Monthly Archives: July 2017


Biographical Ten

Final Flight of the Buffleheaded Goo-Goo Bird


The preacher in Gogol was now in total control, the sanctimonious religious fanatic. Well-meaning friends, those like Aksakov, who cherished the great fiction he had written, tried to rein him in. But it was far too late. He went on travelling around Europe, foot firmly implanted on the neck of his own best creativity, nursing his mad plan for edifying all of mankind. He stayed with Vasily Zhukovsky and his family repeatedly, in various parts of Germany. The great poet spent a lot of time with Gogol over the years; he must have had some insights into Gogol’s character. But Zhukovsky never wrote a memoir of Gogol. Other than a few scattered notes in reminiscences Gogol’s other “friends” never did either: Pletnyov, Vjazemsky, Sheviryov, Khomyakov, Pogodin, Smirnova, the Vielgorskies. The main exception is Aksakov.

Why were they so reluctant to write about the man who was generally recognized for years as Pushkin’s successor, the greatest creative writer that the land of Rus had to offer? Probably because he mystified them. They could not reconcile the man with the great works because the two were not reconcilable. The Gogol they saw in their presence was a man of highly limited vision.

“While he was endowed with a superhuman power of creative imagination (in which in the world’s literature he has had equals but certainly no superior), his understanding was strikingly inadequate to his genius. His ideas were those of his provincial home, of his simple, childish mother, modified only by an equally primitive romantic cult of beauty and of art, imbibed during the first years of his literary career” (D.S. Mirsky).


Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, which Gogol termed his “only sane book,” was published in January, 1847, and it turned out to be a thoroughly insane book. There is an air of derangement about the text from the start, beginning in the preface, in which Gogol mentions that God has brought him back from the brink of death, and he now deems it necessary to enlighten each and all about certain matters sacred to God. This is followed by a Will and Testament, beginning with instructions not to bury his body until it showed clear signs of decomposition, inasmuch as there had been times when he went into a condition of comatose numbness, when his heart stopped beating and no pulse could be detected.



In March, 1837, Gogol moved on to Rome and immediately fell in love with the place. Rome remained with him an obsession for many years. Here is an excerpt from a letter linking Gogol’s nose motif in his writings and life to the beloved city: 

“What a spring! Lord God, what a spring! . . . . What air! Inhale deeply through your nose and you feel as if no less than seven hundred angels had come flying up your nasal nostrils. An amazing spring it is! I can’t get enough of admiring it. All of Rome is strewn these days with roses . . . . Believe me that frequently I feel the frenzied desire to turn into nothing but a nose, so that there would be nothing more of me—no eyes, no hands, no feet—just one gigantic nose, with nostrils as big as good-sized buckets, so that I could draw into my insides the maximum volume of aromas and of spring” 

(letter to Marya Balabina, April, 1838, with a heading that reads, “Rome. The month of April. Year 2588th since the founding of the city”).


Note the pleonasm in the phrase “nasal nostrils (носовые ноздри),” as if to suggest that there were other bodily nostrils in addition to the nasal ones. Such “errors” are typical of Gogol’s style, which, even in his best fiction, often is weirdly ragged, nonstandard. A famous example of another such pleonasm is a passage describing “Russian mouzhiks” at the beginning of Dead Souls, as if there were mouzhiks (Russian peasants) in countries other than Russia.









The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull

A Gogolian Novel

(With Gogolian Biography Appended)

U.R. Bowie

Series: The Collected Works of U.R. Bowie, Volume Eleven

Ogee Zakamora Publications, 2017

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Lee Bowie

All Rights Reserved

ISBN-13: 978-1548244149

ISBN-10: 1548244147

Front Cover Illustration:

N.A. Andreev, Medallion on Enclosure

of Nikolai Gogol’s Grave

(Danilov Monastery, Moscow, 1909)

Cover Design by Daniel Hime


Parts of this book have been workshopped through Gainesville Poets and Writers. Special thanks to my publicist Daniel Hime, who created the beautiful cover design. Also I am grateful to my copy editor D. C. Williams, and to my editor and publisher O.G. Zakamora. Once again Sergei Stadnik has helped me with proofreading the Cyrillic passages and refining my style in Russian. Благодарю!

