Besides filling a publishing need- the most complete edition of Gogol's tales and plays in 40 years, using a sprightly updated version of the Garnett translations-the book ""places"" the Ukrainian in the directory of world literature, not as the usually assumed father of Russian realism, but rather as the precursor of the Chaplinesque, the Kafkaesque, the Absurd. Rereading Gogol is to find him very ""modern"" indeed. Dostoevsky may have said, ""We all come from under Gogol's Overcoat,"" but the hemorrhoidal clerk of that tale seems less of a buffeted outcast than the politically progressive would have him be. Gogol was an arch-conservative, anyway. He is the first of our anti-heroes, one whose spiritual slime equalled his material filth. Gogol went through many metamorphoses, and the early output- often sentimental, romantic or colossally faked, e.g., Taras Bulba, recently filmed- is woefully inferior to the later triumphs. Gogol had a mother complex, was sexually maladjusted and dumpy to boot. Starting as a melancholic, he ended up a middleaged messianic fasting himself to death. Out of such despair catapulted a brooding laughter, one outrageous caricature after another; Ivan, Nose, Marriage, Inspector General, even the dramatically disillusioned Nevsky Prospect, are filled with masses of satiric trivia, strange symbolic situations, over which as one smiles the darkness descends. Very funny and very frightening; slit-eyed, poker-faced, dazzlingly supple Gogol certainly speaks to our age. An indispensable volume.