Here are the first fifteen pages of my forthcoming publication, THREE NOVELLAS ON RUSSIAN THEMES. The first novella features Nikolai Gogol. The first two are set entirely in Russia and have all Russian characters.
THIS BOOK WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE ON AMAZON, about Feb. 15, 2015
Three Novellas on Russian Themes
Эх, русский народец! Не любит умирать своей смертью!
(Oh, these Russian people! No way they want to die a natural death!)
Русь, куда несешься ты? Дай ответ! Не дает ответа.
(Rus, whither art thou bound in thy precipitate flight? Answer me! No answer.)
…Gogol, Dead Souls
The Leningrad Symphony
(Ленинградская Симфония) 37
Троеручица (The Three-Handed)
February, 1842, Moscow
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, and no one felt sure of who the real Gogol was. 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 he was all tensed up, nervous to extremes. But with her, with Ekaterina Mikhailovna, he 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 was never attracted sensually to any woman, never had a single affair. 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—with 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” (Mee-loj och-ee vash-oj yas-noj): “Sweet they are, your clear pure eyes.”
Early October, 1842, Bad Gastein, Germany
It was a beautiful sunny day, the air was crisp with early fall. The shade of the yellow linden leaves was shimmering on a white tablecloth, as they, the two Nikolais, Gogol and Yazykov, sat at an outdoor café drinking coffee. The writing had gone well that day, and Gogol was exuberant. Yazykov was afflicted with spinal muscular atrophy, but the pain in his back went away when Gogol was full of life. You looked at his face and you felt like laughing.
Gogol’s blond hair was down to his shoulders, and his brown eyes had that special glint of gaiety. He wore a gold-rimmed pince-nez on his bird beak. He kept taking it off and putting it back on.
“You know what I love?” he asked suddenly, out of the blue.
“What?” asked Yazykov, smiling.
“I love vests, all different colors of vests, and I love coats and macaroni, but most of all I love buttons.”
He made that last, commonplace word—пуговицы—so utterly ludicrous in the way he pronounced it that Yazykov burst out laughing.
As usual, Gogol was making a show of not being in on the joke. He loved to play out his humor deadpan, and his deadpan look spiced up the game.
“Phoo” (said Gogol). “You know what I hate?”
(Smiling) “No, what do you hate?”
Gogol the actor screwed up his face into a comical grimace, pushing his lips up to the point where they almost touched the tip of his long nose.
“I hate high society. I can’t stand the company of ignoramuses!”
(Still smiling) “I already knew that. You’ve told me time and again.”
(Noticing the smile and almost dropping the deadpan, letting a smile curve at the corners of his lips, laughing at himself) “You knew that. Yes. Did you know that what I need for my work is solitude? Absolute solitude. I should have been a monk!”
Now they both were laughing, and then Gogol put on a look of feigned annoyance:
“Stop mocking me, Nikolenka! You can’t deny that there’s no higher calling on earth than monkdom!”
After they stopped laughing at that Yazykov spoke up again.
“With you it all depends on how you’re feeling. If you’re in a melancholy mood and you say you want to be a monk, well, then I can take you seriously. But if you’re in a creative mood, the mood you’re in today, then I conjure up an image of you in a monastery, walking around in a cassock and mumbling prayers, and I roll on the ground laughing.”
“You’re right, of course, my friend. Aren’t you always right?”
“You were reading me those passages from Dead Souls yesterday, performing the whole thing like an actor, and you came to the part where Chichikov and Manilov are about to go through a door into the drawing room, and each of them insists that the other go first. And you were acting it out, that, “No, please, you go first,” and then, “Oh, no, my dear sir, I insist, after you.” Sitting there looking at you, I could see the both of them, first Chichikov, then Manilov, exactly how they looked, even when they squeezed through the door side by side. You managed to be both of them simultaneously! When I’m in the presence of something so marvelous, all I can do is revel in it, and laugh.”
“Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky,” said Gogol in an absentminded way, thinking of something else. He took off his pince-nez again, let it dangle from its cord over his polka-dotted mauve vest.
