Imagine that someone has promised to give you a beautiful old watch. Why would anyone do such a thing? Because you’re worth it, of course; look at you. There is, however, a kind of catch, or a drawback, for the watch, you are told, does not work; there is some essential part of the mechanism missing. Sadly, you’re no expert on watches and their workings; in fact, you have no knowledge whatsoever on this subject; moreover, the missing part is no longer even available. Fixing it, then, is out of the question. Do you, in this situation, feel aggrieved, because the watch is not all that it could have been? Or are you happy to have it as it is, being of the opinion that you have gained, rather than been denied, because you cannot lose something that never existed and could never be?
The answer to this question would, I’d say, not only tell you about your approach to watches but also reflect how you would feel about unfinished novels. I often see, as I meander around the internet, reviews and articles bemoaning the incomplete, the not-fully-unrealised. Books like The Castle, for example, or The Man Without Qualities, or The Good Soldier Svejk, or Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. For a certain type of reader, these books are frustrating, unacceptably flawed; some even claim that they ought to be avoided altogether. Obviously, this is not an opinion I share. To return to my watch analogy, I am of the latter sort; I am happy to have these novels in their imperfect state, to take them on face value. A beautiful watch is still a beautiful watch even if it cannot tell the time. Indeed, I tend to find these incomplete, sometimes unedited, narratives charming, like a beautiful girl with a lisp.
In terms of Dead Souls, what we have available to us is one complete volume and some bits and pieces of volume two. It is said that Gogol intended to write three volumes in all, but burned much of what he wrote after the publication of the first and then upped and died before he could put anything together that he was satisfied with. However, what is unusual about the book under review here is that volume one was finished, and is able to stand alone, so that if you were to read it without any knowledge of the intention to compose further volumes you would not feel as though you had been short-changed. In fact, I am not sure why publishers have taken to including volume two at all. It has, in my opinion, done much to compromise the reputation of the book, not because it is bad per se, in fact I like it rather more than most do, but because it feels tacked on. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the author had become a pious, ascetic man, and, as a result, his work was increasingly dogmatic and didactic; and so much of the zany playfulness and charm [which Gogol thought sinful] had been sucked out of the narrative. I should point out, then, before we continue, that this review is, in the main, only concerned with volume one.
[Gogol Burning the Manuscript of the Second Part of Dead Souls by Ilya Repin]
As the book begins, a britzka rolls into town, carrying within it a stranger, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, and his two lackeys. Gogol is keen to stress Chichikov’s ordinariness; he is, he writes, neither fat nor thin, neither attractive nor ugly. He is, then, on the surface, a middling sort, who, moreover, appears to have no discernible personality of his own. For example, when he has dinner with the landowner Manilov, who is emotional and over-friendly, Chichikov attempts to fall in with him, to mimic his behaviour and attitudes. One could, of course, interpret this ingratiating approach as a desire to be liked, but it quickly becomes apparent that our hero has a different aim in mind. This aim, this plan, is what gives the novel that evocative title [and what a title it is, by the way], for Chichikov is intent on buying up, or being made a gift of, all the town’s dead souls or serfs.
It is not until the end of volume one that it is revealed why he wants, or what he intends to do with the rights to the deceased serfs. He tells Nozdryov, another landowner, that he desires them in order to give the impression of wealth, and so to elevate his status in society, but he indicates, in his thoughts, that this was a lie. In any case, there is no doubt that he is up to no good [variations on the exclamation ‘what the Devil’ are frequently uttered throughout the text, which is clearly significant, for only the Devil ought to trade in souls] and that, far from being an ordinary man, Chichikov is actually an arch manipulator, who disdains the people who he is attempting to deal with. In light of this, it might be tempting to view Dead Souls as a kind of morality tale, wherein a bunch of unfortunate citizens are duped out of their property, or as a warning along the lines of: Be careful, good people, of strangers! Yet this would be a rather simplistic, or superficial, interpretation, because none of the landowners or townspeople are particularly sympathetic figures [except perhaps Manilov]; indeed, they are far less sympathetic than Chichikov himself.
The more characters that are introduced the clearer it becomes that Gogol is poking fun at various Russian types and sections of society. Each of the people Chichikov encounters on his quest to buy up dead souls is a one-dimensional satirical portrait; for example, Plyushkin is a miser, Manilov a sentimental fool, Nozdryov a hedonist and bounder, the women are gossips, and so on. However, if this is all the book had to offer it would be funny, certainly, but would not be the great masterpiece that I believe it to be. What gives Dead Souls its depth, and the satire more of a sting, is how it engages with questions and issues concerning masters and slaves, poverty and wealth, power and corruption. To get to the heart of all this one must return to Chichikov’s scam: he is buying up souls from wealthy landowners; they are dead, of course, but, still, the two parties are engaged in a kind of slave trade. In Russia at the time, muzhiks were available for purchase and resettlement; souls or serfs were, therefore, in bondage, they were not free. If you are not free, you have, in a way, ceased to be human, or you are at least not being treated as such.
