Gogol’s Dead Souls

As a result of reading Alexander Herzen’s brilliant My Past and My Thoughts (about which I am still trying to start writing) I have embarked on a course of 19thC Russian literature to try and, very slowly, enlighten my dismal ignorance in this area. My first book was Nikolay Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. Due to the aforesaid dismal ignorance, the first half of this book caught me completely by surprise as I was expecting something lugubrious and deeply serious, whereas what we have is a delicious comedy. This is not to say that Gogol’sintent is not serious but the text could certainly not be described as lugubrious. For those who do not know the story it tells the tale of one Chichikov, who might best be described as a con-man, and his latest scheme for enrichment. This, as far as I can discern, and it remains a little unclear even after reading the book, is predicated on the fact that all Russian land-owners had to pay a tax on all the serfs they ‘owned’; the register of serfs was only irregularly updated to they also had to pay on the dead ones. Chichikov intends to buy the dead serfs (or dead souls), as cheaply as possible, so that he can build up his social status and be in a position to borrow money which will be lent him as a possessor of serfs; the land-owners want to reduce their tax burden. In many ways the details of this plot are irrelevant and it is a McGuffin on which Gogol can hang his portrayal of the Russian nobility and bourgeoisie of the time. Chichikov arrives in a provincial town and makes his round of civic dignitaries and local landowners; the former are all corrupt and status obsessed, the latter display various eccentricities while mismanaging their properties. For a time Chichikov does very well and his con is highly successful, but in the end everything comes crashing down and he has to get out of town in a hurry. The vast majority of this first book is a very funny, wholly engaging, highly successful satire. But in the very last chapter the tone alters as we learn the whole story of Chichikov’slife and the book ends with a highly rhetorical apostrophe to Russia developing from the motion of Chichikov’sspeeding troika.

 The second book has an entirely different dominant element. At times it reverts back to the comedy of the first half but long sections are given over to consideration of how the situation of both land-owners and peasants, indeed of the nation, of Mother Russia, could be improved – a major character here is the ideal landowner Kostanzhoglo. Towards the end there are sudden gaps in the narrative which are the result of the fact that Gogol, apparently by accident, burnt the manuscript and died soon afterwards so only fragments remain. The problem with this second half is not merely that it is too severe a contrast with the first part, but also that Gogol’s writing does not seem as assured. However these would be minor problems, and I have no problem with the novel of ideas, were it not for the fact that the ideas are far from compelling. They seem based on the Slavophil tendency (of which, of course, Herzen has much to say) which in turn at its most negative descends into xenophobia, and indeed racism (much blame is attached to Russians who ape foreign manners and habits especially those of the French and Germans). The basic idea is ‘back to the land’. Fundamentally the ideas are reactionary, even if by their insistence on good management they were actually opposed to the existing ruling class; but there is no idea of any change or challenge to that class, what Gogol is calling for is its self-reformation. This Slavophiloutlook gave him the approval of bothDostoyevsky and Tolstoy. It would be hard to think of any book which is more a tale of two halves and I have stressed the negatives of the second half; the first is a pretty constant comic delight with an inventiveness and playfulness which is highly entertaining, allied to a deep insight into the way in which social forces entrap individuals and enforce absurd and limiting conventions where appearance and reputation are everything. [1]

 Notes

1) Ellen very kindly sent me some comments on one of Gogol’s Short Stories (which I will attempt to read at some point)….

>>I send along these two paragraphs on “The Overcoat” and a link to the story online ( http://www.geocities.com/short_stories_page/gogolovercoat.html)

First the story of Gogol’s life as told by Gogol in Namesake is not wrong, it’s just presented unsympathetically by a young teenager. His father loved Gogol and identified we are to remember: the father, Ashoke is right about this story: you could say the heights of comic anguish and tragic despaire are there, the presentation of social life as cliques run by strong domineering types (of which Gogol is not one). It’s as if instead of getting into her book through the characters she shows us, the abysses of grief, loss and displacement one can know, she alludes to it through the book that means so much to Ashoke.

B. A summary of the “The overcoat” and an interpretation which suggests it should be seen as a ghost story where the clerk, Akaki Bashmachkin, returns to the earth and steals back his overcoat from the powerful official.  Basically what you need to know is a shy, humble, easily bullied clerk who is kindly, dutiful, and therefore ridiculed by everyone; he saves a long time to get himself an overcoat; it is very cold in Russia. Having finally achieved his overcoat, he goes to a party (so full of himself), allows drink to befuddle him and leaves; his overcoat is brutally stolen from him on the way back; he can get no help from the police, and grief-stricken he tries to get a powerful man in a department to find the overcoat and arrest the thieves and fails. He dies.  Then his ghost appears on the streets of St Petersburg grabbing coats from people; the important personage is on the way to his mistress’s house, assailed by Akaki as a ghost and terrified.  He rushes home and ever after is not such a foolish snob as he had been.  Early on in the story a fuss is made about Akaki’s name: and the mother after rejecting all sorts of possibilities chooses his father’s name, alas it means shit. It’s a remarkable story which combines satire and mockery with great tragedy, a critique of society and human nature which is devastating.

C. It’s as anguish filled as anything by Kafki if you’ve read any of his stories. Ashoke identifies.<<

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