Thursday, August 3, 2017
During his famous trip to visit the penal settlements in the Far East (Sakhalin Island), Chekhov arrived in the provincial city of Blagoveshchensk (named, apparently, after the Christian holiday of Blagoveshchenie, the Annunciation) on June 27, 1890. The city is located 8000 kilometers east of Moscow, on the Amur River and bordering on China. From there he wrote his friend, the publisher A.S. Suvorin (1834-1912) a letter about his visit to a brothel:
"a nice clean room, sentimental in an Asiatic way, furnished with bric-a-brac. No ewers, no rubber devices, no portraits of generals . . . The Japanese girl has her own concept of modesty. She doesn't put out the light, and when you ask what the Japanese is for one thing or another, she gives a straight answer, and as she does so, because she doesn't understand much Russian, points her fingers and even puts her hand on it. What's more, she doesn't put on airs or go coy, like Russian women. And all the time she is laughing and making lots of tsu noises. She is amazingly skilled at her job, so that you feel that you are not having intercourse, but taking part in a top-level equitation class. When you come the Japanese girl pulls with her teeth a sheet of cotton wool from her sleeve, catches you by the 'boy' . . . and gives you a massage, and the cotton wool tickles your belly. And all of this is done with coquetry, laughing, singing and saying tsu."
English translation from Donald Rayfield biography of Chekhov (Henry Holt, 1997), p. 228. Chekhov's correspondence with Suvorin is amazingly frank and open. In Soviet times many letters between the two were published in censored form or not at all. This is one of those letters in the "not at all" category.
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
My favorite photograph of Anton Chekhov. Here he sits in the middle of a company of famous actors, each of them acting like crazy for the photographer, striking all sorts of flamboyant poses, while he sits thinking, "I'm not an actor; what kind of pose can I put on?"
Friday, July 28, 2017
CHEKHOV WINKS AT TOLSTOY: (2) The Good Country Life
One of Tolstoy’s obsessions throughout much of his life was his dream of good country living, surrounded by wife and family and in close communion with nature. He exalted this sort of life in both of his two major novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Furthermore, he tried to live exactly such a life himself, on his country estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy hated cities, trains, loved peasants and Mother Earth. But his attempts to find happiness in the good country life were never entirely successful. In the final pages of Anna Karenina the author’s alter ego Levin—despite his having achieved a happy family life and contentment on his country estate—is in constant depression and contemplates suicide on a daily basis.
Chekhov has a lot of fun taking Tolstoy’s themes and circumstances, then making a travesty of them. This is most obvious in the story “Gooseberries,” which depicts how the dream of good country living results in a man becoming a miser, then marrying a woman for her money, then practically starving her to death in his parsimony. All this so that he can buy a paltry little landed estate, where he vegetates out his life, being a pig, eating hard and sour gooseberries.
As if the take-off on Tolstoy were not clear enough, Chekhov makes an obvious allusion to one of Tolstoy’s short moralizing stories, “How Much Land Does A Man Need.” This is a parable about a peasant who is told he can buy very cheaply as much land as he can walk over in a given day. But the peasant is so greedy that he overstrains himself and dies of exhaustion at the very moment he is on the verge of acquiring a huge plot of land. The moral of a story and the answer of the question in the title: a man needs really only six feet of earth to be buried in.
Chekhov has one of his characters, Ivan Ivanovich, reply to Tolstoy. “They say man needs only six feet of earth. But it is a corpse, and not a man, who needs six feet . . . . these country estates are nothing but those same six feet of earth. To escape from the town, from the struggle, from the loud bustle of life, to escape and hunker down on a country estate is not life, but egoism, idleness . . . . It is not six feet of earth, not a country estate that man needs, but the whole globe, the whole of nature, where he will have room to display his personality and the individual characteristics of his free soul.”
Don’t make the mistake, however, of assuming that the above is Chekhov’s own personal reply to Tolstoy. That is not the way Chekhov writes fiction. Everything tends to cut two ways, and the authenticity of the above opinion is undercut, at least in part, by the fact that the blowhard melancholic Ivan Ivanovich is the person voicing it.