“Yes, you’re always right,” he said. “On a day like today I want to live! Listen. Here’s another joke.”
Nikolai Gogol smiled, anticipating how funny he would make the story, how he would amuse his friend, and Nikolai Yazykov smiled as well, at that anticipation.
“A Chukchee Eskimo from the hinterlands of the Arctic Far East came to visit Moscow. The Chukchee was a tourist, and he went first of all to see Red Square. He was limping around Red Square, dragging one foot behind him.”
Gogol stood up from behind the table and began limping in place as he told it, clacking on the cobblestones in the high heels of his shoes. Yazykov laughed again.
“He was gimping along, wearing only one shoe, and a local man, a Muscovite, noticed him.”
Gogol stopped and took off one high-heeled shoe. He put it down on the tabletop, in a patch of linden-leaf shade, and continued the limping show, while the gold-rimmed pince-nez bounced against the bright-yellow polka dots on his vest. Staid Germans seated at nearby tables looked over in alarm.
“The Muscovite approached the bedraggled Chukchee.”
Now he was aping the local man as he walked up, bent nearly double, putting on a silly, ingratiating face, and Yazykov went off into a different dimension of laughter.
‘Excuse me, Mr. Chukchee,’ said the Muscovite, ‘but you seem to have lost a shoe.’
‘Oh, no,’ said the Chukchee.
Gogol was using a high-pitched Chukchee voice, squinting his eyes to portray an Asian face steeped in idiocy, and Yazykov was up out of his chair, holding his sides. Then came the punch line:
‘Oh, no. I found one!’”
Stepping away from Yazykov, who was grasping the back of his chair, heaving with laugher, Gogol grabbed a folded umbrella from beside the table and yelled, “Off we go! Time for a walk!” The Germans at nearby tables went on staring at the spectacle, disconcerted.
He took back the shoe from the tabletop, put it under one arm. He stepped out onto the cobblestones, his blonde hair falling down over his eyes. Holding the umbrella high, like a drum major’s baton, Gogol marched off down the narrow street, one foot in a worsted stocking, the other foot shod. Still in the throes of laughter, Yazykov threw down some coins on the table and raced after him. Bystanders stopped, open-mouthed, as Nikolai Gogol marched along, totally deadpan. When he reached the fountain in the center of the square, he suddenly burst out singing a Ukrainian folk song, then followed that with a swashbuckling dance. He danced on for a few minutes more, kicking out his legs and swinging the umbrella and the shoe in all different directions. After that he wrested the other shoe off his foot, threw both shoes in the air, then turned and danced his barefoot way back to his friend.
Gogol stopped in front of Yazykov. He threw the umbrella back over his shoulder. Carefully sticking the pince-nez in place back on the bridge of his nose, he went into a pose of frozen startled bewilderment, mimicking the mayor in the final, dumb scene of his play, The Inspector General. Then, squeezing his long slender proboscis, pinching it with a forefinger and thumb, he put on a cross-eyed face and improvised in a nasal voice on a line from his famous story, “The Nose”:
“No, my dear sir. You are mistaken. By no means and in no way am I your very own nose. I, my good man, am my very own man!”
Очей Милых Нету (Dear Eyes Gone)
January, 1852, Moscow
She died young, of typhoid fever, on January 26, 1852. After the requiem service (panikhida) that he himself had arranged for her, in the private chapel of Count A.P. Tolstoy, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, his whole body shaking with sobs, stood in the arms of her husband, Khomyakov.
Aleksei Khomyakov pushed back the mop of brown hair from his brow, in that characteristic gesture of his. He knew he had to be strong; he saw the state that Gogol was in.
“How can it be, Aleksei Stepanovich? How can it be that she’s gone?”
“God is merciful, Nikolai Vasilievich. Somehow we will learn to bear this.”
Gogol no longer wore the gold-rimmed pince-nez. He had on a black frock coat with long tails and little mother-of-pearl buttons. He had lost a lot of weight and his clothing hung loosely on his frail body.
