We can thank our lucky stars for writer's block, as we'd likely have set fire to the Dead Souls manuscript ourselves if Nikolai Gogol hadn't. Had he, overcome with religious fervor, forged ahead with his plan and complete this three-parter, separated into volumes each of crime, punishment, and redemption, and not starve himself to death, we might've had on our hands a literary misfire it seemed like he, previously so promising, wanted to unleash upon us expectant and unsuspecting masses. Fortunate is everyone, then, that the first (and undeniably best) volume, where Dead Souls plays out its main story, can be taken as more or less self-contained. The second one, while still dazzling in places with great writing, sparkles less so than its predecessor not only because of disjointed chapters, missing words, and lost pages, but also because hints of a crazier and preachier Gogol, already exasperating his friends and fans in real life, start to emerge then in the text. In his later years, he had at one point consoled a critic who had recently lost his wife by this bit of classiness: "Jesus Christ will help you to become a gentleman, which you are neither by education or inclination—she is speaking through me." Another instance: Gogol advised in letters to his readers that "[t]he peasant must not even know that there exist other books besides the Bible." Village priests, he recommended, should accompany them everywhere, and even be made their estate managers. Lovely! It's all a little odd and, considering the incense-smoky shrine to him I'd constructed in my mind after his short stories had so brain-tinglingly won me over, thoroughly disappointing. For all that, on the bright side, what Gogol lit on fire was at least none of the first volume, leading even Vladimir Nabokov to conclude, in his chapter of Lectures on Russian Literature on the author, that "[Gogol] was destroying the labor of long years" not to cleanse himself of the sins he thought his books were, but "because he finally realized that the completed book was untrue to his genius." After that, it's hard to be mad at the guy.