                      NOTE ON CALENDARS

During the lifetime of Nikolai Gogol, Russia still operated according to the old Julian calendar, which, in the nineteenth century was twelve days behind the Gregorian calendar, then widely adopted in the countries of Western Europe. The differences can make for confusion. For example, Gogol’s friend, the poet Nikolai Yazykov, died in two different years: in December of 1846 by the Julian calendar, but in January, 1847 by the Gregorian. At the time of Lenin’s Socialist Revolution in 1917 Russia still ran on Julian dates, and, as a result, what the Soviets always referred to as “The Great October Revolution” took place in November.

Gogol, of course, spent much of his later life abroad, living by the Gregorian calendar. In the text of this book dates are given mostly by  Gregorian. In instances when the Julian calendar date is used, the initials OS (for Old Style) appear in parentheses.


GOGOL (The Three Handed)

Троеручица (The Three-Handed)

Moscow, February, 1842

Ekaterina Mikhailovna, sister of the poet Nikolai Mikhailovich Yazykov, was no Russian beauty, but there was an aura of beatitude about her. She was only five years old when her father died. After that she grew up under the sole influence of her pious mother. She and her mother worshipped together, read through the long list of morning and evening prayers. They kept the fasts with utter diligence and spent hours every week bowing down before the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy: the Mother of God of Vladimir, the Three-Handed Theotokos, the healer St. Panteleimon.

As a small girl Katya Yazykova would read aloud, drunk with the sound of her own voice, of saints and martyrs and holy fools, who, despising all that was crass and earthly, embraced the ethereal, who lived in hovels out in the desert, mortifying their corrupt flesh with its passions and lusts. At age nine she wept for months on end, praying and keening, hoping to attain to “the gift of tears.” At ten she went on an extended fast, eating little but bread and water for forty days. This feat of zealotry alarmed even her mother, but the little girl said, “No, it’s all right, Mama. I want to fast my way through to a mantic dream; I hope to speak with the Holy Mother herself.”

It is not known whether Katya was ever vouchsafed to see the Mother of God in her dreams, but she seemed destined for a nunnery, at least until she met the renowned Slavophile philosopher and poet, Aleksei Khomyakov. After their marriage, in 1836, when she was nineteen, her life was centered largely on family and children, although the ideal of the fleshless existence never lost its appeal.

Ekaterina Mikhailovna became hostess for weekly gatherings of intellectuals and literary figures at the Khomyakov mansion in Moscow. Those who attended the meetings were like-minded Slavophiles, firm believers in Eastern Orthodoxy and the holy mission of Russia. Among them was the comic writer Nikolai Gogol, who had first met Ekaterina Mikhailovna and her husband through her brother, one of his closest friends.

On those brisk wintry evenings with the pallid yellow of streetlamps flickering on white frost, Gogol would come to call on the Khomyakovs. The famous author, thirty-three years old that winter, was short in stature, with a long pointed nose, a slender build and blond hair. He would smile at his hosts, toss off a few good-natured remarks, then walk across the drawing room with that peculiar rapid, herky-jerky gait of his. Standing in a corner, wearing his pale-blue vest and trousers of a mauve hue, he reminded one guest of the kind of stork you see in the Ukraine—perched on one leg high up on a roof, with a strangely pensive demeanor.

In Gogol’s personality there was something evasive, forced and constrained. He often appeared to be putting on an act, trying to make people laugh; no one ever seemed to know the real Gogol. Early in his career the literary luminaries of the day (Pushkin, Pletnyov) underestimated him, looked upon him as a figure of fun. The poet Zhukovsky fondly called him by a silly nickname, “Gogolyok.” Especially in the last ten years of his life his nerves were in perpetual disarray. But with her, with Ekaterina Mikhailovna, Gogol was almost natural.

Whenever he arrived he was inevitably drawn to her. Was the attraction sensual in any way? Hardly. In the whole of his solitary life Gogol apparently never lusted for women. What he loved in her was her aura of gentle piety. They would sit together in a corner, drinking tea, speaking in low voices. Gogol showed her little of the raucous, hilarious side of himself, the Gogol who could have people literally crawling on all fours, overcome with laughter. He never told her the off-color stories he loved to tell, most certainly never indulged his bent for scatology. With her he relaxed, he gazed into her lambent grey eyes. Pulled gently into the quiescence that she exuded, he bathed in its soft glow. Like her, he had been raised in Orthodox Christianity, and the longer he lived the more his religion took precedence over everything else.

The conversation tonight, as almost always, was one-sided. Gogol did the talking, while she listened to him, responded with her luminous eyes, her soft smile.