“Yes. God always takes the best. No human thought can imagine even a hundredth part of the infinite love that God has for man! And death. Life would not be so precious and beautiful, if not for death.”
“Thirty-five years old, Nikolai Vasilievich. She was only thirty-five. What will I do with the children?”
“Her eyes, Aleksei Stepanovich. How can it be that those grey eyes are gone? I can’t bear it, my friend. When Nikolenka died in 1846, I felt as if I were left missing a limb. And now this. No, this is worse. This means the end for me. I’m finished.”
“It’s a terrible blow, Nikolai Vasilievich, but we must go on.”
“I pray for her every day. I pray on into the night. I fast and pray.”
“Try to get a grip on yourself, Nikolai Vasilievich.”
“I fear nothing now. The Lord has a grip on me.”
“You must go back to your writings.”
“It’s too late. God in His wisdom has taken from me the ability to create. I long have tortured myself, forced myself to write, but all to no avail. I will never finish the rest of Dead Souls. My soul is dead to the written word. Only prayer can help me.”
“My friend, this severe regimen of fasting, it’s not good for you. She would have told you so herself. You must eat. And sleep.”
No reply. He did not want to eat, nor did he want to sleep. He wanted to die.
“I can still see her riding sidesaddle on that horse. Remember, Nikolai Vasilievich? All decked out, wearing garlands in their hair, festoons of flowers, she and Lise Chertkova, they came riding up to your name day party, laughing at the open mouths of the guests as they made that grand entrance on horseback. It was at the Pogodin house, we were all out in the gardens. They had nightingales in cages. The Aksakovs were there, the Elagins, Nashchokin, Professor Botkin. Who else? It was May 9, but which year? 1841? 1842? Right before you left to return to Rome.”
Gogol was barely listening.
“It’s too late, and now she’s gone. I can’t bear such a loss.”
“Then you made a punch for all the guests, out in the arbor. You were lighting a mixture of rum and champagne, and you compared that blue flame to the uniform of the secret police, and you said that flame represented the chief gendarme, Count Benkendorf, who would now proceed to occupy the stomachs of all the guests, where he would restore order. Do you recall that joke, Nikolai Vasilievich?”
“I went to the Holy Land, hoping to find peace of mind, desperate to learn what the Lord wanted of me. I prayed beside the tomb of the Son of God and felt nothing! What a shame that she didn’t come with me. It might have been different. What did I bring back? Somewhere in Samaria I plucked a wild flower; somewhere in Galilee another. Nothing else. It’s hopeless.”
“Nothing is hopeless while we still have life.”
“Her eyes are gone. The way she would look at me. That just can’t be. ‘Sweet they are, your clear pure eyes.’”
Less than a month later, refusing to eat, barely sleeping, praying incessantly, Nikolai Gogol burned the pages of his manuscript for the second part of Dead Souls, took to his bed, and died of exhaustion, inanition, emaciation. He was not quite forty-three years old. Gogol was buried at the Danilov Monastery cemetery in Moscow, not far from the gravesite of Ekaterina Mikhailovna Khomyakova.
Накануне (On the Eve)
It was eight p.m. on June 25, 1931, and the renowned bibliophile, Professor Vladimir Germanovich Lidin, was relaxing at his spacious apartment on Semashko Street in Moscow. He was rearranging the books on his shelves, placing Fyodor Dostoevsky up a shelf higher than Lev Tolstoy, then moving him back to a shelf lower.
Lidin, a fastidious middle-aged bachelor with a balding head, wearing a red dressing gown imported from Persia, smiled as he worked, losing himself in conjectures about the only topic on earth that enthralled him: Russian literature. Now, if Tolstoy and Dostoevsky had met on that evening in 1878, when they both were in the lecture hall for Solovyov’s talk. . . had they met, what would they have said to each other? Or this: had Pushkin not been killed in a duel at a young age, would he, rather than Tolstoevsky, have turned out to be the great voice of the Russian realist novel? Or perhaps Lermontov? What if Gogol had talked some sense into his refractory head, young Lermontov’s, on the one time they met in 1840?
