Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dead Souls

The big central word is "poem."
Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol

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.

5 comments:

Riv said...

I read Dead Souls this month as well, and was pleasantly surprised by how funny it was.

Ekaterina Egorova said...

Gogol is one of my favourite classics, and I'm glad you liked him! Dead Souls... well, it WOULD be really funny if it wasn't so sad :) Because you know, the stereotypes he meets are a still there...

I liked how well you explained the concept of serfdom, I guess for a foreign reader it really requires a footnote.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Hahaha, oh heavens, why on earth would you translate an author you didn't like? You'd have to spend EVERY DAY with that author's work! That seems like crazy self-sabotage.

My sister swears by Dead Souls, and I absolutely need to read it. One of these days. I swear.

Jean said...

I know, right Jenny? Why??

Ekaterina, yeah, it's *darkly* funny. You laugh because screaming won't do much. I knew some of the serfdom information, but the tax part was news (!) and so was the part where you could buy, sell, and mortgage serfs just like land. O.o

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Translators are sometimes paid for their work, so there is a reason to keep at it. Lydia Davis insists she does not like Madame Bovary.

I call Dead Souls the greatest novel of the first half of the 19th century. It does some things with fiction that no one had done before. It is a hugely original book.

When I make that judgment, I am tossing out the fragments of book II, an unfinished sequel, the scraps of a separate book.