuntarily turned their eyes to the strange portrait, and to their amazement noticed that its eyes no longer preserved that strange vitality that had so struck them at first.  Their amazement increased still further when the features of the strange picture almost imperceptibly began to disappear, the way breath disappears from a pure steel surface.  Something dim remained on the canvas.

What I promise the putative buyer of this remarkable book is that Steinmetz seems to have been there, a face in the jabbering crowd, as though filming this quintessentially Gogolian denouement with a mobile phone.


[The Portrait, by Nikolai Gogol, The Portrait: A Fantasy in Twenty-One Sheets, by Leon Steinmetz (Amsterdam: Pegasus Publishers) 2 volumes, 52 pp. each, $150.00]