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LAST YEARS OF GOGOL

Biographical Ten

Final Flight of the Buffleheaded Goo-Goo Bird

(1846-1852)

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.

 
 

GOGOL LOVES NOSES

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.

 
 

GOGOL’S HEAD – FRONT MATTER

FRONT MATTER OF THE BOOK:

ГОГОЛЯ ГОЛОВА

GOGOL’S HEAD

Or

Skullduggery

Or

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


                              ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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).”

 
 

GOGOL READS

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.

 
 

GOGOL IN PERFORMANCE

GOGOL IN PERFORMANCE

(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.

 
 

GOGOL AND FOOD

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.

 
 

EXCERPTS FROM GOGOL’S HEAD

Excerpt from forthcoming book by U.R. Bowie, “GOGOL’S HEAD” (freak shows)

Biographical One

Freak Shows

(Ukraine, 1822)

Nikolai Gogol-Yanovsky, 1809-1852. Great Russian writer, Ukrainian born, into a family that was extremely pious, steeped in the Russian Orthodox religion. The name Gogol has an avian connection. The гоголь is a bird, the goldeneye, a black and white diving duck: Bucephala albeola or Bucephala clangula. Given the prominent bird-beak nose on the writer, his having a bird name is appropriate.

As a young boy Nikosha Gogol’s head was inculcated with the religion of fire and brimstone. He seemed to have lived successfully through this indoctrination, but later on, as an adult, the deleterious business came back and took control of him, destroyed him.

Gogol was born on March 20 (old style Julian calendar), which is April first by the western Gregorian calendar. Given the grotesque nature of his best prose—and given the strange life he was to live—having him born on April Fool’s Day seems just right. Lived in the back of beyond, on his parents’ modest country estate of Vasilevka. Not much is known about the childhood years. For one thing, Gogol’s biographers always tell the story of how young Nikosha drowned a cat. They emphasize, as well, what must have been a terrible shock for him: the death of his younger brother Ivan, while the two of them were students at the gymnasium at Poltava. Did Gogol later speak of this loss? Apparently not. But then, he seldom spoke of things close to his heart. Not with anyone. He spent his whole secretive life withdrawn emotionally from others.

Four younger sisters came along after Nikolai, but no more brothers. In geographical proximity to the boy was the thriving estate of Kibintsy, ruled over by the influential relative, Dmitry Prokofievich Troshchinsky (1754-1829). Although Gogol himself never seems to have waxed eloquent about his visits to that estate as a child, he certainly must have been impressed by what went on there. The grandee Troshchinsky, one of the richest men in the Ukraine, had served in high government posts under Catherine the Great and her son Paul. His estate at Kibintsy boasted around seventy thousand desyatinas of land [one desyatina =2.7 acres] and over 6000 souls (serfs). To put this in perspective, in an official document that he presented to St. Petersburg University on May 14, 1836, Gogol described his family estate at Vasilevka as covering 700 desyatinas and possessing eighty-six souls—not counting the dead ones. Other data puts the figures, respectively, at one thousand desyatinas, and four hundred souls.

Troshchinsky retired for good from government service in 1817, then returned to the Ukraine in 1822, where he lived out his years on the Kibintsy estate. At this time, when the grandee was in almost permanent residence, Gogol’s father Vasily Afanasievich helped stage plays at the theater there, including some that he himself had written. As a small child Gogol grew up watching the plays, looking at the large collection of European art, listening to the serf orchestra play Mozart and Beethoven. Troshchinsky also had a library of over a thousand volumes.

As he aged the grandee and ex-minister often fell into melancholy moods. Part of his daily therapy, therefore, was to watch, and sometimes to participate in what was known as freak-baiting. Peter the Great also loved such activities and kept a large menagerie of freaks around all the time. Two centuries later Joseph Stalin, in his own unique way, kept the tradition going.

