If I were bolder, and cleverer, and composed of three parts genius, two parts insight, and a dash of bitters, I wouldn’t give you a summary of what happens in Dead Souls. Instead, I’d do what Nabokov does in his book, Nikolai Gogol, all ellipses and dashes included:
–“Well,”– said my publisher,–“I like it–but I do think the student ought to be told what it is all about.”
–“No,”–he said,–“I don’t mean that. I mean the student ought to be told more about Gogol’s books. I mean the plots. He would want to know what those books are about.”
–“No, you have not,”–he said.–“I have gone through it carefully and so has my wife, and we have not found the plots. There should also be some kind of bibliography or chronology at the end. The student ought to be able to find his way, otherwise he would be puzzled and would not bother to read any further.”
I said that an intelligent person could always look up dates and things in a good encyclopedia or in any manual of Russian literature. He said that a student would not be necessarily an intelligent person and anyway would resent the trouble of having to look up things. I said there were students and students. He said that from a publisher’s perspective there was only one sort. (151-2)
But since I am not Nabokov, I will give you a very rough approximation of what happens in Dead Souls, and you can come with me through a couple of posts about it as I try to think about this book, which veers from the wildest and most absurd satire to tender descriptive passages, sometimes on the same page.
In this novel, Gogol follows the initially blossoming career of a “fair-to-middlin’ sort,” Chichikov, who has come to the town of N–. Chichikov has come to do a strange sort of trade with the landowners in town. The way things worked at the time, landowners paid taxes on the numbers of serfs they had (counted in souls — six hundred souls of serfs, for instance), and if some serfs died before the next census, they went on paying taxes on the dead ones until the paperwork could be made right. Chichikov is going about, offering to make out a purchase deed and take these dead souls off the landowners’ hands. It’s a win-win situation: he gets what he wants, and they no longer have to pay the taxes. Chichikov’s motives for this trade don’t come perfectly clear until the end of the novel, but it’s reasonably apparent that having dead souls to his name gives him some sort of illusory status, having some of the privileges of a landowner without having to feed, clothe, and otherwise maintain the serfs themselves.
Now, right on the face of it, this scheme is ridiculous. It’s farcical, it’s absurd. But, as Nabokov points out, between Chichikov, who is shuffling paper to get ahold of dead souls, and the landowners, who are trafficking in live ones, there’s not a lot to choose, morally speaking. Chichikov goes from one house to another: Mme Korobochka, who is sure she’s being cheated out of the best price for dead souls; the bearlike Sobakevich, who wants as much for his dead serfs as he would have gotten for them in life, because they were such good quality; the greasily ingratiating Manilov; the rough cheat and bully Nozdrev; and the miser Plushkin, who is willing to sell runaways as well as dead souls. Each of these fantastic characters reveals his or her own heart during the encounter, as much by the surroundings as by the dialogue or Gogol’s sly observations. Here is Sobakevich’s drawing-room:
Chichikov once more cast his glance over the room and all that was in it: everything was solid, unwieldy in the highest degree, and had some sort of strange resemblance to the master of the house himself. In a corner of the drawing room stood a potbellied walnut bureau on four utterly preposterous legs, a perfect bear of a bureau! The table, the armchairs, the chairs, all had a most ponderous and disquieting quality about them; in short, every object, every chair seemed to be saying: “I, too, am Sobakevich!” or: “I, too, look very much like Sobakevich!”
This melding of the individual with his furniture, decorations, or clothes happens in each case. There is Plushkin the miser with his piles of detritus, his terrible dressing gown, and whatever is tied around his neck (“it might have been a stocking, or a bandage, or an abdominal supporter, but nothing that one could possibly consider a cravat.”) There is Manilov, who has been reading the same book for two years and always has the bookmark at page 14. (Shudder.) And at each visit, we learn a little more, not only about the townspeople, through observation, conversation, and gossip, but about the mysterious Chichikov himself. (More on this later, if I get up the gumption for a second post.)
All this talk of the purchase of dead souls, all this examination of different characters, is satire. There’s a lot of comparison out there between Gogol and Dickens, a comparison of which Nabokov is utterly scornful. In some ways, I understand the scorn: Gogol is not out for social change, and Dickens is. Gogol is using an absurd, fantastic premise to give us insight into the human heart — humans at the extreme edge of anything that could possibly be considered realism. That’s not something you often see in Dickens. Still, there are times when I can see the comparison. Here’s a snippet from Our Mutual Friend, from the taxidermy shop of Mr. Venus:
‘My working bench. My young man’s bench. A Wice. Tools. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top. What’s in those hampers over them again, I don’t quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That’s the general panoramic view.’
In short, everything says “I, too, am Sobakevich!” — or rather, I am Venus! Dickens could be just as nuts as Gogol, given the chance.
Well, it turns out I’ve actually got quite a bit more to say about this novel, so hang in there, all: Part II (not Part II of Dead Souls, which I haven’t read, but Part II of this post) will be forthcoming soon!