Dead Souls (Classics) Paperback – 28 Jan 1971
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This edition also includes extracts from Part 2 of the work, which was mostly destroyed by the author. The surviving extracts are fragmentary and inconclusive, and the standard falls well below Part 1. I think that many readers may prefer to ignore these extracts. But don't let that put you off Part 1, which is relatively self-contained, and is well worth reading despite the fact that Gogol was unable to complete the 3-Part masterpiece that he intended to create.
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Chichikov, the hero of Gogol's epic poem, shows the influence of Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," a novel with which Gogol was familiar. Like Shandy, we know little about Chichikov until well into the novel. This narrative indirection allows us more insight into the other characters and the conditions of Russia after the Napoleonic wars. Chichikov is a minor gentleman, who, having served in various government positions, decides to pursue the life of a land-owner. His scheme is to traverse Russia, gathering the legal rights to serfs who have died on estates since the last census. By turning an accumulated list of these 'dead souls' over to the government, he plans to make a small fortune, which he will use to buy an estate.
While Chichikov may appear to be a morally questionable swindler, like Herman Melville's "Confidence-Man," he does have noble motivations, despite his methods. Chichikov seeks what each person seeks, according to Gogol - to have a family, to do honor to one's country. Although his plan can seem to be a ludicrous, last-ditch sort of effort at establishing himself, Chichikov is, throughout, extremely level-headed about it. Chichikov knows how to speak and carry himself so that he will be accepted by everyone he meets. From the noble, efficient land-owner Kostanjoglo to the wild, hilarious liar Nozdryov - Chichikov mingles with and exposes us to "the whirligig of men."
Gogol points out throughout the novel that the written text is inadequate to convey the actual experience - the air, the sights, the smells, the people of Russia. He tries, then, to give us "a living book" - a testament to a way of life that was soon to change. Like Melville's "Confidence-Man," which was published shortly before the American Civil War, Gogol's "Dead Souls" came out only a few years before Marx's "Communist Manifesto" which would change and determine the fate of Russia in the first decades of the 20th century.
Read the lyrical "Dead Souls" - if you like his short stories, like "The Nose" or "The Overcoat," - you will find a wonderfully complex and sophisticated, and deeply involved intellect at his best.
So as a result, we're only left with the first part, a vicious, biting attack on the stagnation and hopelessness of Russian rural life. Gogol makes it come to life - the stupidity of the landowners, their utter dullness and incompetence, their avarice and worthlessness. It's amazing - but it should probably be read in Russian, as Russian is not something you can easily translate to English. Chichikov's crafty convoluted, Devilish scheme (Gogol intended to make him a sort of modern manifestation of the Devil) quickly becomes just a vehicle to take him around the country and meet all of these intellectually bankrupt scumbags who would have been really funny if they weren't drawn directly, 100% from real life. The book is given force by its _relevance_ to Russia and its truthfulness. It will amaze you - you will be appalled by the fact that such utter ignorant nonentities of the rural aristocracy still had land, power, and were considered owners of human beings. Social commentary never got better than this.
Pushkin may have been an utter genius of literature all around, but Gogol can truly be called the father of Russian literature. Dostoyevsky, in fact, once said just that. This book is a work of unadulterated genius. In fact, it _is_ Russia in that time - it so perfectly captures the problems of the times. And yet, Gogol clearly loves his country despite hating the things that went on in it - just look at some of the beautiful, poetic passages when Chichikov is riding across the steppe. It's a beautiful, wintry story that has lost none of its appeal or relevance.
Gogol's story is like some of the Dickensian ghost stories as the narrator fancies inanimate things transformed and wriggling with life. The main character, Chichikov, is described with coy neutrality as "not overly fat, not overly thin", who first greets the reader with fleeting, unwanted apparitions in the form of vermin, "with cockroaches peeping out like prunes from every corner" in a wayside in. His servant Petruska, carries his greatcoat "a special odour all his own that had also been imparted to the next thing he brought in, a sack containing the sundries of a manservant's toilet", the special odour perhaps recalling the odour of sanctity or death conjured by Dostoevsky in "The Brothers Karamazov".
Chichikov buys the dead souls of serfs from landowners which entitles him to byland to "resettle" and so enter the boyar class. On a figurative level, Chichikov is also a dead soul, affable, inoffensive, unremarkable, at least superficially a nondescript part of the landowning establishment. He is a confidence-trickster whose plots, who ultimately outsmarts only himself. Gogol addressed himself with a parodic allusion, noting, "the dreadful appalling mass of trifles that mires our lives, all that lies deep inside the cold, fragmented quotidian characters with which our earthly, at times bitter and tedious path swarms...", as if he is another Chichkov, a writer seeking recognition for his work, but feeling that the minor distractions that haunt his thoughts prevent him from realising his literary ambitions, just as Chichikov does not realise his landowning aspirations.
The novel is littered with ethereal beings like the half formed table-guest of whom Gogol writes, "...It was hard to say definitely who she was, a married lady or a spinster, a relative, the housekeeper or a woman simply living in the house - something without a cap, about 30, and wearing a multicoloured shawl. There are people that exist on this earth not as objects in themselves, but as extraneous specks or tiny spots on objects. They sit in the same place, they hold their heads in the same way and you are almost ready to take them for a piece of furniture..." But spectral as such characters may seem, they can be heard in the near distance with some distinctness, whether in bedrooms above, or the maids' room or the pantry.
Chichikov recalls Goncharov's Oblomov in his love of earthly comforts, despite his interest in the realm of the dead, journeying with a well-equipped travelling box and a snuff box. Yet he is aware of his own human absurdity, as when he sees a Cossack dancer, describing him grotesquely as "an adult, a full-grown man suddenly leaps out all in black, plucked like a bird and wrapped up tight like a little devil, and then starts pumping his legs up and down."
Gogol's authorial voice asks of the reader whether Chichikov is "moral or immoral", but anticipates by providing his own answer: "Everything undergoes a rapid transformation in man. Before you know it, a dreadful worm has grown within him, and tyrannically sucked off all the vital juices for itself." The moral complacency of Chichikov, or anyone else who delves into the incomprehensible, with a view to deceive himself or others, will find himself overwhelmed by an ephemeral nemesis.