The word “weird” could have been invented for Russia’s greatest comic writer, Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852, though one almost wants to write 1852–1809), who actually managed to be born on April 1 (March 20 by the Russian calendar). No one understood him, least of all himself. “What an intelligent, queer, and sick creature!” exclaimed Ivan Turgenev. When he died, one of his best friends, the writer Sergei Aksakov, wrote to his son Ivan: “I don’t know whether anyone liked Gogol exclusively as a human being. I don’t think so; it was, in fact, impossible. How can you love one whose body and spirit are recovering from self-inflicted torture?”

Even Gogol’s name was fictitious, a sort of natural pseudonym. The family name was Yanovsky, but when Catherine the Great decreed that only hereditary gentry could own serfs, Gogol’s Ukrainian grandfather invented a noble ancestor,...

 
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