That’s when the phone rang.
--Is that you, Vladik?
--One and the same (said Lidin, who put on a face of light irony for the world at large).
-- It’s Petya. Big news. Are you busy tomorrow?
--I don’t know, Petya. Depends on how big the news is.
Pyotr Borisovich Ertel (Petya), a casual friend, who held a sinecure at the Historical Museum, was a wiry man of thirty-four, with a swirl of curly black hair that quavered and danced on his head. He spoke with a perpetual air of glib ingratiation, as if always hoping that his words would please, while fearing they would not.
--Tomorrow they’re doing an exhumation. They’re disinterring Nikolai Gogol at the Danilov Monastery!
--That’s big news indeed. Why are they digging him up?
--They’re closing down the cemetery at Danilov, making the monastery into a home for wayward boys. Anyone who’s anyone gets moved to Novodevichy. Anyone who’s not just loses his tombstone, but stays right there underground and goes on mouldering.
--If I were there, Petya (joked witty Vladik), I’d prefer to be one of the ones who’s nobody. That way they’d leave me alone.
--Yes, if you want to remain un-exhumed, being a nobody has its advantages.
--Who are the other honorees, i.e., the ones being dug up?
--Don’t know yet. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.
--Sounds interesting. What time does this macabre little party begin, Petya?
--Try to get there early in the morning; that way you won’t miss anything.
After hanging up the phone, Professor Lidin sat motionless for a few moments. A member of the Soviet intelligentsia and, consequently, a muser on issues of deep philosophical import, Lidin was caught up in flights of fancy.
So Nikolai Vasilievich died in 1852, and now they’re digging him up. If I were to think illegal thoughts, which, in the new age of the rationalistic Soviet man, I, of course, will not dare to think, but for purposes, merely, of discussion, let’s say I could think them. . . . Yes. So when Gogol died he had a soul (it was so presumed), and, according to then widely accepted religious beliefs, at the time of his death the soul was separated from the body and ascended into Heaven, which, of course, does not exist. Gogol wrote a whole novel about souls, living and dead, and, at least in the context of that book, he seemed convinced that almost every soul on earth was more dead than living, that is (not to put too fine a point on it), corrupted in a moral sense.
Then later, alarmed at the iffy state of his own soul, fearing that it might likely even fall into the category of dead, he went into a religious frenzy. He had hopes of reviving his dead soul, or at least making it qualify for redemption at the time of the “Last Judgment.” He prayed zealously, for hours on end, he fasted to the point of excruciation, and he, of course, wrote on and on, obsessively, hoping to complete the second and third volumes of Dead Souls. By the very act of completing the novel, so he reasoned in his megalomania, he would discover the meaning of life and save the world. But he never could complete the book, and he fell into despair and burned the manuscript (see Ilya Repin’s famous painting of the burning), and then he starved himself to death.
At any rate, when they dig him up tomorrow, what will they find? A skeleton in a frock coat—that’s the most likely thing—but not a soul, not even a dead soul. And what if the body lies un-decayed? In the Russian Orthodox Church (back when it still existed) if you dug up a body and it was uncorrupted that was a sign of sainthood. Yet, then again, these thoughts are all atavistic remnants of a former time. In the new Age of Socialism we have pitched all such religious and superstitious conjectures off the ship of modernity, which steams ever onward toward Utopia. We are aware, are we not, that flesh we are, and flesh alone, and ‘soul’ is simply another word for something made of flesh?
Yes. And what about ancient folkloric proscriptions worldwide against tampering with dead bodies in graves? Well, if there are no souls, there are, consequently, no ghosts, and, therefore, we need have no qualms about disinterring dead bodies and, in the interest of scientific progress, having a look at what’s left of the remains. In our New Soviet time feeling queasy about such things places one in the camp of the reactionaries. Yes.