Since the first time I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in high school, I was obsessed with the Russian language. I thought the book was so genius that I figured if I read it in its original Russian I would unlock even more of its genius. I guess it shows how I’ve always been wary of translators.
I’ve been slowly reading Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, and it really has me questioning why I’ve been obsessed with the Russian language. He doesn’t really paint a pretty picture of the Russians here, and do I really want to invest my time with learning the language of these really unsavory folks?
I first heard of Dead Souls around that same time in high school but after I heard the song “Dead Souls” by Joy Division by way of Nine Inch Nails (it was the mid-90s after all.) How fucking hardcore is it, a novel with the title of Dead Souls unapologetically teasing the puritanical public? With the chorus of “They keep calling me,” playing in my head, I was expecting something haunting and filled with torment, like the best of Poe, Shelley and Dostoevsky. I most definitely did not expect an incomplete satire of still-feudal Russia around the mid-19th century with no haunting over-, under-, anytones at all. That did not interest my 18-year old gothy self, so I put the book down.
After several more aborted reads through the years, I finally hunkered down to finish it this time. Well, as much as one can finish a novel whose manuscript the author burned parts of right before his death. Hell, even that piqued my teenage interest knowing it back then, something that was so evil that the author had to expel it from this world, like a tortured Lovecraftian soul. But no monsters or anything like that here, just the evils that seem to be burdening the Russian soul during the turbulent period. And really, the characters that Gogol come up with are about as lovable as canker sores.
Let’s start off with our hero Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. A disgraced customs officer, he now goes around trying to buy “dead souls” from landowners along the Russian countryside in a get-rich-quick scheme thanks to a loophole in the Russian bureaucracy. While Gogol bemoans the influence of western Europe into Russian culture, I guess the German bureaucracy wasn’t one of them. Chichikov does everything to get these people to sell him their dead serfs and to keep the scheme under wraps: charming Manilov; screaming and bullying the elderly widow Nastasya Korobochka; appeals to the greed of Sobakevich. The only person he fails to appeal to is Nozdryov, the town liar, cheat and drunkard. I guess like attracts like, right? Finally rumors start building up against Chichikov, the town turns against him and he is forced to flee, and at the end of the first book Gogol gives us a flashback to Chichikov’s rise and fall as a clerk and eventual customs officer.
In the second book, Chichikov is older and in a different part of Russia and still going around with the same scheme, starting over from scratch. Eventually he weasels a loan from a Kostanzoglo, a very respected and hardworking landowner, to buy a depressed property. Chichikov’s greed eventually gets him in trouble, he is jailed and released thanks to the help of his shrewd friend Murazov and again is forced to flee. The novel ends midsentence as the prince who jailed Chichikov was giving a speech speaking out against corruption.
Everyone is quite awful. The miserly Plyushkin when he realized Chichikov was going to give him money for his dead serfs, “And suddenly across that wooden face glided a warm ray.” (Part I, Chapter 6, 140.) And at a party that he is invited to in the first town, Chichikov noted that of millionaires “many people know full well that they will get nothing out of him and that they have no right to get anything, but they will invariably run ahead to meet him along the way, for instance, or laugh at his jokes, for instance, or doff their hats, for instance, or strive mightily to wangle an invitation to a dinner to which they’ve learned the millionaire has been invited.” (Part I, Chapter 8, 179.)
Gogol also notes the social hypocrisies in Russia. Chichikov, upon seeing that the serfs on Petukh’s property are well off, “But as soon as they start enlightening themselves there, in restaurants and theatres, everything will go to the Devil.” (Part II, Chapter 3, 336.) But for himself, after his lowest of lows in jail once he is able to access some of his possessions and the outlook of his release looks good “He felt a surge of hope, and once more he began dreaming of certain enticements: an evening at the theatre, a dancer whom he was running after. The country and its peaceful ways began to look paler, the town with its hum and bustle again brighter and clearer. Ah life!” (Part II, Concluding Chapter, 413) Mmmhmm.
By the end of Part I, one thing that I understood more was the amount of ambivalence in Russia on where they stood in the world. In the descriptions of the parties and people throughout the book, there is a palpable tension between Russians who want to be seen as more “cultured” and take on the airs of French and Prussian cultures and those that see Russia as a separate entity that should be able to carve their own sphere of influence. The last paragraph of Part I, “Art not thou too, O Rus, rushing onwards like a spirited troika that none can overtake?” Gogol conjures this image of Russia as a runaway carriage speeding away and finally asks, “Rus, whither art thou racing? Give an answer. She gives no answer… [A]ll that exists on earth flies by, and , looking askance, other peoples and nations step aside and make way for her.” (Part I, Chapter 11, 282-283.)
It makes me understand a little more of the psyche of the country here at the end of their feudal period, the end of their empire, the beginning of the USSR, the growing pains of their early capitalism and to now with Poo-tin conjuring a mythical Rus which I guess is like that spirited troika rushing onwards seemingly without any purpose. I guess the question is should be step aside and make way for her?
It should be noted that Gogol was born in the Ukraine, and in Part I Chichikov was telling people that he would be taking all the serfs he acquired back to the Kherson region along the Black Sea.
These are just some thoughts I noted while reading Dead Souls. There’s just too much to go over here. I’m not even talking about how it’s subtitled “A Poem,” and how Gogol had at some point wanted to structure it a bit like Dante’s Inferno (although scholars debate this, I can sorta see it.) It’s a strange book that I liked very much despite it not being a gothic horror. It was humorous, ridiculous at times, and it really left me wondering what a completed version of this book would be.
To get back to my initial question. Sure Gogol poked a lot of fun at Russians and really highlighted a lot of ambivalence that still exists now amongst the people. I mean I’m not sure as to how I feel about Russian culture. But I still do want to learn the language. Who wouldn’t want to read Мёртвые Души untranslated?