As we move on to the next story, “About Love,” the theme of good country living/or the lack thereof moves with us. Alyokhin the landowner in “About Love” is a travesty of Levin the landowner and alter ego of Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. One of the most famous scenes in all of Russian literature is the episode that depicts Levin out mowing with his peasants, exulting in the sweat of his brow. He tells his idle half brother that he has found a new therapy, known as Arbeitskur: the work cure.
But Alyokin is bored stiff living in the country. He works like a peasant only because he has no choice, but he finds the work exhausting and stultifying. He “ploughed, sowed and reaped” and felt “like a village cat driven by hunger to eat cucumbers in the kitchen garden.” So much for the Arbeitskur.
As for the little pokes at Tolstoy, especially at Anna Karenina, the list could be extended indefinitely. In an important episode in Tolstoy’s novel a man falls under a train at the station and is killed. Anna Karenina is present at this time, and the death haunts her for the rest of the novel. In Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” Ivan Ivanovich tells of a man who fell under a train; his leg was cut off. Taken away for treatment to the waiting room, the bloodied man pleads desperately for someone to find the leg: it had twenty rubles in the boot and he doesn’t want to lose his money.
Why all the literary poking at Tolstoy and his works? For one thing it’s fun. For another it takes Tolstoy’s literary works and subtly rewrites them, showing some of the multivaried possibilites for new works based on the same materials. Finally, it is a way Chekhov has of asserting: “I too am a writer, and I too can show you a thing or two about writing.” This is the age-old business of the competition between literary “fathers” and their literary “sons.”
Tolstoy, Gorky and Chekhov
CHEKHOV WINKING AT TOLSTOY: (1) On love and adultery.
Throughout nearly all of the years of Chekhov’s writing career the most salient and powerful voice in Russian letters was Lev Tolstoy. Chekhov was in awe of Tolstoy’s talents as a literary master, but not always in agreement with the social stances of the old man.
Time and again, especially in stories of the late 1880s and 1890s, Chekhov uses parodic devices in his fiction, taking subtle pokes at Tolstoy and his socio-political views. He also frequently names his female characters ‘Anna,’ partially in tribute to his favorite novel, Anna Karenina, partly as a way of demonstrating the multiplicity of possible life’s paths for women of that name.
As one critic has pointed out, all three of the stories in The Little Trilogy are about love. “Each of the three stories involves a travesty of the ideal love relationship. Belikov of ‘Man in a Case’ considers marrying Varvara (Varenka) nor because he loves her, but because he feels that he ought to; Nikolai Ivanovich in ‘Gooseberries’ is in love with the dream of a country estate, not a woman; Alyokhin in ‘About Love’ is in love with a married woman” (David Maxwell).
Anna Karenina is probably the best literary work ever written on the theme of love, marriage and family. The novel, has, incidentally, a character named Varenka who does not quite get married. It also has a man, the main hero of the book, Levin, who is obsessed with the good life on his country estate, in communion with nature, and it has a man, Vronsky, who is in love with a married woman.
Throughout a period of a century and a half readers of Anna Karenina have argued over whether Anna really had to die, over why she and Vronsky could not get a divorce and live happily on. In his story “About Love,” Chekhov recapitulates the central drama of Tolstoy’s novel in just a few pages. His short story makes clear that every human situation involving love between men and women is unique in itself. Even more importantly, it makes clear that love triangles create predicaments that are not resolvable.
At the end of “Gooseberries” the overwrought Ivan Ivanovich pleads with Alyokhin to be an altruist, to “do good.” The story “About Love” is about how Alyokhin has in a sense done good. He has refused to commit adultery and betray his friend. But the “doing good,” so it turns out, has led to another sort of “encasement”—not only of him, but of the woman in the three-way situation, Anna Alekseevna, who, tormented by their unconsummated love, becomes a neurasthenic. Such is Chekhov’s brief take on Tolstoy’s broad theme.
