Friday, April 24, 2015

Fabulist Jean de la Fontaine received last rites, then lived two more years

Death came as no surprise to Jean de la Fontaine, and he spent two years getting ready for it. Ailing all that time with a disease characterized by his biographers only as “severe,” “serious,” and “dangerous,” he renounced his pleasantly libertine life and began wearing a hair-shirt as penance. Of his scandalous Contes, salacious tales based on Boccacio’s Decameron, he told the priest who administered the last rites: “It is notorious that I have had the misfortune to write this book of infamous Tales. In writing them I did not believe them as pernicious as they are. Now I confess that the book is abominable. I am deeply contrite for having written and published it. I pray for pardon to God, to the Church, and to you, sir, who are his minister… I wish that the work had never been written, and that it were in my power to suppress it entirely."

Today La Fontaine is remembered mainly for his more wholesome Fables, adapted from the works of Aesop. His literary life developed only after two other professions proved dead ends. Born July 8, 1621, in Château-Thierry, he was sent by his middle-class family to the seminary of Saint-Magloire to study for the priesthood. He didn’t last long at this pursuit, and then took up law and was admitted to practice.

When La Fontaine was twenty-six, his father arranged a marriage for him to a fourteen-year-old girl named Marie Héricart, who brought with her a dowry of 20,000 livres and a penchant for reading novels and skipping housework. They had one son, and when he was five, La Fontaine left the family in Château-Thierry and settled into a literary life in Paris.

He attracted the patronage of a series of wealthy Parisians. First was Nicolas Fouquet, Minister of Finance for Louis XIV. When Fouquet went to jail for malfeasance, La Fontaine took up with Marguerite de Lorrain, a wealthy widow. After her death, La Fontaine found yet another patron willing to house and cosset him, Marguerite de la Sablière, a banker’s widow. During this period of support he wrote the Contes, as well as the Fables, which established him as a leading literary figure. He also became a great pal of Molière, Racine, and Boileau.

Though schooled in religion from an early age, La Fontaine remained indifferent to it throughout most of his life. He seems to have had a fairly stoic attitude toward life and death, as exemplified in this excerpt from one of his Fables, “Death and the Dying Man” (in my own no doubt faulty translation):
            Yes, Death will come, I must point out,
            But many folks just don’t believe,
            Though there’s no shadow of a doubt.
            One man who wanted a reprieve
            Was very old and gravely ill,
            At least a hundred years in age!
            He said, “I’m working on my will
            And haven’t reached the final page.
            Now listen, Death, just wait a while.
            My wife, you see, says she’d prefer
            You come back later, so that I’ll
            Have some more time to spend with her….”

            “Old man,” said Death, “you have no case—
            You’ve lived at least a hundred years,
            There aren’t ten people anyplace
            As old as you. Spare me your tears!
            You should have been prepared before,
            How many times must you be told
            There are some things you can’t ignore:
            You’re very sick. You’re also old.
            Let me give you some advice
            That will resolve all your concerns.
            Your candle’s out in just a trice,
            Look and see how low it burns.
            Your wife, without you, will be fine—
            Not later than this afternoon.
            Besides, unless I’m very wrong,
            She will be joining you quite soon….”

            Death was absolutely right.
            When I am old, I hope to die
            Just like a guest who makes a toast,
            And bids the other guests good-bye,
            And then politely tells his host,
            “I had a lovely time. Good night.”

In 1693 Madame La Sablière died, and in the same year La Fontaine came down with his severe illness. His poor health caused him to turn to religion. Father Pouget, a twenty-six-year-old curate from the nearby Church of Saint-Roch came to minister to him and later described the experience in his diary:

"M. de la Fontaine, who was a straightforward and plain-spoken man and was very intelligent, said to me simply:  ‘I have read the New Testament, and I assure you it is an excellent book; but there is one thing in it to which I cannot agree—the idea of eternal punishment. I do not see how such an eternity can be in accordance with God's goodness.'

