When you think of Russians, I’m willing to bet that ‘funny” isn’t the next word that comes to mind. My only concept of Russian comedy is, as it turns out, based on a single joke: I was to understand the amusing reversal inherent in the Soviet automobile’s tendency to arbitrarily direct its own operator.
Predating that was Nikolai Gogol, who, regarded as Russia’s Mark Twain, was one of the Fatherland’s national treasures of 19th century literature.
Internet Fun Fact: you may recognize this author as your most common typo when you’re trying to pull up google.com.
When he was twenty-seven, he wrote a satirical play that was found to be such a sensational gutbuster that the Emperor cajoled all his ministers to go see it. I wanted to read Dead Souls out of the curiosity of “how does Russian funny work, exactly?”
The story concerns Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a nondescript fellow of hazy origin who drops in on a provincial Russian town asking about all its nearby nobles. He meets with the nobles, navigating the Austenian territory of manners and agreeability to make this modest proposal with each: You know your peasants who’ve died recently? I’d like to buy them.
See, in feudal Russia you have to pay taxes each year on all the serfs, or muzhiks, registered on your land. If any of your muzhiks die, they won’t be removed from state records until the next census, which is only taken every seven years or so. Until then you’re stuck paying taxes on “souls” who are actually dead. Now, if Chichikov comes along and proposes you sign over your dead souls to him to relieve yourself of the tax burden, what do you say? Maybe any number of things first, but eventually you’re probably going to say yes.
Why is Chichikov buying these souls? For most of the story, you don’t receive many clues. When the provincial folk learn of his deals and conjectures fly (involving everything from a kidnapping plot on the governor’s daughter to Chichikov secretly being the leader of a band of thieves), you want to tell the silly locals what’s really up, but frankly you don’t know, either. It’s a strange position for a reader to be in: you know everyone’s wrong about the main character, yet he remains just as much a mystery to you.
Bring Out Your Dead
The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation I read includes both Volumes I and II of Dead Souls. I mention this because Volume I is essentially a complete novel, and II is his unfinished sequel– the manuscript of which he burned, and years later, burned again (and then he died). My advice: when you get to II, just stop. Gogol didn’t want you to read it anyway, for what you’ll see is a misshapen fetus mercilessly snatched into the light.
But how is Volume I? Well, the thing is disappointingly bloated, like a bag of Lay’s where the chips are the story and so much else is air. Not that Gogol’s meanderings aren’t often worthwhile. The best of these are his embedded bitching sessions on the business of writing fiction. In a later chapter he introduces two ladies who will have a pivotal conversation, and he pauses to admit, “The author is in the greatest perplexity how to name the two ladies in such a way that people do not get angry with him again.” Because what novelist hasn’t, as Gogol goes on to describe, fretted over a safe name to christen even his/her minor characters? When Gogol isn’t advancing the story or complaining about the craft, he’s annotating the goings-on with some relevant wisdom:
We all have a little weakness for sparing ourselves somewhat, and prefer to try to find some neighbor on whom to vent our vexation, a servant, for instance, or a subordinate official who turns up at that moment, or a wife, or, finally, a chair, which gets flung devil knows where, straight at the door, so that the armrest and back come flying off: that will teach it what wrath is.
My favorite parts of the book are each time Chichikov gets down to brass tacks and makes his proposal to buy the dead souls from each landowner. In every case it amounts to priceless, hilarious dialogue. The landowners’ reactions run the gamut of bewildered acquiescence, revulsion, and even ready bargaining (“Let’s make it a hundred a piece!” says Sobakevich, who goes on to extol the merits of the dead people he’s selling to drive up the price). Based on those scenes alone, I see myself liking Dead Souls much better as a stage play. I don’t say that sort of thing very often.
All in all, I admire Gogol’s comprehensive portrait of Russian society, his memorable characters, and his writing style that’s irresistibly chummy with the reader. But why oh why was Dead Souls not more focused? If you don’t tolerate meanderings well, pass this book up. Otherwise, it’s worth the girth to discover its high points, which are more delightful than watching a bear on a unicycle, and more cerebral, I would say.