SEPTEMBER, 1851; NIKOLAI GOGOL ON HIS WAY FROM MOSCOW TO HIS NATIVE UKRAINE, TO ATTEND HIS SISTER’S WEDDING
Excerpt from forthcoming novel by U.R. Bowie: “Gogol’s Head: The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull”
Where am I? thought Nikolai Vasilievich. I’m out on the road again, riding a britzka [one-horse buggy] to the wedding of my sister, and I find myself unable to make myself go to the wedding of my sister. This silly trip is ruining the peace of mind I so desperately need; my nerves are strained to the breaking point. Should I go to the wedding or not? I must go; it is my duty as token paterfamilias. I cannot go, for the strain is too much. I need advice; that’s what I need. I know what I’ll do: I’ll stop over in Kaluga, go visit the holy man, Father Makarios, at the Optina Pustyn Monastery.
If only my bowels were in better shape. Here we are again with the peristalsis on strike, the refusal of this recalcitrant twisted tube of an organ to function. I got up this morning feeling as if a regiment of soldiers had bivouacked in my guts, soldiers wearing the red and blue and white uniforms of the Napoleonic era, with cockades in their helmets, with the dash and panache and soaring spirits of victorious warriors, lighting campfires beside my liver, stomping around on my gall bladder, singing out in hearty voices the songs of the mighty heroes who marched all the way to Paris—then putting out the fires and packing their gear and marching around in and on my guts, shouting the cadence loud, HUP, TWO, HREEP, HROAR, then, finally, clomping in their ill-fitting jackboots up to the gates of Optina Monastery and stopping. My poor rectum.
–I need your advice, holy father.
–What is your concern, my son?
–I’m on my way to my sister’s wedding in the Ukraine, but I’m not sure I should be going.
–Why ever not, my son?
–Just got a feeling, father. A feeling that that is not the place for me.
–You are on your way home, are you not? To your ancestral abode?
–Yes. To our family estate at Vasilevka.
–Then how can home be not the place for you?
–This marriage. They arranged it without my consent. I feel as if I should not go. What do you think, holy father?
–I would assume that you must be there to give your blessing to your sister on the occasion of her happiness. What’s the problem?
–But what is happiness, father? That is the question. Or must we trust in the Lord God of Sabaoth and in his Son, the Lord Jesus? Only they can tell us and show us and give us our happiness.
–Yes, what, holy father?
–Yes, trust in the Lord and go on south to your sister’s wedding.
–Thank you, holy father! I feel so much better now!
Taking the hand of the white-bearded starets, Nikolai Vasilievich kissed it fervently, shedding tears of joy. They dribbled down his long nose, then dripped from there onto the parapet steps and glittered in the early morning sunlight, as he took his smiling and waving farewell. Then he walked out into the leafage of September, all green-red-yellow and gleaming in sunbeams. He mounted his britzka, shouted to Selifan, his coachman, “Onward, onward to Vasilevka!” The driver whipped up his nag, and off they rode in a cloud of dust.
But they did not get far. In fact, they were a mere half kilometer from the monastery when the doubts overwhelmed him again. No, he thought to himself. No. My nerves will never stand the tumult of this wedding. No way can I put myself through this. But you must. But I can’t. Better I should return to Moscow, and from there borrow money and make a mad dash to the only place on earth where I have ever found solace: to Rome, my beloved Rome!
–Selifan, turn around (he shouted)!
–Where to, then, sire?
–To Moscow! Back to Moscow!
But they did not get far. In fact, they were but a mere half kilometer in the other direction, approaching the monastery, when the doubts overwhelmed him once again. No. It’s my obligation. I must be there for the sake of my sister. Mother would never forgive me if I failed to show. I have to go to the wedding. But you can’t go to the wedding. You’ll collapse in nervous prostration. The very idea of holy matrimony is sheer terror in your poor sick guts. Yes, of course you’re right. What to do? What to do?
–Where to now, sire?
–Back to Optina Pustyn. I must ask the advice of the holy father Makarios!
And so it went. He returned to ask the advice of Father Makarios. Twice, thrice. Each time the conversation with the humble man of God was almost identical to what is outlined above. As was the writer’s lachrymose departure from Optina. Except for the fourth time. On Gogol’s fourth visit to the holy man, he no sooner said, “Help me, father, for I cannot decide what to do,” than the humble holy man, meek and God-fearing, arose in a righteous rage, eyes blazing. Stuffing his long white beard into his mouth—to keep himself from saying a blasphemous word—he drove Nikolai Vasilievich bodily out of his hermitage, waving his arms in a frenzy and kicking at the fleeing author’s backside with both feet.
–Out of here, out (he shouted through his beard and teeth)! Get on to the Ukraine, where I told you to go in the first place! Attend the wedding!
Whereupon Nikolai Gogol mounted his britzka under the bright fall foliage of a linden tree, then yelled out at his long-suffering coachman, Selifan, “To Moscow, back to Moscow!” And that’s where he ended up going.