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.