Quick, Hide the Matches – it’s Nikolai Gogol’s Birthday!

I stumbled across Nikolai Gogol’s work after reading ‘The Namesake‘ by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’d never heard of this Russian author whom the novel’s protagonist Gogol Ganguli had been named after. Intrigued, I sought out a collection of his short stories, including ‘The Nose’ and ‘The Overcoat’ which were funny and surreal, yet also moving.

I recently found a copy of ‘Dead Souls’ at a charity shop. Browsing through the introduction, I discovered that the process of writing it had been such a torturous affair that it was never completed. Gogol spent eight years over Part 1, and over a decade on the troubled Part 2, and didn’t even begin Part 3, which was to have been the culmination of his ambitious vision of saving Russia through this great redemptive work of vice turned into virtue. Unfortunately, the more Gogol wrote, the greater grew his aims for the work, and the further away the likelihood of him bringing it to fruition. His mental health was suffering and he was in dire financial straits and so had to agree to the publication of a highly censored version of the first part of the novel.

Although its reception was universally enthusiastic, Gogol described Part 1 as ‘a pale introduction to the great epic poem which is taking shape in my mind and which will finally solve the riddle of my existence’. The problem was that Part 2 proved difficult to write. His frequent bouts of illness led him to embark on an austere regime of prayer and fasting which weakened him further and drove him closer to nervous collapse. In June 1845 he burned all he had written so far on the second instalment in frustration and spent the following seven years laboriously rewriting it. With the second finished, he was ready to embark upon the final volume. Unfortunately, Gogol had fallen under the influence of a religious fanatic, who convinced him that his literary masterpiece was not only an abomination, but that he should destroy it to atone for the sin of writing it. So it was that on the 24th February 1852, he burnt his manuscript for a second time. Gogol died nine days later on March 5th 1852, leaving only fragments of the second volume, and a draft of the final chapter. His great ambition was never realised and yet what remains of ‘Dead Souls’ is considered his greatest masterpiece.

Nikolai Gogol,