Before setting off on this review, I must ask you a favour oh noble friend, that such a gentle soul as yours could hardly refuse. I only ask that you do not judge me for my many shortcomings in understanding this masterwork, this Magnum Opus (I don’t actually write like this of course; it’s a bit) of early Russian Realism. Only once I have your word, your promise, for they are no doubt one and the same in one of such robust moral character as yourself… no, pray you send to the town for the Priest, and have him bring his son, a law clerk who will draw us up a document, a trifling thing that nevertheless will put my heart at rest as I was once the victim of a terrible rogue with a red beard named Ilanovitch, whose true name was in fact…. ETCETERA
What I’m trying to get at in my clumsy way, I think is obvious, and if it isn’t it will become so as you take a lengthy and convoluted path through Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, probably the first great Russian novel. You know how to use Google and Wikipedia so I better not plagiarise from there, and you can use your own judgement on whether or not to read the plot, and indeed whether or not the plot even has merit, as Nabokov contends it does not (because Nabokov is a dickhead). I will summarise part one and two in a line or three each though, just to orient us a bit.
- Part 1: A mysterious stranger arrives in town on official business. After completing approximately 80000 errands for the local land owners, he has achieved his aims. Then everyone goes mad because of MAXIMUM FARCE OF MANNERS and maybe he’s Napoleon or a disgraced Colonel. Had better run away then.
- Part 2: A mysterious stranger arrives in town on official business. After completing approximately 80000 errands for the local land owners, he has achieved his aims. Then everyone goes mad because of MAXIMUM FARCE OF MANNERS and he has to go to a dungeon because of Russian tax law..? He escapes the dungeon thanks to some ludicrously wealthy man who tells him to take up the gift of Christ’s love and live simply. But then he gets his money back and does a runner anyway – Fuck you old man! Then some kind of joke speech about law reforms that cuts off in the middle.
If you would permit me such an obvious comparison, parts 1 and 2 bear an identical relation to one and other as Alien and Aliens. Well not really, but part 2, like Aliens was not really necessary and likely produced on the basis of demand from a public that didn’t know what was good for them. At least Gogol had the presence of mind to try and burn the manuscript before his death; would that James Cameron had that kind of courage.
Anyway part 1 is good, part 2 is take it or leave it. Moving on.
Everything is happening so much
Once you begin reading and get past the turgid scene setting it quickly becomes apparent no one in the book will do anything unless some favour or errand is first offered quid pro quo – essentially going into a lot of rooms and having lengthy chats. This leads to a sort of cascading and sprawling blanket of plot threads that are dropped and picked up in a way that seems random but almost always has a logical mechanism behind it, except when it doesn’t (e.g. the visit to the old woman after the storm that puts in motion Chichikov’s downfall) and that is, I suppose, when Dead Souls comes nearest to touching the sublime stupidity of the real world. I imagine that was the effect he was after, or if not retrospectively we have identified it as the cause the novel’s realistic texture. It is this sort sackcloth, rough hewn realism on which a bewildering array of symbols are impressed and a subtle indictment of the contemporary estate of Russian affairs comes into view. Of course that’s all lost twice on me, being a Englishman 200 years later and also a perfect idiot.
Gogol’s almost fanatical dedication to ignoring the standard rules of classical drama has a cute echo in the occasional references to the Greek heroes of myth, whose on stage rigmaroles were so tightly regulated by fate as to resemble literary rube Goldberg machines. Especially biting is the minor character of Themistocleous, the little boy who sullenly outputs factoids regarding European geography on a signal nod from his father (I won’t go into any parallel with his namesake Themistocles the athenian general and populist politician because then my whole point falls apart and why would either of us want that?). He can only produce wholesale that which has been put into him, which he neither understands or cares about (as illustrated by his petulant attitude). He is a perfect machine, an algorithm to produce a known end, and as such contains nothing of the reality of life (and why would he as child?).
“Themistocleus,” repeated the father, “tell me which is the finest city in France.”
Upon this the tutor concentrated his attention upon Themistocleus, and appeared to be trying hard to catch his eye. Only when Themistocleus had muttered “Paris” did the preceptor grow calmer, and nod his head.
“And which is the finest city in Russia?” continued Manilov.
Again the tutor’s attitude became wholly one of concentration.
“St. Petersburg,” replied Themistocleus.
“And what other city?”
“Moscow,” responded the boy.
“Clever little dear!” burst out Chichikov, turning with an air of surprise to the father. “Indeed, I feel bound to say that the child evinces the greatest possible potentialities.”
