Gogol, Sholokhov, Communism

On this day in 1852 Nikolai Gogol died at the age of forty-two. Gogol’s wide popularity and unique style — a realistic-absurdist hybrid found most famously in stories such as “The Nose” and the novel Dead Souls — has led to his being labeled both the father and the Hieronymous Bosch of Russian literature.

Gogol’s last days mirrored one of his nightmare stories all too closely. Convinced by his priest that he should cleanse himself by not only fasting and praying but by renouncing his writing as unholy, Gogol apparently burned the manuscripts of his sequels to Dead Souls, the labor of years. His doctors’ last-hour attempts to save him included applying blisters to his extremities and giving him hot baths while pouring ice water on his head. 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.

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Mikhail Sholokhov died on this day in 1984. Sholokhov did not get his Nobel until 1965, but he had been an influential writer since the publication of And Quiet Flows the Don in 1934 and a member of the Supreme Soviet as early as 1937. His scathing speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party (1956) about the sorry state of Soviet literature begins with an allusion to Gogol, an unflattering description of many members of the Union of Soviet Writers as “dead souls.” After blasting his colleagues for their bad books and bourgeois living, Sholokhov proposes that the Party build houses for them right on the collective farms and factory sites, so that they might be more directly inspired to write literature that glorified “the all-conquering ideas of Communism, the greatest hope of mankind.”

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The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest…. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

–from Chapter One of Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, published on this day in 1848

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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