"I replied that it was not necessary that he understand; that there were things even more incomprehensible that he was obliged to believe; that in general all mysteries are incomprehensible.…”

On February 12, 1693, La Fontaine was given the last rites, but he lived on another two years, suffering from his unnamed malady—cancer, perhaps, or congestive heart failure. He accepted the advent of death with calmness, and on February 10, 1695, two years almost to the day from the last rites, he wrote to a friend: "I assure you that your best friend can only reckon on being alive another fortnight.”

But not until April 10 did La Fontaine’s condition worsen, and on April 13 he died at the age of seventy-six. He was buried in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, which was demolished in 1786. In 1817 remains believed to be those of La Fontaine were reinterred at Père Lachaise Cemetery, next to Molière.

La Fontaine left a whimsical epitaph for himself:
      Jean has gone, in the manner he arrived.
      His money, too, has not survived.
      He earned little wealth, but there’s no need to weep,
      For he lived his life by a strict protocol:
      One half of his time he spent sound asleep,
      And the other half doing nothing at all.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Satirist Nikolai Gogol, 42, died from extreme pious pre-Lenten fasting

Class clown in school, lifelong victim of painful digestive problems, frustrated closeted homosexual, creator of savage satire and groundbreaking realism—Nikolai Gogol met an anguished death after embarking on a ten-day pre-Lenten fast to cleanse his body and soul.

Born March 19, 1809, in the Ukrainian village of Sorochintsy into a family of minor gentry, Gogol attended an all-boys’ school, where he was notorious for his biting wit and his grotesque comic portrayals of old men and women in school plays. He went to St. Petersburg, where he tried to get a job as an actor and to get some of his writings published—failing at both. Instead, he stole some money that his mother had sent him to pay her mortgage and used it for a long holiday in Germany. When his cash ran out, he came back to St. Petersburg, took a low-paying government job, then was hired to teach history in a girls’ school, and—wonder of wonders—managed somehow to wangle appointment as assistant professor of history at St. Petersburg University. Not surprisingly, he felt unqualified for that job and left it after a year.

He immersed himself in his writing and over the next several years produced the well-received short stories “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Taras Bulba,” as well as a popular satirical play, The Government Inspector. He also continued to work on Dead Souls, a monumental trilogy that was to be a new Divine Comedy, and the first part was published in 1842. By this time Gogol was recognized as a leading literary figure.

His personal life, however, was a mess. A repressed homosexual, he never developed any lasting relationships. Moreover, he was plagued throughout his life by digestive disturbances that are now thought to have been irritable bowel syndrome. He suffered constant intestinal cramps, borborgyma (grumbling of the stomach), constipation, and diarrhea. Gogol claimed that his stomach was malformed and positioned upside down. Despite his continued discomfort, Gogol was a gourmand who could not stay away from rich, fat food—especially his beloved macaroni laced with butter and cheese—which only worsened his condition.

In 1851 Gogol settled in Moscow in a house owned by Count Alexander Tolstoy, a prominent distant forebear of the writer Leo Tolstoy. Gogol had a tight-knit circle of friends, one of whom was a young woman who was married to one of Gogol’s friends and was the sister of another. Gogol felt especially close to her, and when she died at thirty-five of typhus, he was devastated.

He fell into a deep depression and, convinced of his spiritual unworthiness, he turned for comfort to a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Matvey Konstantinovsky. The priest turned out to be a fanatical sadist who instilled in Gogol a pathological fear of damnation. Insisting that his writings were the devil’s work, the priest persuaded Gogol to destroy most of his unpublished manuscripts, including the second part of the unfinished Dead Souls. Gogol then began 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.

Gogol’s digestive system was so disrupted that when he broke the fast, he became violently ill, and doctors prescribed baths in boiling water and bleeding by leeches, both of which naturally made him feel much worse. Of his stomach woes, he wrote to a friend, “In my internal house so much washing, cleaning, and all kinds of trouble is going on that the landlord can't begin to explain it even to his closest friend." He was able to tolerate only a few sips of water mixed with a tiny amount of wine. His stomach became so shrunken that when his physicians palpated it, they were horrified to feel his backbone.

