Thursday, November 24, 2011

450. Dead Souls – Nikolas Gogol



History:  This book was first published in 1842, and widely regarded as an exemplar of 19th-century Russian literature. Gogol himself saw it as an "epic poem in prose", and within the book as a "novel in verse". Despite supposedly completing the trilogy's second part, Gogol destroyed it shortly before his death. Although the novel ends in mid-sentence (like Sterne's Sentimental Journey), it is usually regarded as complete in the extant form.  Plot:  The story follows the exploits of Chichikov, a gentleman of middling social class and position. Chichikov arrives in a small town and quickly tries to make a good name for himself by impressing the many petty officials of the town. Despite his limited funds, he spends extravagantly on the premise that a great show of wealth and power at the start will gain him the connections he needs to live easily in the future. He also hopes to befriend the town so that he can more easily carry out his bizarre and mysterious plan to acquire "dead souls."  The government would tax the landowners on a regular basis, with the assessment based on how many serfs (or "souls") the landowner had on their records at the time of the collection. These records were determined by census, but censuses in this period were infrequent, far more so than the tax collection, so landowners would often find themselves in the position of paying taxes on serfs that were no longer living, yet were registered on the census to them, thus they were paying on "dead souls." It is these dead souls, manifested as property, that Chichikov seeks to purchase from people in the villages he visits; he merely tells the prospective sellers that he has a use for them, and that the sellers would be better off anyway, since selling them would relieve the present owners of a needless tax burden.  Although the townspeople Chichikov comes across are gross caricatures, they are not flat stereotypes by any means. Instead, each is neurotically individual, combining the official failings that Gogol typically satirizes (greed, corruption, paranoia) with a curious set of personal quirks.  Chichikov's macabre mission to acquire "dead souls" is actually just another complicated scheme to inflate his social standing (essentially a 19th century Russian version of the ever-popular "get rich quick" scheme). He hopes to collect the legal ownership rights to dead serfs as a way of inflating his apparent wealth and power. Once he acquires enough dead souls, he will retire to a large farm and take out an enormous loan against them, finally acquiring the great wealth he desires.  Setting off for the surrounding estates, Chichikov at first assumes that the ignorant provincials will be more than eager to give their dead souls up in exchange for a token payment. The task of collecting the rights to dead people proves difficult, however, due to the persistent greed, suspicion, and general distrust of the landowners. He still manages to acquire some 400 souls, and returns to the town to have the transactions recorded legally.  Back in the town, Chichikov continues to be treated like a prince amongst the petty officials, and a celebration is thrown in honour of his purchases. Very suddenly, however, rumours flare up that the serfs he bought are all dead, and that he was planning to elope with the Governor's daughter. In the confusion that ensues, the backwardness of the irrational, gossip-hungry townspeople is most delicately conveyed. Absurd suggestions come to light, such as the possibility that Chichikov is Napoleon in disguise or the notorious and retired 'Captain Kopeikin,' who had lost an arm and a leg during a war. The now disgraced traveller is immediately ostracized from the company he had been enjoying and has no choice but to flee the town in disgrace.  
Review: It could be described as a linguistic phantasmagoria - full of people and things with a hallucinatory reality that rushes into the surreal. Nabokov, in a great, dogmatic essay on it, saw the book as a phenomenon of a peculiar "life-generating syntax", in which Gogol's sentences called up a world which could be capriciously developed or abandoned. Gogol called Dead Souls a "poem", and in some ways the English work it is nearest to is The Canterbury Tales, where rhyme and rhythm add to, even create, the satisfactory unexpectedness of the detail of people and things.  Gogol also resembles Dickens in the way in which everything he started to imagine transformed itself and began to wriggle with life. This is hard to assess in translation, but Robert Maguire has made a text which corresponds to Nabokov's excitement - from the moment when we meet Chichikov, "not overly fat, not overly thin" entering his room in a hostelry, "with cockroaches peeping out like prunes from every corner". He is accompanied by his servant Petruska, who brought in with his greatcoat "a special odour all his own that had also been imparted to the next thing he brought in, a sack containing the sundries of a manservant's toilet". I admire the way in which Maguire has kept his own brilliantly variegated vocabulary away from 20th-century phrases, without ever looking parodic or antiquarian.  The title, Dead Souls, must be one of the most evocative titles ever. It is to do on a superficial level (and superficies matter in this text) with the possibility in Tsarist Russia of owning "souls", which is how the ownership of serfs is described. Landowners were taxed on their payroll of serfs, which included those who had died between tax-assessments.  Chichikov has formed the  plan of buying the dead souls of various landowners in order to use his list of fictive slaves to buy real land to "resettle" them and to become a landowner himself. Chichikov himself is also of course, a dead soul, a man self-designed to be unremarkable, agreeable and acceptable, a smiling confidence-trickster whose plots, as Nabokov points out, are neither very clever nor very coherent. Gogol wrote an ironic apostrophe to the unpraised writer who observes "the dreadful appalling mass of trifles that mires our lives, all that lies deep inside the cold, fragmented quotidian characters with which our earthly, at times bitter and tedious path swarms..." "Equally wondrous", he claims, "are the lenses that survey suns, and those that convey the movements of imperceptible insects."
Opening Line:   “To the door of an inn in the provincial town of N. there drew up a smart britchka--a light spring-carriage of the sort affected by bachelors, retired lieutenant-colonels, staff-captains, land-owners possessed of about a hundred souls, and, in short, all persons who rank as gentlemen of the intermediate category. “  
Closing Line:   I invite those men to remember the duty which confronts us, whatsoever our respective stations; I invite them to observe more closely their duty, and to
keep more constantly in mind their obligations of holding true to their country, in that before us the future looms dark, and that we can scarcely. . ." 
Quotes:  “There are people that exist on this earth not as objects in themselves, but as extraneous specks or tiny spots on objects. They sit in the same place, they hold their heads in the same way and you are almost ready to take them for a piece of furniture..." 
Rating:   Horrible.  

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