Actually, Alexander Veltman’s 1835 “Неистовый Роланд” [Orlando Furioso] concerns a fake governor, not a fake inspector, but the parallel with Gogol’s The Government Inspector, one of the most famous Russian plays, is so striking I couldn’t resist the title. (Speaking of titles, James Gebhard, in Selected Stories, renders this one “Roland the Furious,” which makes no sense to me—sure, you might translate Неистовый Роланд that way if it were an invention of Veltman’s, but since it’s the standard Russian equivalent of Orlando Furioso, and since the story features a performance of a dramatic version of that poem, it can’t help but confuse the reader.)
Gogol’s play is straightforward in action, if Gogolianly bizarre in its imagery and conversational divagation (Nabokov says “the Mayor automatically continues to read aloud and his mumbling engenders remarkable secondary beings that struggle to get into the front row… The beauty of the thing is that these secondary characters will not appear on the stage later on”); it starts with the mayor alerting various other town officials that the terrifying Inspector is due to arrive, and shows us the contortions everyone goes through in trying to please the official, who turns out to be a con man. Veltman’s story has the same basic idea (Gebhard says in his introduction “it would be difficult to prove that Veltman’s story influenced Gogol since at the time many anecdotes were in circulation regarding such occurrences in real life”—Gogol began writing his play in October 1835 and it was performed for the first time the following April), but it is Veltmanly bizarre in its telling, leaving the reader completely confused for many pages. It opens with a young man crying out incomprehensibly (“Angelica!… Nature, you are deaf to the outcries of the unfortunate!”) in an inn in a provincial city (which Gebhard says seems from its description to be Mogilev); it then jumps to a feast at the mayor’s house for the name day of “his honored spouse … Nymphodora Mikhailovna” (a name worthy of Gogol) in which there is discussion of Paris and what Kotzebue had to say about it; and it goes on to an increasingly ramshackle performance by a traveling company of actors, which is interrupted by the news that the new governor general has arrived. It eventually turns out that the person in question is actually a member of the troupe who fell out of his carriage and became disordered in his head; because he was wearing a high-ranking uniform for a performance, he was taken for the awaited official.
I would like to note two things that struck me about the story. One is that unlike in the Gogol play, where all the town officials simply make fools of themselves trying to impress the “inspector,” here they actually start performing their jobs as best they can. And the other is the astonishing effect produced by the actor trying to interpret the things said to him by the other characters as lines from the plays he knows and responding accordingly (creating, of course, complete confusion among his interlocutors); it reminded me strongly of Pirandello, and I know of nothing else like it from the period. Of course, I am by no means an expert in the early nineteenth century, and perhaps some learned reader will enlighten me further.
In a better world, of course, Veltman would be well known and this story would be routinely taught alongside the Gogol play; it would be great for compare-and-contrast. But this is not that world.