Dead Souls is Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece, and it’s very droll indeed.
It’s the story of Chichikov, who travels around provincial Russia on a quest to buy ‘dead souls’. The dead souls are serfs who are registered in the census as part of a landowner’s property, but though the landowner still has to pay tax on them, are (obviously) no longer alive. This spoof is partly Gogol satirising the bureaucratic tardiness of the census, partly poking fun at the idea that social status can be based on ownership of dead names on paper, and partly having a go at the greed and stupidity of the landowners – because when Chichikov offers to buy up these souls, he is met with the suspicion that he is ripping them off or breaking the law, and there is hard bargaining to get a better deal for them. At the same time, Gogol mocks the pretensions of his central character Chichikov, using him to mock the novel itself because his hero isn’t likely to impress anybody. (Chapter 10 where he dissects Chichikov’s character in detail is almost postmodern in the way that Gogol analyses his own story).
Chichikov is a man of only moderate means, but when the story begins in the un-named town of N-, he spends lavishly to impress the local officials. It’s not what you know that helps a man get ahead, it’s who you know and he plans to know all the right people so that he can achieve his bizarre goal.
The following day he devoted to paying calls upon the various municipal officials–a first, and a very respectful, visit being paid to the Governor. This personage turned out to resemble Chichikov himself in that he was neither fat nor thin. Also, he wore the riband of the order of Saint Anna about his neck, and was reported to have been recommended also for the star. For the rest, he was large and good-natured, and had a habit of amusing himself with occasional spells of knitting. Next, Chichikov repaired to the Vice-Governor’s, and thence to the house of the Public Prosecutor, to that of the President of the Local Council, to that of the Chief of Police, to that of the Commissioner of Taxes, and to that of the local Director of State Factories. True, the task of remembering every big-wig in this world of ours is not a very easy one; but at least our visitor displayed the greatest activity in his work of paying calls, seeing that he went so far as to pay his respects also to the Inspector of the Municipal Department of Medicine and to the City Architect. Thereafter he sat thoughtfully in his britchka [a kind of carriage] –plunged in meditation on the subject of whom else it might be well to visit. However, not a single magnate had been neglected, and in conversation with his hosts he had contrived to flatter each separate one.
(Part 1 Ch. 1)
His quest introduces a variety of types: the obsequious Manilov, whose ‘every gesture, his every attitude, seemed to connote an excess of eagerness to curry favour and cultivate a closer acquaintance‘; the drunken coachman Selifan; and my favourite, the widow Madame Korobochka who at the age of 80 offers to tickle Chichikov’s heels at bedtime because that’s what her husband liked. She knows that the transaction would be to her advantage, yet it was one of such a novel and unprecedented nature that she was beginning to fear lest this purchaser of souls intended to cheat her (Part 1 Ch. 3). Unlike Manilov who happily surrendered his dead souls, Mme Korobochka refuses to part with hers, reasoning that someone else might come along and offer more, or that she might find a use for them herself.
Then there is Nozdrev who seems like a good fellow who enjoys likes fast living and bonhomie but is actually a bully who will cheat the woman at the inn over every last rouble and goes back on his word with Chichikov.
Nozdrev’s face will be familiar to the reader, seeing that every one must have encountered many such. Fellows of the kind are known as “gay young sparks,” and, even in their boyhood and school days, earn a reputation for being bons camarades (though with it all they come in for some hard knocks) for the reason that their faces evince an element of frankness, directness, and enterprise which enables them soon to make friends, and, almost before you have had time to look around, to start addressing you in the second person singular. Yet, while cementing such friendships for all eternity, almost always they begin quarrelling the same evening, since, throughout, they are a loquacious, dissipated, high-spirited, over-showy tribe. (Part 1 Ch. 4)
Then there is the strong, silent type, the gloomy Sobakevich, who resembles a moderate-sized bear… [with] a long frockcoat and baggy trousers … the precise colour of a bear’s hide … [and]… when shuffling across the floor, made a criss-cross motion of the legs, and had, in addition, a constant habit of treading upon his companion’s toes. (Part 1 Ch. 5) and Plushkin, the miser, a phenomenon rare in Russia, where the tendency is rather to prodigality than to parsimony. (Part 1 Ch. 6)
Though it turns out to be harder than expected to acquire enough souls to use as collateral for a huge loan, when Chichikov finally returns home triumphant, it’s not long before the gossip starts. At first the locals are impressed and obsequious, but when they realise the souls are dead, they suspect all kinds of conspiracy and the slanders become so ridiculous that Chichiko has to flee the town. He then starts again in another part of Russia with another cast of eccentric characters and an attempt to buy a derelict estate from Khlobue. But his greed overtakes him and he tries to forge a Will which lands him in serious trouble. He is arrested, then rescued by the pious Mourazov, only to have to flee again. I didn’t enjoy this Part 2 as much as Part 1: the characterisation is not as lively or perhaps it has worn a bit thin by then… Tientietnikov is a pompous idler, pointlessly engaged on his so-called Great Work on Russia, Pietukh is a spendthrift glutton, and Koshkarev is a pseudo-intellectual – but none of these are as interesting as the characters in Part 1.
Gogol had a gloomy view of his fellow-Russians, and in Part 2 there is more musing on the human condition:
‘To tell the truth, we are not born to common sense. I doubt whether Russia has ever produced a really sensible man. For my own part, if I see my neighbour living a regular life, and making money, and saving it, I begin to distrust him, and to feel certain that in old age, if not before, he too will be led astray by the devil–led astray in a moment. Yes, whether or not we be educated, there is something we lack. But what that something is passes my understanding.’ (Part 2 Ch 4)
I really enjoyed the narration by Gordon Griffin because it brought the characterisation alive without over-dramatising it, but an audio book is not the best way to make sense of this absurd tale. (It’s not helped by the fact that some pages are apparently missing from the original, and that the story comes to an abrupt ending halfway through the Prince’s speech exhorting his hearers to justice). I listened to it three times, but in the end I had to read it online as well.
Wikipedia tells me (post-reading and writing this review) that Gogol structured his story to emulate the Odyssey, and although (inevitably) there is scholarly disagreement about that, Nabokov has identified the ‘Homeric roots of the complicated absurdist technique of Gogol’s comparisons and digressions’. Alas, I failed to note any of that at all, I just enjoyed the story!
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Title: Dead Souls
Narrated by Gordon Griffin
Publisher: Naxos Audio Books, 2003
Source: Loan from my dear friend, author and editor Mairi Neil
Quotations in this post are from Project Gutenberg.