Literary daybook, Feb. 21

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 21, 2003 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 his stories "The Nose" and "The Overcoat," the play "The Inspector General," and the novel "Dead Souls" -- is a comic-tragic-absurd hybrid that 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 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 not merely by fasting, praying and reading the lives of the saints but also 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 and applying blisters to his extremities but also 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 appendage in his breakfast roll, just as one Major Kovalyov awakens to find his gone. There follows an entertaining and eerie tale of the barber's attempt to get rid of the nose and the major's attempt 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 that 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 Kovalyov 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-pound 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.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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