On this day in 1852 Nikolai Gogol died at the age of forty-two. His unique style -- most famously in stories "The Nose" and "The Overcoat," the play The Inspector General; and the novel Dead Souls -- is a comic-tragic-absurd hybrid which has led to him being labeled the Hieronymous Bosch of Russian Literature. Having come under the sway of a fanatical priest late in life, and then been subjected to the treatments of several quack doctors, Gogol's last days mirrored one of his nightmare stories all too closely.
Gogol had always been deeply religious, but his priest convinced him that he should cleanse himself by not merely fasting, praying and reading the lives of the saints but renouncing his writing as vainglorious and unholy; in his zeal, Gogol burned all his writing, including the manuscripts of his sequels to Dead Souls, the labor of years. His doctors' last-hour attempts to save him included not just trying to hypnotize him into eating or applying blisters to his extremities but giving him hot baths while pouring ice-water on his head, or giving him ice-baths and then putting him to bed among warm loaves of bread. Throughout all this Gogol pleaded to be left to die in peace; when he tried to swat away the leeches that had been applied to his nose and were now trying to crawl into his mouth, he had to be restrained -- though at death he was described as being so frail that his spine could be seen through his stomach.
Even by the next generation his reputation as the father of Russian realism was established, Dostoevsky famously saying that he and his contemporaries had come "out from under Gogol's overcoat." According to Nabokov, "Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight . . . . [but when] Gogol really let himself go and pottered happily on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced."
In "The Nose," a barber awakens to find precisely that in his breakfast roll, just as Major Kovalyov awakens to find his gone. There follows an entertaining and eerie tale of the barber trying to get rid of the nose and the Major trying to find it, the nose itself marching about St. Petersburg: "Sure enough, two minutes later the nose emerged; he had on buckskin breeches, and by his side hung a sword. . . . The nose had entirely concealed its face in its tall stiff collar, and was praying with an expression of utmost piety." Once retrieved, the nose is not easily pasted back on, but this is but another of the perplexities which have the narrator throwing up his hands by the end:
To think of such an affair happening in this our vast empire's northern capital! Yet general opinion decided that the affair had about it much of the improbable. Leaving out of the question the nose's strange, unnatural removal, and its subsequent appearance as a State Councillor, how came Kovalev not to know that one ought not to advertise for a nose through a newspaper? Not that I say this because I consider newspaper charges for announcements excessive. No, that is nothing, and I do not belong to the number of the mean. I say it because such a proceeding would have been gauche, derogatory, not the thing. And how came the nose into the baked roll? And what of Ivan Yakovlevitch? Oh, I cannot understand these points -- absolutely I cannot. And the strangest, most unintelligible fact of all is that authors actually can select such occurrences for their subject! . . .
Gogol's story recently inspired a St. Petersburg sculptor to make a 220 lb. marble nose; this was attached to a city apartment building until last September -- at which time, says creator Vyacheslav Bukhayev, "The nose seems to have gone for a walk." The police say that St. Petersburg has many such art thefts, but that they are hopeful of finding it.