Note, by the way, the name, borrowed from Tolstoy. Anna Alekseevna (Annie) in Anna Karenina is the daughter of Vronsky and Anna, but also is, in a sense, the daughter of both Vronsky and Karenin. She is born out of wedlock, but is legally Karenin’s daughter, since Anna is married to him when she is born. Both of her “fathers” are named Aleksey (in Russia children take their second name, the patronymic, from their father: hence “Alekseevna”). After Anna Karenina’s death by suicide Vronsky gives the care of his daughter into the hands of Karenin. At the end of the novel she is living with Karenin, who loves her dearly as his own daughter. She (the little girl) is emblematic in the flesh of Anna Karenina’s predicament: her state of limbo in the three-way that rules her life.
What was Chekhov's favorite novel? What was Bunin's, Nabokov's? The answer to all three questions is Anna Karenina. Chekhov once remarked that in comparison to such full-blooded women as Tolstoy’s Anna all of Turgenev’s heroines are bland and insipid.
Once, while rushing by train from the south of Russia to the bedside of his brother Aleksandr, who was thought to have typhus, Chekhov spent the whole long journey reading Anna Karenina, and in a letter he later noted that at this time of emotional turmoil he was consoled on the train by “dear sweet Anna.”
Thursday, July 27, 2017
Modern readers tend to skip nature descriptions and get back to the action of the story. But if you are a good reader, one who knows how to read genuine literary fiction—there are, admittedly, few of us left—you don’t do that. The nature description is not there just so the author can escape from his narrative, take a break from characters he may not like to breathe in the fragrance of the night-blooming jasmine that he so lyrically describes.
Take the description at the end of “Man in A Case.” His story of Belikov told, the high school teacher Burkin walks out of the shed to where we the readers can see him for the first time. He is not an imposing figure: “He was short in stature, stout, absolutely bald, with a long black beard reaching nearly to his waist; two dogs came out with him.
‘Look at that moon!’ he said, gazing up overhead.
“It was already midnight. The whole of the village was visible on the right, the long street extending for a good five versts. Everything was plunged into a deep, quiet sleep; not a sound, not a stir, incredible how nature could be so silent. When on a moonlit night you gaze upon a village street, with its peasant huts, and hayricks and sleeping willow trees, a quietude descends on your soul. Steeped in serenity, sheltered by the shadows of the night from all toil, cares and grief, the village seems meek, melancholy and beautiful, the very stars seem to look down upon it caressingly, with deep feeling, and there seems to be no more evil in the world and all is well. To the left, where the village ended, the fields began, visible far, far away, to the very horizon, and throughout the whole broad expanse of those fields, flooded with moonlight, once more nothing stirred, and all was silent.”
Immediately following this description Ivan Ivanovich begins nattering on about how sad life is, how people lie and scheme, how we simply have to stop living the way we do. This will carry on from the end of this story into the following story, “Gooseberries.” So an obvious function of the nature description here is for contrast: life is beautiful, but we don’t know how to live. A typical attitude of the narrator in a great many Chekhov stories is to stand observing human nature while pondering human evil and stagnation.
But here the nature description has another function: it prepares us for the next story, “Gooseberries,” which describes a true lover of nature, a man who strives to escape city life and find joy in country living, communing with nature. And who ends up, nonetheless, living like a pig and reveling in tasteless gooseberries. Nature, it seems, cannot protect humanity from encasement.
Near the beginning of “Gooseberries” the melancholic Ivan Ivanovich, brother of the gooseberry man, splashes about merrily, reveling in the very thing (lovely nature) that has brought his brother to ruin:
“Ivan Ivanovich emerged from the shed, splashed noisily into the water, and began swimming beneath the rain, taking broad swim strokes with his arms, making waves all around him, and the white water lilies rocked on the waves he made. He swam into the very middle of the river and then dived, a moment later came up at another place and swam further, diving constantly, trying to touch the bottom. ‘Ah, my God,’ he kept exclaiming joyfully, ‘Ah, my God.’ He swam up to the mill, had a talk with some peasants there and turned back, but when he reached the middle of the river he floated on his back, holding his face up to the rain. Burkin and Alyokhin were dressed and ready to go, but he went on swimming and diving.
