Dead Souls, Part II

dead souls(Just to clarify, this post is not about volume II of Dead Souls — which I haven’t read. It’s just my second post about the first volume.)

I mentioned in my last post about this marvel of Russian literature that Gogol and Dickens may have a few touchpoints in common (Dickens is occasionally as strange as Gogol is all the time, and some of their minor characters, I think, grow from a similar pleasure in weirdness), but that overall the sensibility is not remotely the same. But if Gogol is not trying to enact social change — free the serfs, point out governmental inefficiencies — and he’s not simply trying to make us laugh, then what is the point of this novel?

Nabokov, in his book Nikolai Gogol, suggests that the purpose of Dead Souls is to portray the dead souls, not of the serfs, but of his characters. The center of the novel, says Nabokov, is a vacuum, an absence: it is the notion of poshlust, a Russian word that means cheap, trashy, trivial, smug, and falsely attractive. Chichikov, as the legendary poshlyak, a man with a worm gnawing at his heart and no desire for anything but illusory status based on shuffling paperwork on deceased slaves — what could be thinner, smaller, more fraudulent? Yet Gogol turns this nearly-nothingness into characters that leap off the page and squirm with life. Here, for instance, is the stolid, bearlike Sobakevich:

As Chichikov drove up to the front entrance he noticed two faces that had peered almost simultaneously through the window — one feminine in a house cap, and elongated like a cucumber, and a masculine one, round, broad, like those Moldavian pumpkins called gorliankas or calabashes, out of which they make in Russia, balalaikas, two-stringed light balalaikas, the pride and joy of some frolicsome, twenty-year-old country lad, a fellow who knows how to wink and is a dandy, and who not only winks at but whistles after the snowy-breasted and snowy-necked maidens who gather around to listen to his soft-stringed strumming.

In this paragraph, Gogol transforms Sobakevich first into a vegetable, then the vegetable into a musical instrument, then creates a lively young man to strum the musical instrument and a crowd of pretty girls to listen to it — and then Chichikov goes into the house and the entire vision disappears, dandy and all. It’s truly the most extraordinary thing, and it supports Nabokov’s contention that this insight into dead souls, this poshlust, is at the center of the novel: each character, no matter how vividly depicted, is shifting and unreal in this way. It reminds me of Alice: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

This brings me to Gogol’s language. Nabokov suggests (should I say something stronger than “suggests”?) that it’s impossible to understand him without reading Russian.

You will first learn the alphabet, the labials, the linguals, the dentals, the letters that buzz, the drone and the bumblebee, and the Tse-tse Fly. One of the vowels will make you say “Ugh!” You will feel mentally stiff and bruised after your first declension of personal pronouns. I see however no other way of getting to Gogol (or to any other Russian writer for that matter.) His work, as all great literary achievements, is a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas. (150)

I believe him, of course. Any translation of any work must necessarily create a new work in the first one’s place, and language makes a real difference in tone and smoothness and sometimes even meaning. But since this is what I have, I’ll say that Gogol’s language — even in English — was one of the mainsprings of the book. You saw that passage about Sobakevich’s transmutation from face to pumpkin to strolling dandy with a crowd of girls. This sort of thing happens all the time: appearances and disappearances, transmogrifications, fights, detailed lists for no reason. There is a description of the garden of Plushkin, the miser, that is one of the most elegant, frightening, Gothic combinations of nature’s burial of man’s handiwork that I’ve ever read. Immediately after it comes the farcical description of Plushkin himself, whose home and clothing are in the worst imaginable repair — rotting and falling to dust — and, worse, whose family has all been estranged. This commingling of the man, his life, and his surroundings makes it only easier for Chichikov, the poshlyak, to do his work of collecting dead souls — including Plushkin’s.

These scenes, which often have an almost gleeful, absurd air about them, are interspersed with Gogol’s impassioned apostrophes to Russia itself. He ends the book with a scene that is both of these in one. Chichikov has just escaped the town of N–, leaving chaos behind him. He has escaped scot-free, and no arm of the law can reach him. His servant is whipping the horses, and there he sits, a self-satisfied smile on his face, loving the fast driving — and here Gogol takes off into pure poetry for the last few paragraphs:

Some unseen power, it seems, has caught you up on its wing, and you are flying yourself, and all things else are flying: some merchants are flying toward you, perched on the front seats of their covered carts; the forest flies on both sides of the road with its dark rows of firs and pines, echoing with the ring of axes and the cawing of crows; the whole road is flying none knows whither into the disappearing distance; and there is something fearsome hidden in the very flashing by of objects, so rapid that there is no time for each one to become defined before it disappears; only the sky in the infinity above and the light clouds and the moon breaking through these clouds seem motionless.

And indeed, the entire book has been a flashing-by of insubstantial characters that only seemed to be defined. If this is Gogol’s Russia, it is a Russia seen from a troika: utterly serious and yet completely absurd, a bit like Punch and Judy.

