Dress Down Sunday: Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol

published 1835
no translator credited in my Kindle version


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[Taras Bulba’s student son meets a Polish lady]

The lady was giddy, like all Poles; but her eyes—her wondrous clear, piercing eyes—shot one glance, a long glance. The student could not move hand or foot, but stood bound as in a sack, when the Waiwode's daughter approached him boldly, placed upon his head her glittering diadem, hung her earrings on his lips, and flung over him a transparent muslin chemisette with gold-embroidered garlands. She adorned him, and played a thousand foolish pranks, with the childish carelessness which distinguishes the giddy Poles, and which threw the poor student into still greater confusion.

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[The student sons are now becoming soldiers in their father’s fighting corps]

The scholars were suddenly transformed. Red morocco boots with silver heels took the place of their dirty old ones; trousers wide as the Black Sea, with countless folds and plaits, were kept up by golden girdles from which hung long slender thongs, with tassels and other tinkling things, for pipes. Their jackets of scarlet cloth were girt by flowered sashes into which were thrust engraved Turkish pistols; their swords clanked at their heels. Their faces, already a little sunburnt, seemed to have grown handsomer and whiter; their slight black moustaches now cast a more distinct shadow on this pallor and set off their healthy youthful complexions. They looked very handsome in their black sheepskin caps, with cloth-of-gold crowns.

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commentary: So, fancy – I have heard of Taras Bulba (and a famously weird Hollywood film of that name) but had no idea Gogol wrote this, nor that Taras Bulba is a made-up character. I thought he was like Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun, and legendary but real, but this is not the case. Ever-helpful Wikipedia says
The main character is based on several historical personalities, and other characters are not as exaggerated or grotesque as was common in Gogol's later fiction. The story can be understood in the context of the Romantic nationalism movement in literature, which developed around a historical ethnic culture which meets the Romantic ideal…it was criticised by Russian authorities for being "too Ukrainian".
And there have been several films based on the story.

I have recently been reading a wonderful Jane Smiley book called 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel: part of the book focuses on her reactions to 100 different novels, and this is one of them. The Smiley book is excellent – as I knew it would be, it was recommended to me by longtime blogfriend Chrissie Poulson, who tempted me by giving Smiley’s views on Little Women at the end of this post. I thought I would come away with a long list of books to read, but there were relatively few, and this was the most tempting. It is a novella, a short quick read, and very entertaining in a grim kind of way.

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The book is set in the 16th century and shows the way of life of the fierce fighting Cossacks living on the steppes. Taras Bulba welcomes his sons back from the academy in Kiev where they have been studying, and then pretty much they set off for war. One of the boys has fallen in love with the Polish woman above, and [spoiler] no-one is going to have a very happy life. It is very violent and gruesome, and lingers on in the mind afterwards.

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Jane Smiley says that she had the sensation when reading it
of brilliant phrases, images, insights, observations, sentences and paragraphs cascading on me.
And then says the book is
Brisk and refreshing and constantly communicates a sense that is more than authenticity and more than intelligence and more, even, than love. It is as if by thinking so continuously and with such concentration about his subject, Gogol arrived at truth.
Strong words. Not sure I would have gone so far, but you can see what she means. I am conscious that in this case perhaps other people’s perceptions of the book are more worthwhile than mine. He certainly creates a world and people that you can totally believe in, who imprint themselves on your consciousness all the time you are reading – whether or not the world he creates was ever real is another question.

No translator is credited with my version, and I think the translation is pretty terrible. However: a Russian-speaking friend says ‘Gogol uses a lot of folksy vocab and turns of phrase - especially where Ukraine is concerned - so you might be being a bit hard on the translator: you might think the same thing if you were able to read the original.’

There is an introduction by someone who might or not be the translator: John Cournos. Now that’s a name to conjure with for some of us – he had an unhappy affair with Dorothy L Sayers, and their relationship is generally thought to have inspired Harriet D Vane’s unlucky times in Strong Poison, with Cournos being the original of Phillip Boyes (no murders in real life though).

Jane Smiley has a character in her Ten Days in the Hills, written a couple of years after 13 Ways, who wants to make a film about Taras Bulba.

A waiwode is a local ruler or official.

A chemisette is ‘a woman’s light undergarment for neck and shoulders, an ornamental neckpiece or dickey usually made of muslin or lace, and worn by women to fill in the open neck of a dress.’ (One featured in this blogpost, where I wondered if staring at a chemisette was a euphemism or metaphor…) Next to the picture of a chemisette is a pattern from much later, but it has decorative features like the one in the book – from NYPL.

The playing cards were designed by Ukrainian illustrator Vladislav Erko for a Moscow restaurant called Taras Bulba, specializing in Ukrainian cuisine.

Picture of Polish dress of the era also from the NYPL.

With thanks to JS.


  1. I love the way you give such interesting backgrounds on novels, Moira. I wouldn't have connected this one with Dorothy L. Sayers, but as you show, there is a connection. I'm not usually one for 'gruesome' in stories, but this does sound like a well-written story. And the time and place interest me, too.

    1. I love to find a weird connection Margot! I was very proud of this one. And the book definitely had its plus points...

    2. Of course we should be proud. Because, The new generation does not know the culture of the past.

    3. Thank you. And it is always good to pass on culture and stories.

  2. I have to admit I've not read this but, like you, I thought Taras Bulba was a real person - some kind of ancient ethnic war leader giving his people a national identity, like Ghengis Khan or Tamberlaine the Great. I do like the description of the resplendent uniforms worn by the young soldiers, although they sound more suited to the ballroom than the battlefield!

    1. It was a revelation, all of it...it's always good to have preconceptions challenged, and I suppose if I'm honest I wasn't expecting the Cossack hordes to be so organized and have such a complex life and, as you say, great uniforms! (Of course I am relying on Gogol's research...)

  3. I, too, suffered through one of the film versions. The one I saw had Tony Curtis in it (playing Andriy Bulba).

    1. Oh well done Shay, I knew someone would have. Isn't it famously bad?

    2. It was many years ago, but unforgettable.

    3. I'm going to have to find it, aren't I?

  4. How interesting. In all the many book blog posts I've read over the years, I've never seen a mention of Gogol. Decades ago I read "Mother," and was impressed with his writing. Haven't read anything by him since and I'm not tempted here, not being a fan of war.
    But I will not look up Jane Smileys book on novels. Didn't know about it. Sounds good.

  5. Geez. I meant to say I WILL look up Smiley's book about novels.

    1. I knew what you meant Kathy! It's a long but very interesting book, and made me think about novels and how they work.
      Gogol doesn't come up much does he? I haven't read Mother, I think Dead Souls may be the only other of his I have read - and I liked it very much.


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