"No, no, what I want are not exactly peasants," said Chichikov. "It's the dead ones I want..."Dead Souls (or, in Russian Мёртвые ду́ши) was the only novel of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, published in 1842. The full title: The Wanderings of Chichikov, or Dead Souls: Poema, and my edition was translated by Christopher English.
It was an odd one for me, this novel. So so many people love it, but I just didn't couldn't quite - but I did like it, which is better than not. It tells the story of Chichikov and his travels through the provincial backwaters of Russia in search of peasants, dead peasants that is, in order, he claims, to relieve the burden of tax on the owners, and, for himself, to increase (or appear to increase) his wealth, power, and social status (appearing to have power, I suppose, amounts to actually having power). Imagine, anyway, a macabre version of, say, Fieldings' Tom Jones, Dickens' Pickwick Papers, or Cervantes' Don Quixote. Through Chichikov we meet a variety of landowners, gentry, police commissioners, and in doing so we a little of the life in 19th Century provincial Russia.
Gogol himself describes this novel (in a preface which, rather irritatingly I must say, Christopher English has excluded from the Oxford World's Classics edition):
For in the book which lies before you, and which, probably, you have read in its first edition, there is portrayed a man who is a type taken from our Russian Empire. This man travels about the Russian land and meets with folk of every condition—from the nobly-born to the humble toiler. Him I have taken as a type to show forth the vices and the failings, rather than the merits and the virtues, of the commonplace Russian individual; and the characters which revolve around him have also been selected for the purpose of demonstrating our national weaknesses and shortcomings.The rest of the preface may be read on Gutenberg, translated by D. J. Hogarth.
Dead Souls is not lacking in energy, satire, or attention to detail. Indeed, it is very funny in parts, and the beginning most memorable:
The room was of the familiar kind, for the inn was also of the familiar kind, that is to say, precisely the kind found in provincial capitals where for two roubles a day travellers are given a quiet room, complete with cockroaches gleaming like prunes in every corner, and a door - permanently blocked by a chest of drawers - leading to the adjoining room, which is occupied by another traveller, a taciturn and placid man, but exceptionally inquisitive, eager to learn every detail about his new neighbour.It was intended to be a modern Russian take on Dante's The Divine Comedy - Part I represents hell, or crime, where we see Chichikov at his most sinful, using the dead only to serve his own purpose: in fact, largely, these souls are dehumanised: it is not until he sits with his lists and reads through the names that he sees them as people, albeit dead. Part II was to be the beginnings of Chichikov's redemption following his puishment, however it remains unfinished, and Part III, never written, was to be Chichikov's rehabilitation. I really wish it had been finished.
Nevertheless, it is believed to be the first great Russian novel and for that alone is worth reading. It is very surreal at times, with a hyper-attention to details; it is very good indeed, with much much more to it than I've written here. My only problem with it was I couldn't quite ease into it.
And I found a Zola connection, which I'll share for the Zola fans among us. In Dead Souls, Gogol writes,
Alas! The fat are so much better able to conduct their affairs in this world than the thin. Thin men serve mostly on special assignments or have jobs that exist only on paper, whilst they flit about from place to place; their very existence is somehow too light, airy, and totally unreliable. Fat men, on the other hand, never occupy peripheral positions, but only central ones, and if they do take a chair somewhere, they will do so firmly and solidly, so that it may well crack beneath them and cave in, and yet they will still remain firmly ensconced. They disdain outward sparkle; their tailcoats are not so smartly cut as those of their thin brethren, yet their coffers are full of God's plenty. After three years a thin man will not possess a single unmortgaged soul; but before you know it the fat man will have acquired a house at one end of the town, bought in his wife's name, then another house at the other end of town, then a little hamlet near the town, then an entire village, too, complete with serfs and all its land and amenities. Finally, the fat man, having served God and Tsar and earned universal regard, leaves the service, moves to his new home and becomes a landowner, a Russian country squire of the best kind, convivial and hospitable, and there he lives and prospers. But then, after his demise, his thin heirs gallop through their patrimony in the true Russian manner.In The Belly of Paris, Émile Zola writes,
'Cain,' he said, 'was a Fat man and Abel a Thin one. Ever since that first murder, the big eaters have sucked the lifeblood out of the small eaters. They constantly prey on the weak: each one swallows his neighbour and then gets swallowed up in turn. Beware of the Fat, my friend!'This will make for a good comparison when I come to writing about The Belly of Paris (I'll be re-reading this in February, a little later than planned).
He relapsed into silence, still watching their shadows as they lengthened across the street in the light of the setting sun. Then he murmured:
'We're Thin, you and I. Just look and tell me if we take up too much room in the sunlight, with stomachs as flat as ours.'
Florent looked at the two shadows and smiled. But this annoyed Claude.
'It's not funny', he said. 'I know I suffer from being Thin. If I were Fat, I would paint happily, have a nice studio, and sell my pictures for their weight in gold. But, instead of that, I'm Thin; and I have to wear myself out trying to get the Fat to take notice. It'll kill me in the end.'