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.