Seven leeches hung from his nose. His shrunken form was splashed with boiling hot and freezing cold water alternately and his hands struggled against the tight grip of the rope tying them to his bed, while he screamed and whimpered in pain. This is how the godfather of Russian literature, Nikolai Gogol, spent his last days. Hailed as one of Russia’s greatest writers, he led a life punctuated by self consciousness and tragedy in a curious pattern where life often imitated art.
A Young Outsider
Nikolai was born to Ukrainian gentry in 1809. Often feeling out of place amongst his peers, Gogol took refuge in amateur theatre. He distinguished himself by his biting tongue, his contributions of prose and poetry to a magazine, and his portrayal of comic old men and women in school theatricals.
Vasilievka, the family estate of Gogol\’s family
Despite the knowledge that he could probably go for a career on the stage, he moved to St. Petersburg in search of literary fame. However, realising that it was easier said than done, he embezzled money his mother gave him. After a failed attempt at poetry and acting as a career, he decided to sail to Germany on tour.
On returning to St. Petersburg, he somehow found an ill paying government job, simultaneously contributing articles to periodicals and newspapers. He also published another poem, Evenings On A Farm Near Dikanka (1831) which became extremely popular, followed by another volume. He found fans in incredible poets like Alexander Pushkin and Vasily Zhukovsky. However, he still wasn’t satisfied.
Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka
A Personal Failure
Now, while he was hailed as a great writer, his personal life lay in shambles. A repressed homosexual, he was unable to develop lasting relationships and had a painful lifelong bout of what came to be known as ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome’. He had to suffer through constant intestinal cramps, borborgyma (grumbling of the stomach), constipation, and diarrhea. Not only that, when he finally found relative peace and happiness in a close knit circle of friends in Moscow, it was soon shattered by the death of a very close friend, Catherine.
Self Inflicted Torture
Catherine’s death seems to have ignited something in him, because Gogol, convinced of his spiritual unworthiness, turned to a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Matvey Konstantinovsky. The latter turned out to be an incredible sadist and launched Gogol into a schedule of ritual torture, branded as ‘atonement’, He made him burn all his unpublished manuscripts, including the second manuscript of ‘Dead Souls’ and had him begin an extreme fast in preparation for the feast of Maslenitsa, a pre-Lenten Orthodox celebration in which people gorge themselves on dairy products before the forty days of penitence.
An Undeserved End
When he broke the fast his physical and mental state deteriorated so severely that his doctors saw no choice but to prescribe leeches and boiling baths in an attempt to snap him out of it. The treatment was a stunning failure, and the writer died on February 21, 1852, at the age of 42.
Why You Need to Read Gogol