‘God, God!’ he kept saying. ‘Lord have mercy!’
‘Enough, then!’ shouted Burkin.”
In his communion with nature this is the only time in “The Little Trilogy” that Ivan Ivanovich—who often plagues the reader and his companions with long melancholy moaning about how people live—is shown to be enjoying himself. Nature is different things for different people; some want to grow gooseberries, some want to swim.
FRAMING THE NARRATIVE, THE ENCASEMENT OF LOVE
One thing that makes Chekhov a great writer is his intuitive feel for how to structure a story. In writing “The Man in a Case” why did he choose to begin the story and conclude it with descriptions of apparently incidental characters, the veterinarian Ivan Ivanovich Chimsha-Himalaisky and the teacher Burkin, who are out hunting together? Since the story features mainly Belikov, the teacher of Greek, why not just tell the Belikov tale?
There are several reasons why, some of them complex. The first and obvious reason is that in framing the story about a man in a case—putting it in a frame—you, in a sense, demonstrate the main theme: encasement. Another reason is that the story within (or framed around) the main story has relevance to the primary theme. For example, the incidental character Mavra, who wanders the night in the frame story, at the very end, is another example of a person encased.
It seems logical that Chekhov already had three stories in mind when he began writing the first. Later on we discover that the behavior of the two hunters and their reaction to the tale of Belikov are not incidental at all, since they become important characters in the trilogy as a whole. As the stories progress we can see more and more clearly the relationship of Ivan Ivanovich and Burkin to the major issue of encasement.
The structural principle underlying the stories is as follows. With each succeeding story in the trilogy Chekhov chooses to bring the frame narrative (the story within a story) closer and closer to the action of the framed (main) story. In “Man in a Case” Belikov is a colleague of Burkin the narrator, but in “Gooseberries” the main character Nikolay is the narrator’s brother, and in “About Love” the main character is the narrator himself, Alyokhin.
As he brings the frame story closer and closer to the main story, Chekhov may be suggesting that life’s problems get more and more complex the more you are personally involved in them. Belikov is an character extreme in all respects, practically a paranoiac, utterly obsessed with order in life. Chekhov condemns his countrymen’s tendency to be passive, to allow such a man to dictate their behavior, but the reader, perhaps, can laugh at Belikov and condemn him out of hand. “I’m not like that.” The same can be said for Nikolay Ivanovich the gooseberry lover, who spends his life chasing an idle dream and ends up a living pig. “No way I’d live my life like that.”
But when we get to Alyokhin’s encasement in love, we realize that breaking out of shells and finding freedom is a difficult matter indeed. Here we have a decent man, no paranoiac, no gooseberry-loving pig. What does a decent man do when he falls in love with his best friend’s wife? Whatever he does he will be wrong. At the end of the story, after the woman he loves has left his life forever, after he has just admitted to her for the first time that he loves her, here is how Alyokhin sums things up.
“I confessed my love for her, and with a searing pain in my heart I understood how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceitful was everything that had hindered our love. I understood that when you love, then in your reasoning about that love you need to proceed from the highest principles, from something more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin, or virtue in their usual sense, or there’s no need to reason at all.”
Readers sometimes take such summary statements on the part of Chekhov’s characters as Chekhov’s ways of getting important truths into the story. Most frequently that is a mistake. Chekhov seldom speaks directly through his characters, and when a character expatiates at length on life’s truths you can almost always take it for granted that the character is a blowhard. Such is Ivan Ivanovich in “The Little Trilogy” (more on him later).
Alyokhin is not a blowhard, but if you take a good look at the passage quoted above, you can’t help thinking that he is saying not much of anything coherent. Earlier in the story he says that the only thing you can really say about human love is that love is a great mystery. That is more to the point.
And in taking off on Chekhov’s “About Love”—in his wonderful story titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”—the American writer Raymond Carver ends up at the same place Chekhov did: with characters encased in love and wondering what love is. We’re talking really out our backsides when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy”
The Theme of Encasement (Two): Universality
In all three stories of Chekhov’s trilogy the characters are all “encased” in one way or another, trapped in lives that are stultifying and never fulfilled. But world literature is full of such characters. You might even say that “encasement” is a condition typical of the human predicament.
