Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dead Souls

I was astounded when I first read Gogol's short story, "The Nose." It is so absurd, so Pythonesque, I could scarcely believe it had been written in the 1830s. It begins with a barber eating a roll for breakfast and finding a nose inside. Yes, a nose, and from there the story only gets more bizarre.

I mention this because in the notes to this edition of Dead Souls, the translator, Christopher English, mentions that a rhinological theme runs through Gogol's work. The protagonist of Dead Souls is Chichikov, a name that suggests the Russian word for sneeze, while the name of another character is Nozdryov, which derives from the word nostril.

Comic Masterpiece

The book is set in rural Russia at a time when landowners paid tax on their serfs, even dead ones. This gives Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov an idea, and he visits a number of farms hoping to increase his wealth and status by acquiring the title to serfs (aka souls) who have died.

Of course, it's a shady scheme, and the comic possibilities are obvious. One of the most priceless scenes occurs when a widow dithers over whether or not to turn over her dead serfs. "They might come in useful around the farm," she says worriedly.

Sometimes the humour is pure physical comedy, but it also serves the purpose of bursting pretentions:

At this moment the footman standing behind him wiped the ambassador's nose, and not before time too, for otherwise a sizeable foreign droplet would have fallen into His Excellency's soup.

Eventually Chichikov's plan unravels due to unfounded rumours, each more ridiculous than the last. He is a spy, he is planning to abduct the governor's daughter, he is Napoleon in disguise, he is a veteran with only one arm and one leg. Wait a minute, how can that be? Chichikov is not missing any limbs. No matter, the damage is done and he has to flee.

However, it is not just humour that makes this book a masterpiece. The writing is so easy-going, so natural, we feel as though we're taking a stroll with the author through the Russian countryside. He speaks directly to us; Chichikov is "our hero."

Then there is the loving detail that Gogol weaves into the story:

The black tailcoats flashed and whizzed about, singly and in groups, like flies on a hot July day buzzing round a dazzling white sugar-loaf which the old housekeeper, standing before an open window, chips and divides into sparkling chunks, while the children gather round and gaze in fascination at the movements of her sinewy arms wielding the hammer, and the airborne squadrons of flies, buoyed up by the light air, swoop bravely in, like full masters of the house and--taking advantage of the old woman's poor eyesight, made worse by the glare of the sun--scatter over the succulent morsels, either separately, or in dense clusters.

Gogol's achievement is even more remarkable when one considers how far away in time and language is rural pre-Revolutionary Russia. Differences include the mode of dress, the many civil service ranks, the forms of measure no longer used (versts, poods, arshins), even the different kinds of carriages (droshky, britzka, troika, etc.). Yet none of these are serious obstacles to our enjoyment of the work.

Part Two

It seems that Dead Souls was conceived as a trilogy. We know at least that Gogol worked on Part Two for a number of years, but became mentally unstable at the end of his life and burned the manuscript just days before he died. However, much of it has been restored from previously existing copies. It is fragmentary in a few places, and has no ending.

Whereas in Part One Chichikov is merely engaged in a somewhat shady activity, in Part Two he is more reprehensible. At the same time a moralistic tone enters the book, which I found hard not to see as a reflection of Gogol's own crisis. It seems clear that "dead souls" refers not just to dead serfs, but also to people like Chichikov whose souls are morally dead.


Dead Souls reminds me of another comic masterpiece, Pickwick Papers. They share a picaresque quality and protagonists accompanied in their travels by bumbling companions. They get lost, stop at inns, and listen to tales distinct from the main storyline (in Dead Souls "The Tale of Captain Kopeikin").

There is the same delight in food, and the same use of exaggeration. An army courier has moustaches two feet across, a woman wears a hoop skirt so big it takes up half the church, a colonel offers a "sauce-boat" to a lady on the end of his sabre. The miser Plyushkin, and the quarrelsome bully and inveterate liar Nozdryov, are in many ways as grotesque as anything in Dickens.

Mention is made of a man who, like Krook in Bleak House, spontaneously combusts due to excessive drinking; and when Chichikov tries to process the transfer of the serfs he has acquired, he meets the same bureaucratic obfuscation that Arthur Clennam encounters at the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit.

And bits like this:

And along both sides of the highroad it was the same old story: the usual succession of milestones, station-masters, wells, waggon trains, dreary villages with their samovars, countrywomen, and a spry, bearded inn-keeper, running out of his coachyard to meet them, bearing oats for the horses, a wayfarer who had trudged some eight hundreds versts in his worn-out bast shoes; small, wretched towns with the houses arranged haphazardly, with their ramshackle wooden shops, flour barrels, bast shoes, calatches, and other trifling wares; striped turnpikes, bridges under repair; fields stretching as far as the eye could see on both sides of the road; the landaus of local landowners; a mounted soldier, carrying a green box of lead shot, which bore the legend: 'Artillery Battery such-and-such'; the steppe, with its stripes of green, and gold, and freshly turned black earth; a song borne from afar; the tops of pine trees seen through the mist; the peal of church bells ringing, and fading, in the distance; crows clustered as thick as flies, and a horizon without end.


Just as I was finishing the book, I read a newspaper article about a man who died in a Russian jail three years ago. He is to be put on trial later this month.