            “You know, for years I’ve been planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to pray at the sepulchre of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.”


No answer. Just the smile, the light in her grey eyes. She looked at him, taking him in without judging him. “Judge not” (Не судите) were two words she repeated incessantly, silently to herself. Her mother had taught her to do that. Gogol’s long blond hair fell straight down from the temples almost to his shoulders, forming parentheses around his gaunt face. His eyes were small and brown; they would flash occasionally with merriment. His lips were soft, puffy beneath his clipped mustache, and the nose was bird-like. Now the mouth was moving again, and she watched it form words.

“I’ll go there for sure. Some day. Just now I don’t have the energy. My bowels are giving me fits again. Did I ever tell you that I was once examined by the best doctors of Paris, and they discovered that my stomach was upside down?”


He smiled wanly when he told her that, and, as so often with Gogol, she could not be sure if he was joking or in dead earnest.

            “I think you mentioned that to my brother,” she replied, unsmiling, touching his wrist with her hand.

            Silence. She was reciting the Jesus Prayer in her mind: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, pray for me, a sinner.”

            “What are you thinking?” he asked her.

            “Nothing. I’m listening to what you say. I love your voice.”

            That dreamy expression on her face, the very look of her calmed his soul.

            “Maybe we could all go together—to Jerusalem—you and your husband, and your brother Nikolai. Would you like that?”

            (Smiling) “I think it’s a marvelous idea.”

            “Who on earth do I love more than you and Nikolai? No one. Some of my happiest memories consist of just his presence in my life. The time we’ve spent traveling together in Europe, or taking the waters. I treasure the memory of those moments.”

            “My brother loves being with you as well. He’s been quite ill you know, for some time, but you always cheer him up.”

            “I pray for him. Every day. I know that all will be well, for the Lord is merciful.”


She nodded but did not answer. He looked in her eyes again, then recalled a line from Nikolai Yazykov’s poetry and said it aloud, still gazing in her eyes and smiling: “Милы очи ваши ясны (Sweet they are, your clear pure eyes).”



During the second half of the decade of the 1830s Gogol began doing what he did so well for the rest of his life: reading his works aloud to enthralled private audiences. One of his early performances took place in May, 1835, at the Moscow home of Pogodin, where he read an early draft of his comedy, The Marriage. S.T. Aksakov, who was to become one of Gogol’s most fervent admirers, was too ill to attend that event, but he reported on it secondhand.

“Gogol’s reading, or better to say acting out, of his play was so masterful that many people, those well-versed in such matters, are still saying to this day that—notwithstanding the excellent work of the actors on stage—this comedy remains not as complete, not as substantial, and far from being as funny as it is when read by its author . . . . The listeners laughed so hard that several of them almost became ill.” The host of the reading, Pogodin, who later became disillusioned with his “friend” Gogol, was equally full of praise in recalling the evening.

“At my house Gogol once read, to a large throng of listeners, his play “The Marriage.” He came to the part where the prospective groom and the bride are declaring their love—asking inane things like ‘What church did you go to last Sunday? What is your favorite color?’ Three times in a row there is an interval of silence between the questions, and he so masterfully expressed the silence, it so showed on his face and in his eyes that all of the listeners à la lettre went off into rollicking laughter. For a long time they could not restrain themselves, while he maintained that silence as if nothing were going on around him, and just let his eyes wander about the room.”


In January, 1836, Gogol gave another reading, this time of his Inspector General, at Zhukovsky’s residence in St. Petersburg. Among those attending were Pushkin, Count Vielgorsky— father of the young man who Gogol was later to nurse and cherish on his death bed in Rome, Josef Vielgorsky—and Prince P.A. Vyazemsky (1792-1878), poet and critic, a highly educated and cultivated man. Once again, Gogol read brilliantly, with great success. Possibly by this time Pushkin and Zhukovsky, who, in the beginning, had treated young Gogolyok largely as a figure of fun, were beginning to realize their mistake.




(excerpt from forthcoming novel by U.R. Bowie, “Gogol’s Head: The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull”)

In October, 1839, Gogol travelled with members of the Aksakov family, by stagecoach from Moscow to St. Petersburg: S.T. Aksakov, his daughter Vera, and his fourteen-year-old son Misha—whom Aksakov planned to enroll in the page corps of the Tsar. Gogol spent most of the trip reading Shakespeare in French. When he was not reading Gogol was putting on a show, joking around and entertaining the others.