This was a wonderful book. I’ve never read anything the least bit like it. Teresa saw The Government Inspector a while back, but I still have that pleasure in front of me. I’ll be looking forward to — as Nabokov puts it — that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

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10 Responses to Dead Souls, Part II

  1. I read Dead Souls many years ago, probably when I was too young to understand it. Your spirited review inspired me to order the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition from Everyman’s Library (I’ve rediscovered that their cloth-bound, sewn-paged editions are far superior to paperbacks). I’ve put it on my TBR shelf. Even though I’m up to my ears in Dickens these days (with a new book coming out in September), I have decided to reread the great 19th century novels that I now (one hopes) have the maturity and widsom to understand fully. Keep on reviewing such great books!

    • Jenny says:

      Nice to hear from you, Christopher, and congratulations on the book! I dithered a lot about translations, and finally settled on the Gurney translation because it was what my college library had. It turned out to be very good indeed (note that I don’t read Russian, so my opinion is deeply flawed.) I hope the P/V translation is as good as their War and Peace, which I thought marvelous.

  2. Scott W. says:

    A spirited review indeed – exactly the kind of appreciation that may well send me back now to read Dead Souls for a third time, even if the second time mere months ago. I love that transformative game Gogol plays – starting from the opening page when a figure is mistaken for a red samovar – as though he’s tagging each of his good people with various familiar Russian objects, and thus presenting a truly Russian tableau in which the characters can’t be separated from – and on the contrary become metaphysically fused with – their Russian-ness. Dead Souls is one of the few translated books – and I’ve read two translations of it now – where I can really sense that I am missing out on a lot that I would gain if I knew (or rather, if I were) Russian. But I’m so, so grateful for what I can gain from a translation. What a book!

    • Jenny says:

      That fusion of people with objects (“I, too, am Sobakevich!”) is one of the most interesting and peculiar things about this book, isn’t it? It’s more than metaphor, certainly. I agree that if I were Russian and had a better sense of what, say, a gorlianka was, or one of those dressing-gowns that people always wear, or how many sorts of vodka there are, I’d do even better. But I do very well as it is: as you say, what a book!

  3. I somehow feel that I should shelve my plans for a series of “Detective Proust” mysteries and instead write about Inspector Gogol.

    In Guerney, at least, no one is mistaken for a samovar. One “might” make such a mistake, “if only one of them were not sporting a beard as black as pitch.”

    I pray that understanding Dead Souls does not require wisdom. If so, I am sunk.

    Nabokov’s book is hard to escape, isn’t it, Jenny? It is convincing, and also a masterpiece in its own right,

    Oh. I have a recommendation regarding The Government Inspector. Do not read – or do not only read – a regular ol’ translation, but rather Adrian Mitchell’s 1985 version, which includes the worst bits and the best bits, including bits that are not in the original but should have been.

    • Jenny says:

      I was glad I read the Nabokov alongside (well, after) Dead Souls. I never would have seen all Nabokov did, which is no surprise; I don’t have a tenth of his brain. But I’m happy enough to pass it on. And it was such fun to read, which was entirely expected.

      Thank you for the recommendation about The Government Inspector — another thing to read alongside!

  4. I think it is a habit of those who know a masterpiece in the original language to claim, or at least, suggest that it can only be appreciated in the original language. No doubt, much goes missing in translation, but nonetheless, the fact that so many readers respond so deeply to translated versions surely suggests that at least something of the original makes it into the target language. That some who know it only in translation go as far as to declare it their favourite novel suggests to me that quite a lot of it survives translation – unless, of course, we were to ascribe the genius of the thing to the translator.

    (I have read the older and the more recent Penguin Classics translations – by David Magarshack, and by Robert Maguire – and they were both wonderful reading experiences.)

    I am not sure why the novel makes so great an impact. To try to pin it down in any way seems almost to diminish it. I agree with you that the similarities between Gogol and Dickens are superficial: ultimately, despite the many eccentricities, Dickens’ view of the world was sane: Gogol’s, I think, was less so. What he seems to present here – as the title indicates – is a world populated by people who do not have souls. They are tremendously vivid creations, and yet, somehow, at the same time – as you put it – “insubstantial”.

    • Jenny says:

      Language creates part of your experience, of course. If you speak more than one language fluently, you’ll know that your personality is a little different when you’re speaking each language: I am more diffident, more oblique, and softer-spoken in French than I am in English. It’s the same with a translation. I imagine that someone who adored Gogol in the original and found him (say) more oblique and more diffident in French would insist that he was ruined, even if the French found him marvelous and easier to understand, culturally. But I agree that a great deal survives. If not, how could we have world classics?

      I’m not sure that after one reading, I could say what makes this novel great. It is so different from other novels I’ve read — that’s part of what makes it hard to categorize and define. But that dreaminess is part of it.

  5. Jenny, you have convinced me to add this to my TBR list. Great review!

  6. Jeanne says:

    Walker reread this last week, and then both of us went around describing things we liked as “a birthday of the heart.”

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