|The big central word is "poem."|
This was most certainly a Long-Awaited Read for me. It's been on my TBR pile for at least a year, and I've really wanted to read it, but needed a bit of a kick to get over the Russian Literature Nerves so many of us have.
The first thing you need to know is that Dead Souls is a comedy, darkly satirizing Russian life in Gogol's day. Even for a modern American, it's funny; to a Russian, it must be hysterical. The other thing you need to know is a tiny bit of background about the Russian feudal system of the early 19th century, when serfs still belonged to the land they lived on. They had to pay rent to the owner, and taxes (the owner didn't pay taxes but collected the serfs' taxes and sent them on), and had to ask for permission to go off the estate to earn money. Every so often the government would take a census and register each male 'soul' tied to the estate. Taxes were then due from that soul until the next census, even if he died. These are the "dead souls" of the title.
We meet Chichikov roaming the countryside, buying up dead souls. For several chapters, he meets different landowners, all of whom are kind of oddball in their own ways. They are in fact archetypes personifying Russian problems, as well as people. Once he's got enough, Chichikov has a scheme to make lots of money with his dead souls, which scheme is worthy of The Producers. Chichikov's adventures are really something else.
The second volume of the book is unfinished, but still interesting. Chichikov is now in a different province, still working on his scheme and meeting up with a different cast of people, primarily Tentetnikov. He also meets a sort of ideal landowner, Konstanzshoglo, who stands as a solution to all the endemic problems of Russia that we have met so far. Chichikov vows to reform and become a Konstanzshoglo, and he buys an estate--but the next time we see him, he's still a cheat and a charlatan.
The Russian idea of poshlost is central to the story, and it's one of those words that is hugely meaningful and has no English equivalent. It means something like petty, banal, and vulgar all at once, plus some. Chichikov is poshlost personified, apparently.
Gogol said his novel was not a novel at all; he called it a poem or an epic in prose. Chichikov is a bit like Odysseus, voyaging around to different places (and, like Odysseus, outwitting or cheating the people he meets). There isn't really a novelistic plot structure.
I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and am not really qualified to judge it, but it seemed good to me. Certainly I think I enjoyed it better than I would have the first copy I got, which was on the elderly side and had a translator's note that made it pretty clear that the translator did not, in fact, like Gogol.
Good stuff--read it.
This was my first Long-Awaited Read and took most of the month. I've started another one: Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin--but it's going to take a long time. There is no way I will finish it in January.