Nikolai Gogol — Dead Souls

Broader and more splendid than all other roads it is, lit by the sun and illumined all night by lamps, yet people have flowed past it in the blind darkness. So many times already, though guided by a sense come down from heaven, they have managed to waver and go astray, have managed in broad daylight to get again into an impassable wilderness, have managed again to blow a blinding fog into each other’s eyes, and, dragging themselves after marsh-lights, have managed finally to reach the abyss, only to ask one another in horror: where is the way out, where is the path? The current generation now sees everything clearly, it marvels at the errors, it laughs at the folly of its ancestors, not seeing that this chronicle is all overscored by divine fire, that every letter of it cries out, that from everywhere the piercing finger is pointed at it, at this current generation; but the current generation laughs and presumptively, proudly begins a series of new errors, at which their descendants will also laugh afterwards.

Chichikov is a not too fat and not too thin gentleman fairly low on the rung of the small nobility, with an enormous appetite, looking to comfortably cement his place in society by making his social status appear higher than it is–and he picks a very, very period-appropriate way to do this. (Spending a lot of money on dignitaries is something common in every age, however.) Each Russian peasant owned by a noble is a “soul.” Chichikov is on a journey, intending to take the “dead souls”–i.e. peasants who have died but still register on tax forms–off of the landowners’ hands. He intends that having a number of peasants on his lists will make him appear much more wealthy and powerful than he actually is, thereby allowing him to take out large loans to live comfortably. Of course, because this is Gogol at his most vicious, satirizing best, Chichikov’s brilliant plan doesn’t quite work out exactly the way that he expected.

Beginning from the outer reaches of the province, Chichikov attempts to finagle the dead souls away from their owners. But the paranoia and greed of the landowners makes his job incredibly difficult. Each home that he visits contains another comical grotesque, until he reaches the capital city where the horrors of the ladies of N. and his eventual downfall await.

Written in two volumes, Dead Souls ends in mid-sentence, though the current version we have is about as complete as can be. It certainly reads in a self-contained manner, a broad and scathing view of the ills of Russian society and the ways that they can be resolved… but of course, it’s unlikely that resolution will ever occur, in the same way that the book breaks off in mid sentence. Gogol’s words emerge in a torrent: he considered this book to be a verse poem, in a way, and there are beautiful paragraphs amid the belly laughs, serious moments amid the head-shaking characters. If you haven’t read it, I would recommend the Pevear & Vololkhonsky translation (as I always do) for although I still cannot read Russian, the breezy, self-assured, cynical and hilarious tone seems as close to Gogol as one could hope to get.

A knowledge of hearts and a wise comprehension of life resound in the word of the Briton; like a nimble fop the short-lived word of the Frenchman flashes and scatters; whimsically does the German contrive his lean, intelligent word, not accessible to all; but there is no word so sweeping, so pert, so bursting from beneath the very heart, so ebullient and vibrant with life, as an aptly spoken Russian word.

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