Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Dead Souls by Nicolai Gogol (4/5)

The back says: Russia in the 1840s. There is a stranger in town, and he is behaving oddly. The unctuous Pavel Chichikov goes around the local estates buying up 'dead souls'.

These are the papers relating to serfs who have died since the last census, but who remain on the record and still attract a tax demand. Chichikov is willing to relieve their owners of the tax burden by buying the titles for a song. What he does not say is that he then proposes to take out a huge mortgage against these fictitious citizens and buy himself a nice estate in Eastern Russia.

I say: I think I may have fallen in some sort of love with this book. At least some parts of it. Gogol is hilarious when he wants to be, which, thankfully, is quite often, and I was laughing out loud in so many places. At one point I was laughing so hard I started crying.

But that's just me.

The reason why I love Russian authors (well, the ones I've read) is that they have a tendency to describe Russian life in such a detailed and lengthy way. I know that a lot of people find this annoying, but I love it. They also concoct the best descriptions of people and have the most hilarious insults (rivalled only by, perhaps, the Nigerians and the Polish). So yeah, a lot of descriptions of the scenery, Russian culture and, of course, the names.

Aside: the reason I mention the names is that every time I read something by a Russian author it takes me ages to remember who everyone is, because, as you may or may not know, they have three names and people apparently refer to them differently. Like the protagonist in Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who is Pavel Ivanovich to some, and Chichikov to other. This becomes an issue when they introduce several characters at the same time and then have them referred to as different things.

Dead Souls is a tale told by an unknown narrator who, every now and then, addresses the reader to provide information - it's kind of like watching a DVD with the director's commentary on (if you're nerdy enough to have done that, like I have). I thought that this was, more often than not, a novel thing, especially when the narrator provided some sort of commentary on Russia and Russians; I thought that was interesting, and often hilarious. However, sometimes it was slightly annoying when I was more interested in the story than social commentary.

For some reason I love characters like Chichikov, i.e. characters that genuinely believe that the world owes them something, and will do any and everything to get what they believe they are entitled to. The reason I love them is that, sooner or later, they always find themselves in some sort of predicament that leads them to repent (and they always do - when caught), and as soon as they have been forgiven and given a new chance, they go right back to their old ways.

Nothing is ever their fault and they always have an explanation for everything.

I realise now that I'm on the brink of writing an essay on this, which, in itself, is a sign that the book really had an effect on me - the characters, the descriptions, the conversations, the excessive use of "the deuce!" - so I'll limit myself in saying that I am forever saddened that Gogol decided to burn some of his work* because I would have loved to see what was to become of Chichikov and his Dead Souls.

*When I bought this book I had no idea that it was incomplete (which, once again, teaches me to do my research before picking up things), and only realised it halfway through (because I never read the introductions either) when I was doing something or other. The book was meant to be in three parts, but Gogol supposedly burned the end of the second one, and it all ends mid-sentence, nonetheless. The edition I have (Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2010) ends with a book (final chapter) that was published in Kiev in 1857 under the title of Continuation and Conclusion of Dead Souls by Vaschenko Zakharchenko. I haven't read that yet, and am still deciding if I want to read someone else's ending of the book. Maybe at a later date.

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