As one commentator graphically described Gogol’s final hours: “From his nose, the organ that had incited his appetite, seven leeches dangled. Ice packs were placed on his head; hot mustard plasters seared his legs. Eventually his bowels ceased to function. Near the end, when his body temperature dropped precipitously, pitchers of hot water were placed at his feet. Hot loaves of bread nestled against his chilled body. But he could not be saved.”

On March 4, 1852, physically tormented and mentally deranged by his illness and its treatment, Gogol died at his Moscow home. He was forty-two.

The funeral was at St. Tatiana Church at Moscow University, followed by burial at the Danilov Monastery, the grave marked by a stone topped with a Russian Orthodox cross. Fearful that an attack of lethargy might be mistaken for his death and that he would be buried alive, Gogol had wanted an airhole in his coffin and a rope leading to a bell on the surface. There is no evidence, however, that such arrangements were made. In 1931 the monastery was demolished and Gogol’s remains were moved to the Novodevichy Cemetery.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Poet Alexander Pushkin, 37, shot in spleen in lovers’ duel

Only thirty-seven when he challenged his wife’s suspected lover to a duel,  Alexander Pushkin was shot in the spleen and died two days later. Acknowledged as Russia’s greatest poet and the founder of Russian literature, Pushkin will be remembered for his two monumental works, Eugene Onegin and Boris Goudonov.

Born June 6, 1799, to an aristocratic family in Moscow, Pushkin was the great grandson of an African slave who was brought to Russia a century earlier as a gift for Tsar Peter the Great and who worked his way up in the imperial court. Like many young people born into privilege, Pushkin became a radical rebel and was often in trouble with the Tsar’s political police.

Pushkin attended the Imperial Lyceum near Saint Petersburg, and then plunged into the raucous intellectual milieu of the city on the Neva, a life that included heavy drinking, gambling, and womanizing. When he was twenty-one, he published his first major poem, Ruslan and Lyudmila, which made a major splash in literary circles. His activism for social reform resulted in his exile to various provinces and ultimately to seclusion on his mother’s estate.  Meanwhile he finished his epic play Boris Goudonov in 1825, but it was suppressed by the government until 1831—and was never produced in its uncensored form until 2007. Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, followed in 1833. 

An atheist in his youth, by the time he was in his thirties he had settled into a fairly conventional Russian Orthodoxy, although his beliefs very likely edged toward deism. He also was a member of a militant Masonic lodge known as Ovid.

In 1831, at the age of thirty-two, Pushkin married the sixteen-year-old Natalia Goncharov, with whom he had four children in rapid succession. Natalia was a flighty spendthrift, and Pushkin continued to gamble recklessly, so the family finances were always strained. 

Pushkin was notorious for engaging in duels to defend his honor, having fought some twenty-nine, so when he heard that his wife had been propositioned by her brother-in-law, he challenged him to fight, although dueling had been outlawed. Whether Natalia, who had been known to flirt with others including Tsar Nicholas, reciprocated the proposition in any way is an open question.  Nonetheless, Pushkin and Georges d’Anthès met at sunset on January 27, 1837, in a wooded area on the banks of the Neva half-an-hour’s sleighride outside St. Petersburg. 

Both men were wearing some sort of protective gear, and D’Anthès was wearing the uniform of the Tsar’s Horse Guards regiment with large, shiny buttons. Both men carried pistols, and at ten paces they turned and fired. Both shots were true, but a button on D’Anthès uniform deflected the shot and he received only a slight flesh wound in his arm.  Pushkin took a shot in the belly, piercing his spleen and his femoral artery. He died two days later of internal hemorrhaging.

Pushkin’s funeral was originally scheduled for the St. Petersburg cathedral, but was moved at the last minute to a smaller church because it was feared the many mourners might pose a threat to public order. The Tsar gave orders for a handsome stipend to support Pushkin’s family, who thereafter lived in far greater comfort than Pushkin was ever able to provide.