Literary Daybook, Feb. 21

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published February 21, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 21, Irma Leopold is found alive.
-- "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1967)
by Joan Lindsay

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1852 Nikolai Gogol died, at the age of 42. 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 that led one critic to label him the Hieronymus Bosch of Russian literature. (Or its Edgar Allan Poe: Both were born in 1809, and Poe died just a few years earlier.) Always deeply religious, Gogol came under the influence of a fanatical priest late in life; his ministrations, coupled with those of several quack doctors, made Gogol's last days all too similar to his nightmare stories. He became convinced that he should cleanse himself by various mortifications -- fasting, not sleeping, praying, reading the lives of the saints. Writing was viewed as unholy, and he burned the manuscripts of his sequels to "Dead Souls." His doctors' last-hour attempts to save him included trying to hypnotize him into eating, applying plasters and blisters to his extremities, rubbing various concoctions onto his stomach, 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  Dostoevski said that he and his contemporaries came "out from under Gogol's overcoat" -- and some modern critics, such as Vladimir Nabokov, go further:

"Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight ... [but] when, as in his immortal 'The Overcoat,' 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."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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