One of the best-known entertainers at Kibintsy was the mentally retarded priest Bartholomew, who went about doing bizarre things while still dressed in his religious vestments. Special freak-baiters were employed to stimulate his laugh-provoking activities. These baiters would seat Troshchinsky near the clown, then surreptitiously place a banknote on the floor in between the two. Everyone would ignore the presence of the money. Finally Bartholomew would notice it, try to ignore it as well, prove incapable of so doing. Then, as soon as he reached out a trembling hand to pick it up, Troshchinsky would clout him on the noggin with a cane, and everyone would die laughing.

Sometimes the baiters filled a huge barrel full of water, threw in several gold coins. Then Bartholomew would be forced to go bobbing for the coins. He dove into the water, tried to pick up the coins and resurface. If he failed to bring them up he had to dive again, and keep diving until he had successfully brought up all the coins, which were then taken away from him. This too provided entertainment for Troshchinsky and his guests. As Gogol was to write later, in a famous line from his story “The Overcoat,” how much inhumanity there is in humanity.

 
 

GOGOL’S EXHUMATION!

EXHUMATION OF NIKOLAI GOGOL, JUNE, 1931

EXCERPT FROM “Gogol’s Head: the Misadventures of a Purloined Skull”

У Гоголя Голову Украли (The Head Gone Missing)

In his Last Will and Testament Nikolai Vasilievich had stipulated that his grave be made inviolate. He wished to lie so far beneath the ground that no one could ever reach him. Furthermore, he had left instructions that he not be buried until his body showed clear signs of decomposition, for in his worst nightmares he conjured up scenes of himself, poor Nikosha, momma’s little boy, awaking below ground from a deep sleep, then shrieking and clawing at the lid of the coffin.

The heat was oppressive now. The spectators ran out of tea. They improvised hand-held fans from newspaper pages. They sat waiting, fanning themselves, watching the diggers. Their conversation had petered out, and Lidin was too sweaty and tired to provide further literary entertainment. Late in the afternoon the exhausted diggers came upon a brick vault that proved incredibly difficult to breach. They shoveled around it in a variety of directions, searching for a way inside. Bakhrushkin suggested digging eastwardly, since he had heard that in Orthodox burials the head of the deceased must be directed toward the east.

Long since fed up with the admonitions of those who hung around watching, the shovelers spit in disgust. They were silently contemptuous of these idlers who had never worked by the sweat of their brows, like good honest peasants and workers. Then the shoveler-spitters thought twice about what they had done, worried that such disgusted spitting would offend the dead. So they spit three times over their left shoulders to ward off evil; after that they proceeded to dig toward the east.

Twilight (the summer sumerki) was setting in when they finally found an opening in the brick vault, then managed to get a grip on the wooden coffin inside. Holding their breath, saying nothing now, the tea drinkers gathered around and gaped. A large throng of nebulous bystanders hovered behind them. Lidin, smiling, tried to ease the tension that hung upon the scene like a black cloud.

–He thought, old mole, that he had dug himself in way down deep.

No one said anything to that.

–He thought the interlopers would never get to him.

No one said anything.

–But he had another think coming.

Lidin looked around expectantly, waiting for the appreciative laughter that never materialized.

The laborers dragged the coffin out of the vault. Its upper planks were rotted, but the sides of the casket were still in good shape—they had brass corners and handholds, with well-preserved cerulean-lilac braided galloons.

The workers pulled away the rotted planks and stepped aside. They took off their hats in a gesture of respect. There he was: Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, the man who had written the best play in all of Russian literature (The Inspector General), the best short story in all of Russian literature (“The Overcoat”), and the best twentieth-century modernist novel ever written in the nineteenth century (Dead Souls).

The first thing they noticed was that the head was gone. The remains began at the bones of the neck. For a long, long time the gapers stood there in awkward silence. They were in the presence of something awe-inspiring: the great writer of the Russian land lay there in front of them, but minus his head. Finally, Bakhrushkin wiped the astonishment off his portly brow and spoke, whispering.

–Look at that, will you. Someone has made off with the skull.

 
 

GOGOL’S HEAD

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.

–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?

–Selifan, stop!

–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.