“You do not know him fully,” replied the delighted Manilov. “The amount of sharpness which he possesses is extraordinary. Our younger one, Alkid, is not so quick; whereas his brother—well, no matter what he may happen upon (whether upon a cowbug or upon a water-beetle or upon anything else), his little eyes begin jumping out of his head, and he runs to catch the thing, and to inspect it. For HIM I am reserving a diplomatic post. Themistocleus,” added the father, again turning to his son, “do you wish to become an ambassador?”
These same themes of the non-real nature of the child (not to build future harmony on their tears) and the rejection of the rigidity of greek drama are touched on by Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov. And people say that Gogol only influenced his pre-prison works. Or maybe I should probably listen to them since they are literature scholars and know what they are talking about. Slow your roll Bernert.
His avoidance of classical forms extends to the rejection of any kind of denouement. Part 1 simply ends. Narrative arcs are abandoned and we find our hero in an identical position to the beginning of the novel. We do receive a (lengthy) history of Chichikov, possibly offered by some way of explanation for his actions, but anyone paying attention had already reached the same conclusion. Gogol simply presents it to us, as if to say ‘This is how it is because it is this way’. It is real but not satisfying. The knowledge does not cast a light backwards to change the pall of the prior events, it simply is. Chichikov then heads off to repeat his scheme in a distant part of Russia. The cycle of Chichikov’s rise to prominence, attempts at monetisation and inevitable fall seem to suggest that while the arrangement of affairs between the State, the Gentry and the Serfs remained how it was, there would always be those who saw the cracks in the edifice and sought to profit from it, mollifying their conscience with the idea that such an arrangement is built to withstand the loss. Gogol makes Chichikov the symptom and not the disease by offering a very detailed and sympathetic account of his motivations. To Gogol it is the world who must change, not his ‘hero’.
Shut up. Is it any good?
I enjoyed it certainly. Why did I enjoy it? I don’t know. The prose is fine. There are lovely images all over the shop, particularly when Gogol gets a chance to talk about the landscape:
Then again you awake, but this time to find yourself confronted with only fields and steppes. Everywhere in the ascendant is the desolation of space. But suddenly the ciphers on a verst stone leap to the eye! Morning is rising, and on the chill, gradually paling line of the horizon you can see gleaming a faint gold streak
How can you not swoon here as he describes traveling on a highway? I fucking dare you not to swoon. But then there are also periods of extensive description which serve no real purpose and are rather dry, occasionally falling victim to the dreaded list.
The appearance of common parlours of the kind is known to every one who travels. Always they have varnished walls which, grown black in their upper portions with tobacco smoke, are, in their lower, grown shiny with the friction of customers’ backs—more especially with that of the backs of such local tradesmen as, on market-days, make it their regular practice to resort to the local hostelry for a glass of tea. Also, parlours of this kind invariably contain smutty ceilings, an equally smutty chandelier, a number of pendent shades which jump and rattle whenever the waiter scurries across the shabby oilcloth with a trayful of glasses (the glasses looking like a flock of birds roosting by the seashore), and a selection of oil paintings. In short, there are certain objects which one sees in every inn.
Breaking: Room contains Things. In fact Nikolai goes further and suggests that all rooms of a certain type contains these things. Thank’s Nik, I know – I’ve been to loads of 19th century Russian taverns you twat. There’s also a great deal of chat about farming techniques, and the deleterious effect of speaking french, and varying qualities of cloth, but I will save you the block quote.
Why did I enjoy it then? Maybe because I think you are supposed to enjoy great literature and I tricked myself. Or perhaps because I had just gotten my first e-reader and was delirious with novelty. I don’t know. Maybe, only maybe, I enjoyed the novel (no pun) experience of reading a story where, as I was freed from understanding the archaic social context or drawing parallels (none can be drawn through the historical barriers of 1851, 1917, 1945 and 1989. Nothing survives it) I could just read what amounted to a list of occasionally intriguing events in frequently lovely prose. Perhaps in reading something that meant nothing to me I was able to reconnect with the verb of reading and stop fretting about the noun meaning – my clumsy attempts at analysis evince that. A great book leaves you feeling an excess of something, over and above the reality of your life, and a poor book leaves you impoverished as though something was stolen from you. With Dead Souls you get a fair trade, a cavity of a few hours carved from your life, and filled up the the brim with someone elses. Nothing left over. It’s satisfying.
Maybe everything I read in the future should mean nothing; everything I write already does.
C+ / Recommend