Only with trepidation do I give a measly 2 stars to classic books on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
list. Even if I didn't particularly like the book (e.g., Steppenwolf
, The Sea
, Wuthering Heights
, or The Kreutzer Sonata
- dear God, the Kreutzer Sonata!), I'll usually give it 3 stars out of appreciation for its literary merits, its thematic depth, or the prose.
I won't deny Dead Souls
has literary merit and thematic depth. It's hard for me to judge the prose since I've learned to mistrust translations. But I have a hard time getting into Russian literature — I have yet to discover the Russian novel or author who really "speaks" to me — and Gogol didn't really seem to know where he was going with Dead Souls
, only what he wanted to do when he got there. As Peter Boxall says in the aforementioned 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
The writing of Dead Souls drove Gogol mad. It started off as a humorous idea for a story, the conceit being that Chichikov, a scheming opportunist, would travel through Russia buying up the rights to dead serfs (souls), who had not yet been purged from the census and could therefore - like all chattels - still be mortgaged. As the novel grew, so did Gogol's aspirations; his goal became no less than to rekindle the noble yet dormant core of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that was its destiny. He no longer wanted to write about Russia; he wanted to save it. He was driven into messianic obsession and, having burnt Part Two - twice - after ten years of labor, he committed suicide by starvation.
That's one of the problems with Dead Souls
: on a purely novelistic level, it's incomplete. Gogol planned for it to be a sweeping three-part epic, and the fragment that is left is quite literally unfinished, with missing parts even before the end. So we never do see what comes of Chichikov's scheme. The novel ends in the middle of a long sententious speech about corruption by a Russian prince.
That Gogol was long and rambly had a point he wanted to make is obvious in this book. We can see an author who loved his country, who, as Jane Smiley says in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
Like many Russian writers, Gogol employed his gifts in trying to discern the nature of Russianness and in forging a literary identity for Russia that would somehow help to engender a road to the future.
Thus, Dead Souls
is a book about "Russianness" as much as it is a story about Chichikov, an amoral huckster who conceives a scheme to become rich by buying dead souls from credulous, venal landowners.
Chichikov is a character, and Gogol's treatment of Russian peasantry and the upper classes alike is sharply satirical. Gogol seems to have a sense of humor, unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. At the same time, he's still writing a Tolstoy-like ponderous Russian Epic (even if Dead Souls
' unfinished state leaves it somewhat less ponderous in size), and so between Chichikov's misadventures and a host of other Dickensian characters, we get rambling monologues about details of Russian life and the Russian character.
"Stop, stop, you fool!" shouted Chichikov to Selifan; and even as he spoke a troika, bound on Government business, came chattering by, and disappeared in a cloud of dust. To Chichikov's curses at Selifan for not having drawn out of the way with more alacrity a rural constable with moustaches of the length of an arshin added his quota.
What a curious and attractive, yet also what an unreal, fascination the term "highway" connotes! And how interesting for its own sake is a highway! Should the day be a fine one (though chilly) in mellowing autumn, press closer your travelling cloak, and draw down your cap over your ears, and snuggle cosily, comfortably into a corner of the britchka before a last shiver shall course through your limbs, and the ensuing warmth shall put to flight the autumnal cold and damp. As the horses gallop on their way, how delightfully will drowsiness come stealing upon you, and make your eyelids droop! For a while, through your somnolence, you will continue to hear the hard breathing of the team and the rumbling of the wheels; but at length, sinking back into your corner, you will relapse into the stage of snoring. And when you awake—behold! you will find that five stages have slipped away, and that the moon is shining, and that you have reached a strange town of churches and old wooden cupolas and blackened spires and white, half-timbered houses! And as the moonlight glints hither and thither, almost you will believe that the walls and the streets and the pavements of the place are spread with sheets—sheets shot with coal-black shadows which make the wooden roofs look all the brighter under the slanting beams of the pale luminary. Nowhere is a soul to be seen, for every one is plunged in slumber. Yet no. In a solitary window a light is flickering where some good burgher is mending his boots, or a baker drawing a batch of dough. O night and powers of heaven, how perfect is the blackness of your infinite vault—how lofty, how remote its inaccessible depths where it lies spread in an intangible, yet audible, silence! Freshly does the lulling breath of night blow in your face, until once more you relapse into snoring oblivion, and your poor neighbour turns angrily in his corner as he begins to be conscious of your weight. Then again you awake, but this time to find yourself confronted with only fields and steppes. Everywhere in the ascendant is the desolation of space. But suddenly the ciphers on a verst stone leap to the eye! Morning is rising, and on the chill, gradually paling line of the horizon you can see gleaming a faint gold streak. The wind freshens and grows keener, and you snuggle closer in your cloak; yet how glorious is that freshness, and how marvellous the sleep in which once again you become enfolded! A jolt!—and for the last time you return to consciousness. By now the sun is high in the heavens, and you hear a voice cry "gently, gently!" as a farm waggon issues from a by-road. Below, enclosed within an ample dike, stretches a sheet of water which glistens like copper in the sunlight. Beyond, on the side of a slope, lie some scattered peasants' huts, a manor house, and, flanking the latter, a village church with its cross flashing like a star. There also comes wafted to your ear the sound of peasants' laughter, while in your inner man you are becoming conscious of an appetite which is not to be withstood.
Oh long-drawn highway, how excellent you are! How often have I in weariness and despondency set forth upon your length, and found in you salvation and rest! How often, as I followed your leading, have I been visited with wonderful thoughts and poetic dreams and curious, wild impressions!
Yup, in the middle of Chichikov's travels, the author stops to digress for a long, prolix paragraph about highways.
This may be to your taste, but being a story kind of guy, I wanted to find out what was going to come of Chichikov's schemes. I am less concerned with Gogol's concerns about the character of a long-ago nation, even if today's Russia, after revolutions and Sovietizations and fragmentation and Internetoligarchization does sometimes seem not so far removed from the Russia of Gogol and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Well, this review did make me ramble a bit, didn't it? I guess I still can't quite put my finger on why Dead Souls
fell flat for me, and given that it made me think so hard and dig up so many quotes, I guess it does what all excellent books are supposed to do, which is stir thoughts and conflict in the reader's mind. I'm still only giving it 3 stars, because it's just so boring
for long stretches, and it's an unfinished novel, but if you are into classic Russian lit, or want to try some from the "second-stringers" (i.e., not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky), Dead Souls
has humor and wit and the premise intrigues if the delivery is ultimately unsatisfactory.