It’s the birthday of Russian writer Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (books by this author), born in Great Sorochintsy, Ukraine in 1809 (March 31st according to the Old Calendar). His mother was extremely devout, and his father was a bureaucrat who owned a vodka distillery on 3,000 acres and had more than 300 serfs working for him.
After graduating from school, he went off to St. Petersburg, ready to take on the world. First he tried acting, but he failed at his audition. So he wrote an idyllic poem glorifying Germany, and self-published it at his own expense. It got nasty reviews, and he was so ashamed that he bought all the copies, burned them, and decided never to write poetry again.
But eventually he tried writing prose, short stories rooted in the folklore and culture of rural Ukraine, and his first book, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831), was a big success. A few years later, he produced a comic play, The Government Inspector (1836). The satirical play mocked the ineptitude of the Russian bureaucracy, but it was extremely popular, and even Czar Nicholas loved it — he is reported to have said, “Everyone gets the business here. Me most of all.”
Gogol produced several more books of short stories; his most famous stories include “The Nose,” about a nose that takes off on its own, dressed in uniform and acting like any other human being; and “The Overcoat,” which has been endlessly interpreted. Dostoevsky is rumored to have said, about himself and his contemporaries: “We all emerged from Gogol’s overcoat.”
But Gogol became a religious fanatic, the follower of a Russian Orthodox priest who convinced him that all art was sinful. He fasted so severely in his attempt to overcome the Devil that he destroyed his health, and the doctors tried to treat him with leeches, which only further weakened him, and he died at the age of 43.