The play begins with a blinding flash of lightning and ends in a thunderclap. In fact it is wholly placed in the tense gap between the flash and the crash. There is no so-called “exposition.” Thunderbolts do not lose time explaining meteorological conditions. The whole world is one ozone-blue shiver and we are in the middle of it. (Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, 1944, p. 42)
The play is The Government Inspector (1836), “the greatest play ever written in Russian” (VN, 35-6), or, as I think of it, The Greatest Play of the First Half of the Nineteenth Century Not Written in German (TGPOTFHOT19CNWIG). Nabokov is describing the structure of the play. The flash of lightning is the news that the corrupt little town will be visited by a government inspector. The play then races to the crash, which, strangely, is the news that the town will be visited by a government inspector. Curtain.
I don’t want to argue that the play should be read at a breathless pace – the number of bloggers who practically brag about skimming – no, never mind that - but that’s how the play should be imagined. It should move like the Marx Brothers. Faster.
DOBCHINSKY: Let me tell them the story, Bobchinsky.
BOBCHINSKY: No, no, let me do it. You can’t tell a story like I tell a story.
DOBCHINSKY: You’ll muddle it up. He muddles it up. You’ll leave out the best bits.
BOBCHINSKY: No. I’ll put in the best bits. The worst bits as well. Leave it to me, Dobchinsky.
DOBCHINSKY: But, Bobchinsky…
BOBCHINSKY: Oh, make him shut up!
GOVERNOR: For Christ’s sake, let’s have it. Spare my blood pressure. Take a seat, Petr.
DOBCHINSKY and BOBCHINSKY both try to sit in it. (Act I, Scene 1)
Bobch. and Dobch. are both named Petr. Is that last joke beneath you? Not me, no, no. Not me. I want the worst bits and the best bits. Bobchinsky is right, by the way. His story includes the hot pie stall and a fresh salmon snack and a keg of French brandy and the newborn son of the barkeep, a “bright little chap,” who will be like his father and “run the bar some day.” Also, somehow, he tells the governor that the government inspector is already in town.
Back to the lightning and thunder. Adrian Mitchell’s 1985 translation of The Government Inspector (all quotations have been from Mitchell) begins this way:
GOVERNOR: Good morning, gentlemen. I’ve got some news for you. Appalling news. We’re to be visited by an inspector.
A flash of lightning – half a second. The GOVERNOR sits down.
And it ends, just before the famous tableau, with “There is a rolling thunderclap.” No other translation begins or ends like this. Gogol’s play, the one in Russian, doesn’t, either. That end should be more like “The words strike them like a thunderclap.” Nabokov spins that last simile of Gogol’s into an overarching metaphor. Adrian Mitchell literalizes the metaphor – he is actually stealing it from Nabokov!
Terrible, the liberties translators take. Tsk tsk. I just read the Joshua Cooper (Penguin Classics) translation, and poked around in a bunch of others, and I have to say, if you do not read the Adrian Mitchell version, y’ain’t read Gogol. I don't care what liberties he took. Ain’t much lightning or thunder in those others. Those who remember The Young Ones will feel a pang of envy when they learn that Rik Mayall starred in the first production of Mitchell’s The Government Inspector. I felt more than a pang.