On February 24, 1852, the mood in Moscow was one of joyful abandon. It was Maslenitsa, the last week of licentiousness before the sacrificial severity of the Great Lent began. Red-cheeked boys threw snowballs at passing sleighs. Neighbors carried trays of sweet buttery pancakes to the beggars in the alleys. Men and women laughed heartily at the ridiculous costumes of the masqueraders on their way to the countless parties around town. There was dancing and music and drink to be had in surplus.
But inside the Talyzin mansion on Nikitsky Boulevard, an emaciated and pale-faced Nikolai sat in the dark as a sign of contradiction. The deliverance of Russia, his Russia, he saw was beyond his reach. All he could do to assist now in its redemption was to cure his own filthy soul, and he’d gotten a head start. He’d barely eaten a bite since he made confession and received the Eucharist the week before. His stomach, always a problem for him throughout his life, now crowed like a rooster. He rarely slept, waking himself to recite delirious prayers of reparation.
“You are on the right path,” Father Matvey Konstantinovsky, his spiritual advisor had told him, “but it is your ideas, your imagination, your… your writing, Nikolai, that is the source of your gravest offenses. You must renounce everything you’ve ever done.”
Dead Souls was planned to be only the first book of Nikolai Gogol’s version of the Divine Comedy. Book II, his Purgatorio, the product of the last ten years of his life, he incinerated page by page in his fireplace that night.
It was not to be his only act of destruction. Nine days later, his doctors were shocked to feel his backbone through his belly as they unsuccessfully tried to save him from his “holy anorexia.”