To speak only of Russian literature, in reading these stories, one constantly is reminded of authors and literary works who came both before and after Chekhov. Gogol’s characters (say, Shponka and Akaky Akakievich) are men in cases. So is the vile Iudushka in Saltykov’s The Golovyov Family and Sologub’s Peredonov in The Petty Demon. Nabokov’s Pnin is a man who craves “discreteness,” who constantly seeks protection from the intrusive world around him. Belikov, the Man in the Case, loves pronouncing the word “man” in ancient Greek (Anthropos), as will later Maxim Gorky in his apotheosis of Soviet man: “Man: that word sounds proud!”
Many Russian authors themselves are in cases of their own making, or sometimes at least partially made by their society. Gogol was in a case practically all his life, Tolstoy in a different sort of case, Mayakovsky in a case that drove him to suicide. The list could be extended almost indefinitely.
“Oh, I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Who said that? Another man in a case, Prince Hamlet.
Readers of Chekhov in the year 1898, and the year 1998, and the year 2098 (if there is any humanity left then, and any readers), look at the major theme of Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy” and say to themselves: You know what? I’m a man in a case myself.
Notes to Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy”
The Theme of “Encasement” (One)
All three of the stories of “The Little Trilogy” are about the lack of freedom in human lives. They’re about people who live in shells, who build protective walls around themselves and stagnate behind those walls.
Russian critics have used the word “футлярность” [“Encasement,” taken from the title of the first story, “Человек в футляре, Man in a Case”] to describe “encasing oneself physically, morally and spiritually in order to reduce points of contact between oneself and the rest of the world” (the critic Karl Kramer).
Note that the idea of outside social or political restrictions on human freedom plays little role. In these stories, as well as in much of what Chekhov wrote, people are not free because they themselves choose not to be. As Ronald Hingley has written, “individuals were often as big a menace to their own freedom as any government, because of a tendency to accept from others, or to impose on themselves, unimaginative and stultifying patterns of behavior.” These stories are about how people encase themselves.
While embodied most obviously in the first story by the title character Belikov, the theme is all-encompassing. There is practically no one in any of the three stories who is not “encased.” Some more obvious examples: the gooseberry lover Nikolay Ivanovich in “Gooseberries,” the landowner Alyokhin in “About Love.” These are major characters, but the secondary characters live the same stultifying lives.
Mavra, the wife of the village elder (in “Man in a Case”) is “a perfectly healthy and by no means unintelligent woman, who had never been out of her native village in her life. She had never seen a town or a railroad, and had spent the last ten years sitting by her stove, venturing out only at night.” What is Mavra’s problem? We never find out. All we know is that she is another in the grand collective of encased humanity.
The list could go on indefinitely. There is the beautiful maidservant Pelageya, who turns up briefly in both “Gooseberries” and “About Love.” She is in love with the alcoholic cook Nikanor, an ugly violent character who beats her when drunk, but somehow she cannot make herself leave him. There is Anna Alekseevna of “About Love,” whose encasement leads her into emotional illness, but she is still in a case upon her final appearance. There are hardly any exceptions in the stories, not even Ivan Ivanich and Burkin, the hunters who narrate the first two tales. Only the first story is titled “Man in A Case,” but all three stories have people in cases.
The big moral question is why do people choose to give up their personal freedom and encase themselves? For different reasons. With Belikov in the first story the answer is obvious: the man is preternaturally fearful of practically everything in life. He keeps his shell on to protect himself from the world. But then, as we proceed with the narrative, things get more subtle. Alyokhin and his secret love, Anna Alekseevna in “About Love,” end up in a very complicated case/shell, provided by Life Itself, and they cannot find a way out of the shell.
“Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,” “About Love.” Anton Chekhov wrote his three stories, what later came to be called The Little Trilogy, in 1898. I’m not sure whether there were any commemorations of his feat in 1998, but there should have been public readings all over Russia and all over the world. That’s how good these stories are. If the world survives for another hundred years, in 2098 they will still be good.