They stopped off in the city of Torzhok to eat the famous “Pozharsky cutlets,” what Troyat describes as “chopped-chicken croquettes.” When they were served they noticed immediately that the food was full of long blond hairs. The children began pulling out the hairs, holding them up, making funny faces, and Gogol started laughing. He conjured up a few imaginary scenes, episodes featuring the hairs and their former owners, describing how the hairs had made their way into the food. Everyone laughed.

–We’ll call for the waiter and complain (said Aksakov).

–Yes (said Gogol), but before he comes let me tell you what he’ll say.

Gogol drew himself up, looked down his nose and put on a different face, the face of a fastidious, self-important waiter, and they all laughed. Then he acted out the role, while his audience went on laughing.

–You say hairs in the food, my dear sir? What sort of hairs could there be, my dear sir? From where could there come any hairs? No, my dear sir, nothing of the sort, no hairs of any sort, my dear sir.

They called for the waiter. He approached the table, wearing the same face that Gogol had just put on. They laughed. They complained of the hairs in the food, and that’s when the waiter, Gogol’s involuntary straight man, proceeded to say exactly what Gogol had just said, using the same expressions and the same tone of voice. Everyone at the table roared with laughter, and that laughter was better for their insides than the best chicken croquettes could ever have been.

On another occasion, out on the street with Aksakov, Gogol stopped to buy some pryaniki (spice biscuits). Approaching the biscuit huckster, an old lady in a kerchief, wearing the usual sour face of the marketplace, Gogol went into his act.

–When were these biscuits baked?

–Just this morning, sir. Fresh as the daisies that bloom in spring.

–But it’s not spring now. It’s winter.

–It is, sir, indeed winter.

–And these look like pretty wintry biscuits to me.

No reply. Gogol screwed up his face, and the audience of one, Aksakov, smiled. Then Gogol went on.

–Let me have a look.

Contorting his mouth into a sideways grimace, Gogol picked up a pryanik and said “Ugh.” Then he said it again: “Ugh.” He put down the biscuit and wiped his hands on his trousers. He adopted an accusatory tone of voice.

–No, young lady, what you’re selling is not biscuits. What you’re selling is soap.

The appreciative audience of one began laughing.

–How do you mean, ‘soap,’ my dear sir (asked the straight woman huckster)?

–Soap, soap, indeed soap you’re selling, and nothing else on earth but soap.

–No, sir, these are fine pryaniki, baked only this morning, and you see—

Gogol interrupted, continuing on with the same stern tone of voice.

–No no no. Don’t try to tell me otherwise, young lady. What we have here is soap, soap soap, and not the best quality soap at that. How dare you sell soap and sponge it off on people as spice biscuits? I have known innocent people who’ve bought your soap, yes indeed. Some of them are my dear friends, and I have seen the soap bubbles on their lips, as they choke and gasp, young lady!


And so on.



There is a famous story, told by all Gogol’s biographers, about his obsession with food. In March, 1839, Pogodin and his wife arrived in Rome for a visit and Gogol proudly showed them the sights of his beloved city. At two p.m. he took them to a restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna but refused all food, saying that his stomach troubles were out of hand and he could eat only lightly. Knowing that Gogol dined every evening at the trattoria Falcone, Pogodin and a few others hid out in the back room of that restaurant to spy on him.

“He ordered macaroni, cheese, butter, vinegar, sugar, mustard, ravioli, and broccoli. The waiters went running all over the place, fetching this and that. His face all aglow, Gogol took the dishes from the waiters’ hands and ordered still more. Now before him stood green salads piled high, flagons filled with pale liquids. There was agrodolce, spinach and ricotta ravioli, melezane impanata, pesto chicken wings, zuppe di’ fosou, frittura mista. An enormous plate of spaghetti was set before him, and thick steam arose from it when they removed the lid. Gogol tossed a lump of butter onto the pasta, liberally powdered it with cheese, assumed the pose of a priest about to offer a sacrifice, seized a knife and dug in. That’s when we flung open the door and rushed in, laughing. ‘Ah-ha, so your appetite’s gone and your stomach’s all upset?’”


Food was one of his few extravagances. Gogol lived frugally in Italy, but inevitably he would run low on money. After resigning his teaching position at St. Petersburg University in 1835, he did not have a paying job for the rest of his life. He was a freelance writer, but he never made enough from his published works to support himself, let alone help out his mother and sisters, who were in constant financial straits back in the Ukraine.