I cannot say myself whether is was the case, but I have read that Gogol was not necessarily against serfdom, and certainly volume two [which speaks about responsibility towards one’s serfs] appears to back that up; and so one must be careful not to proclaim Dead Souls as being a total condemnation, but it is unarguable that its author was in sympathy with the poor. For example, there is a important, almost moving, passage in the novel when Chichikov is studying the names of the people he has acquired, and for the first time he starts to wonder who they were, how they lived and how they died; they are in this moment humanised.
“When he looked at those sheets of paper, at the muzhiks who had in fact once been muzhiks, who had worked, ploughed, got drunk, driven wagons, deceived their masters, or maybe had simply been good muzhiks, he was possessed by a strange feeling that he himself did not understand.”
Furthermore, there is the story of Captain Kopeykin, a wounded military man who seeks a pension from the government, but is repeatedly turned away despite his dire straits and the services he rendered to his country. We are also told stories, or anecdotes, about cover-ups, and references are made to bribes amongst officials. The poor, it is only fair to point out, aren’t left completely alone, do not totally escape the author’s critical eye, for they drink and are sometimes violent, but all that is dealt with almost in passing; most of the novel is concerned with the greed and idiocy of landowners, officials and, in general, those with money and in powerful positions.
You may also want to consider what Chichikov’s negotiations say about capitalism, specifically the principle that everything has a price, that something is worth what a certain person is prepared to pay for it. More than once the hero finds himself haggling, even arguing, with landowners who do not want to part with their dead souls [even though they are costing them money] because they believe that if he wants them, then they must be worth something. For instance, when Chichikov says to Sobakevich that a dead soul is something that is not needed by anyone, he replies that, au contraire, you need them! And so attempts to squeeze as much money out of him as possible. Depending on your sense of humour, you will find the negotiations either hilarious or repetitive and tedious. I am one of the former. There is something, for me, extremely amusing about a man trying to buy an apparently useless object, something that doesn’t even truly exist [or exists only on paper]; his frustration when faced with the seller’s inability to grasp that he is not only giving them money, but relieving them of a financial burden [tax must be paid on the souls until the next census is completed], is particularly entertaining.
“Manilov was pleased by these final words, but he still couldn’t make sense of the deal itself, and for want of an answer, he began sucking his clay pipe so hard that it started to wheeze like a bassoon. He seemed to be trying to extract from it an opinion about this unprecedented business; but the clay pipe only wheezed and said nothing.”
While the idea behind the work is clever and satisfying, and one can make much of the social-political elements, the most appealing aspect of Dead Souls is the style with which Gogol pulls the whole thing off. It has become a kind of cliché that Russian novels are all narrated by idiotic, slightly mad, almost feverish, men. It is not true of course, but there are notable examples of this sort in the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky [Notes from Underground, Demons], Andrei Bely [Petersburg], and others. In any case, Nikolai Gogol could be said to have invented this archetype, or, even if he didn’t, he was certainly one of the first and most famous to make use of it; and one could argue that he did it better than anyone else.
His authorial voice is giddy, highly strung, unpredictable, and frequently absurd. He often speaks to his reader, winks at him, plays up to him, resembling a kind of circus ringmaster who has had one or two vodkas too many. Like a runaway britzka, Gogol’s narrative is constantly veering off in unexpected directions. He will be discussing, say, Chichikov’s attempts to buy souls from Nozdryov, will compare the stance of Nozdryov to a certain kind of military man, and then spend a good few paragraphs describing the personality and behaviour of this imaginary military man, well beyond the original point of comparison; or Gogol will describe a certain type of face and then give a kind of backstory to the people who have this type of face. It really is magical the way that he does this; it gives the book an even more impressive depth, makes it feel as though it is teeming with personalities. Furthermore, his imagery, his metaphors are some of the finest in all literature, even in translation. Cockroaches are described as being like prunes; a row of cups are like a line of birds along a shore; and, one of my favourites, some people are said to be not objects themselves, but like the specks on objects.
“If you ask them about something directly, they will never remember anything, they wont take it all in, they will flatly answer that they don’t know, but if you ask them about something else, they’ll proceed to drag everything in, and will relate it in more detail than you could possibly want to know.”
It is worth noting that the novel is subtitled A Poem, and this might seem like false advertising at first, for it is certainly written in prose. However, there are undeniably poetic elements, so much so, in fact, that the book reminded me most of all of Homer or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. There are […]
[Here the review breaks off]