My last experience with Gogol was a dance/drama production of his “The Overcoat” presented at the American Conservatory Theater. Delicious and unforgettable. A relative talked to me about Dead
Souls, and I realized it was one of those classics I’d known about forever but had never actually read. There are a lot of those around, I fear. Nevertheless, I’m glad and proud to have finally gotten to it.
It was my son-in-law who steered me here. I was telling him about Catherine the Great, and he told me about the time he decided to self-educate himself in world lit and assigned himself three books each from a number of countries. Dead Souls was one of his assignments, so now it’s mine, and a good thing, too.
Both the title and premise of the novel are misleadingly grim, as is the cover picture of the Penguin edition. It’s actually a witty tale of a small-time schemer who has decided to enhance his social standing by acquiring as many peasants as possible–an essential status item for your 19th century Russian aristocrat. As a semi-corrupt and inept public servant, he can’t afford more than the two slaves he already has so he contrives the scheme of buying the names of dead ones from landowners who must taxes even on deceased Muzhiks until the next census. Seems like a win-win, since the landowners no longer have to pay the piper and Chichikov can present a list of official list of owned humans to whomever he wants to impress, among whom is a potential marriage partner we never meet.
However, complications ensue as he wanders from town to town and estate to estate trying to build his stash, and we get to meet a wonderful array of characters and get involved in myriad situations. Gogol is often compared to Dickens for his deft and amusing characters, and the comparison seems accurate to me:
It is well known that in this world there are many such faces, over whom nature has not taken any great pains when it comes to the finishing touches, has not employed any fine tools such as files, gimlets, and the like, but has simply hewn them out with full swings from the shoulder: one swing of the axe and there’s the nose,; another swing and there you have the lips; she gouges out the eyes with a huge auger, and without any fancy trimming, she pushes the end product out into the world, saying: ‘It lives.’
Like Dickens and other writers of the period, Gogol doesn’t hesitate to insert his personal voice and views into the narrative. I don’t recall a one I didn’t enjoy. In one passage, he comically exculpates himself from any blame for the shortcomings of his characters by claiming that he is only following his protagonist around and bears no guilt for the people that fool encounters. There’s a particularly fine little essay on the joys and perils of the writer’s life and work. It’s a wonderful change of pace from the modern mania for keeping the writer out of the narrative in any obvious way.
As for the joys and perils of Gogol’s life and work, it’s a rather sad tale that has left us much the poorer. Gogol pretty much always knew he wanted to be a writer. He was briefly a mentee of Pushkin’s, whom he much admired and who published some articles in a journal for him. However, the two never really hit it off, and Gogol went off to Europe–mostly Rome–to do the major part of his work. Dead Souls comes in two parts. The first was published with much success, but the story was not complete, and he set vigorously on part II. However, the writing did not go well, and he got sick and died at the age of 43 and joined the ranks of the dead-youth romantics such as Keats and Shelley. In fact, there’s a plaque to him near the Spanish steps. Part II of this work is odd, quite different from the first, but still comic and intriguing. Then it stops. If music can have an unfinished symphony or two, I suppose literature can have an unfinished novel. But it is strange. Like hearing only the first three of the four notes that start Beethoven’s Fifth. You keep waiting for the last note to complete the phrase.
It’s worth the read, though. It’s not just a classic you should read, but one you’ll enjoy.