Writing musings

Visiting Gogol’s ghost

Moscow in October is a city cooling down, readying itself for a long winter. Black winter coats are uniform, summer flower beds are empty, covered with colourful wood shavings to fool the eye with brightness, and the sky is a low lid of grey. The tourists have gone. It’s a good time to have the city’s astonishing array of art galleries, museums and icon-stuffed, incense-laden churches to yourself. It is also a good month to commune with the ghosts of dead writers in the houses where they lived and died: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov and Gorky’s houses are all open and each one is surprisingly personal. Tolstoy’s house is bright and warm, each room filled with photos of the great man at work, his long white beard tumbling down over his desk. Photos, too, of loving, patient, demanding, infuriating Countess Sophia and of their many children. But the Khamovniki house was always more his wife’s house than his; he never liked being in Moscow, and though they lived there from 1881 to 1901, the impression he left there was a light one, so that it as if his sense of unease in the city has persisted. At Gorky’s house things are different. Maxim Gorky had been given the occupation of the old Ryubanshinsky mansion by Stalin in 1931 on his return from exile – it is a confident art-nouveau house that has been barely touched since Gorky’s death in 1936. You are required to shuffle around the house in old leather slippers to preserve the polished floors, but everything is covered in a layer of dust, and the shuffling only serves to make you feel closer to the writer himself, already an invalid by the time he moved in. Gorky was a modest man, passionate in support of his fellow writers; he believed in the Soviet dream, but was not prepared to be a slave to it. His bedroom with its narrow single bed sits beside his study, a tall room with a huge desk on which sit his pencils, still sharp and ready. He was a celebrity in those years, visited by writers from around the world. They would gather around the dining table to talk writing and politics. Gorky’s place is still set. Tellingly, he sat at a corner; he was not a man to take the head of the table. Nikolai Gogol died in his house on Nikitsky boulevard in 1852. His extraordinary imagination is on display in every room of the house – here is an empty overcoat, the coat that brought joy and death to Akaky Akakievich in his story; here is a nose, searched for by its owner; and here is the fireplace where Gogol, in a fit of madness, cast the manuscript of part two of his wonderful, bizarre story, Dead Souls. Gogol was a tender man, whose surreal imagination and biting satire seemed tempered by a profound sensitivity for the human condition. Every day he was visited by his many friends, and he had to hide from them if he wanted to get any writing done at all. It was himself he needed to hide from in the end. Nine days after he threw his manuscript onto the fireplace he died, tortured by his own ghost. After visiting these houses, after reclaiming your overcoat from the cloakroom, after saying thank you to the lady at the door, you are pleased to step into the cool air of Moscow, pleased to be able to look up at the low, grey sky and know that you have seen your last ghost of the day. There is a comfort in knowing there will be more tomorrow.

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