Three years after the publication of his magnum opus, Nikolai Gogol was in the midst of a spiritual breakdown. Dead Souls entered the Russian literary conversation like a shocking new fashion trend. Some people celebrated the hilarious satire as revolutionary, the harbinger of a new era in Russian literature; others hated it.
But they just didn’t understand it, and how could they? The novel was only the first part of a planned three-part masterpiece. The truth would only be revealed when that last page was written. Gogol had spelled out his intention right there in his inaugural text, explaining to the reader that the author and his protagonist Chichikov “are destined yet to tramp no small distance arm in arm along the highway; two long parts of the poem are still to come, and that is no trifle.”
But when you intend to write a novel that will do no less than save the soul of Russia, the pressure is profound. Sure, Gogol’s reputation as a Tsar of Russian literature had been solidified with Dead Souls, but that in no way lessened the stakes for what he hoped his work would achieve, namely to become the Russian equivalent of Dante’s Divine Comedy.