Unfinished Symphonies

Joseph Epstein, “Surveying the Surging Immensity of Life,” The Wall Street Journal 4 May 2013

Late in his short life, Gogol found religion and promptly lost art. Once Gogol began to think of himself as a Christian reformer, Nabokov writes, “he lost the magic of creating something out of nothing.” His genius for devising delicious details disappeared; his powers of invention deserted him. Before his death, he burned what he had written of the second volume of his novel. The last 10 years of his life Gogol suffered greatly from writer’s block; he died an excruciating death from anemia of the brain at the age of 43.

“Dead Souls,” meanwhile, is among that small number of uncompleted masterpieces that includes Tchaikovsky’s Unfinished Symphony, and Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities,” but with the important qualification that Nikolai Gogol’s great work is all the better for remaining unfinished.