Practically any writer of short stories in the world has been influenced by Chekhov’s stories. The way they are realistic bits and pieces of life, the way not much happens in them, the way the mood and subtleties of tone predominate.
So people try to write like Chekhov and, in large part, fail. That’s one reason that practically any issue of The New Yorker and any issue of the top American literary journals is full of bad stories.
Friday, July 14, 2017
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.
"ШИНЕЛЬ" VLADIMIR NABOKOV PRAISE FOR GOGOL'S "OVERCOAT" from epigraphs to book by U.R. Bowie, "GOGOL'S HEAD"
Postage Stamp Commemorating Publication of "The Overcoat" in 1842
The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in “The Overcoat” shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes that we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.
… Vladimir Nabokov
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
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.
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
FRONT MATTER OF THE BOOK:
The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull
A Gogolian Novel
(With Gogolian Biography Appended)
Series: The Collected Works of U.R. Bowie, Volume Eleven
Ogee Zakamora Publications, 2017
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Lee Bowie
All Rights Reserved
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.
In Lieu of an Introduction
Biographical One: Freak Shows (Ukraine, 1822)
Chapter One: The Exhumation
Biographical Two: Off to Meet Pushkin (St. Petersburg, Winter, 1829)
Biographical Three: The Hans Fiasco, First Flight (May, 1829)
Chapter Two: Meet Adrian Nule
Biographical Four: The Scrivener/Writer (St. Petersburg, 1829-1831)
Chapter Three: Shoes Run Amuck
Biographical Five: Good Times (St. Petersburg, Moscow,1831-1834)
Chapter Four: How It Began with Nule Biographical Six: Performing (1835-1836) Chapter Five: More Skullduggery
Biographical Seven: Wandering, Borrowing Money (1836-1839)
Chapter Six: Akaky Goes Out Partying
Biographical Eight: In Search of A Living Soul (1839-1842)
The Three-Handed (Moscow, February, 1842)
Buttons (Bad Gastein, Austria, early October, 1842)
Chapter Seven: The Politburo and the Skull
Biographical Nine: Floundering on, Petering out (1842-1845)
Chapter Eight: Nule’s Head Maunders On
Biographical Ten: Final Flight of the Buffleheaded Goo-Goo Bird
Dear Eyes Gone (Moscow, February, 1852)
Chapter Nine: An Eye for an Eye at the Hands of the Head
In Lieu of a Conclusion: Masafuera
If mere creative force is to be the standard of valuation, Gogol is the greatest of Russian writers. In this respect he need hardly fear comparison with Shakespeare, and can boldly stand by the side of Rabelais. Neither Pushkin nor Tolstoy possessed anything like that volcano of imaginative creativeness.
… D.S. Mirsky
Nobody can ever imagine what Gogol was really like. From beginning to end everything about him is incomprehensible. The individual features are blurred, inchoate—they refuse to add up to anything.
… Anna Akhmatova
What are you like? As a person you are secretive, egotistical, arrogant, and mistrustful, a man who sacrifices everything for fame. As a friend what are you like? But then, do you really have any friends?
… Pletnyov letter to Gogol, October, 1844
Дорога, дорога—дорогая дорога—дорога мне дороже всего (The road, the road—the dear road—dearest of all to me is the road).
… Gogol letter to Pogodin, October, 1840
The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in “The Overcoat” shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes that we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.
… Vladimir Nabokov
In Lieu of an Introduction
This is the story of a head, and the story of the man who lost his head, and the story of what happened to the lost head. We begin with background on the man. In the process of telling the story of the purloined head, we tell—in lieu of a biography—a truncated version of the life of the man. We cut through all the lies and establish the truth.
Adrian Lee Nule, ABD
March 20, 2015
Monday, July 10, 2017
Icon of the Three-Handed, St. Nicholas Cathedral, St. Petersburg
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).”
Karl Gampeln portrait of E.M. Khomyakova