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Old 18th Jan 2006, 14:30   #1
amner
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Default Nikolai Gogol: Dead Souls

About half way through Dead Souls I discovered that it was an 'unfinished' novel. As I was struggling with it by then this news wasn't particularly welcomed, but I'm a stubborn so-and-so in many ways (and a give up and run away squealing like a girl so-and-so in others), and ultimately I decided to continue. It's a classic, right? And now we're here...

Dead Souls starts in promising style, with a stranger (the central character, Chichikov) arriving in a provincial town, booking himself into the local hostelry and splashing the cash, making a big noise, wining and dining les grand fromages and generally just becoming known. What's his game? These days they'd call it networking, but there's more to it than that. The petty officials of the town, being greedy, satirically drawn self-important nobodies, fall over themselves to make his acquaintance and soon he builds up a picture of the social landscape he's really interested in, namely the landowners in the immediate vicinity. He then saddles up and takes a tour of the countryside, imposing on the hospitality of an ever increasingly bizarre collection of farming grotesques. These peculiar encounters serve to provide Chichikov with his big scam, that of acquiring dead souls, the documentation relating to servants who have died while in service. These servants - because we are between censuses - are still being taxed by central government bureaucracy and Chichikov feels able to persuade the landowners that they might let him have them for a nominal fee. Chichikov, we later find out in an extensive biographical section, has had some exerience working in Russia's grossly incompetent and corrupt civil service (namely the Customs section) and has hit upon a scheme for offloading these 'dead souls' to a fictitious remote farmstead and pocketing some form of commission. As we reach the end of Part 1 the sellers of the souls start to talk to each other and Chichikov, correctly assuming he's been rumbled takes off. In Part 2 we head to another part of rural Russia where indolent, lazy, landed-on-his-feet waster Tientietnikov lives a peaceful life. Chichikov bundles into the area and begins his old tricks again, but here a change is apparent, as he is seemingly won over by the idea of settling down and purchasing a similar lifestyle to Tientietnikov.

In the end, well, nothing...there is no end, at all. The novel begins to fragment with explanatory notes that '...here there occurs a hiatus in the original...', scenes jump like a buggered up home movie, characters appear and disappear, conversations snap closed, and eventually we get '...here the manuscript of the original abruptly comes to an end...'. This is unsatisfactory, of course, and one risks sounding like a philistine, but how bloody irritating! Does Chichikov move towards redemption?

There is a significant impression of a possible spiritual resolution, with Chichikov languishing in jail, but we never see it happen. Some scholars will tell you that there was an expected third part: what would happen there? Does that mean we're only half way through Chichikov's story arc when we end so, well, abruptly?

It seems likely. The first part was published in 1842, and Gogol decided that before he could continue his work on the novel and bring about the "spiritual regeneration of a crook like Chichikov", he had to undergo a spiritual regeneration himself. This manifested itself in pilgrimages (he went to Jerusalem), a strict regime, the influence of a priest who - it's thought - persuaded Gogol to burn the manuscript, and the exiling of himself away from friends and family, until he died in considerable pain in March 1852.

Certainly, it feels like two books. Part 1 is a grim yet comedic mix of witty asides and silly set ups, but with the focus firmly on the unedifying greed and neuroses of a motley selection of nobodies; Part 2 is a different beast altogether and - although he forgets himself and stirs up memories of the first section several times - he's clearly moving Chichikov towards a place where he's a more acceptable figure. But the inconsistency is hard to get past. Here are two brief passages from the beginning and then the end of Dead Souls:

Quote:
the coachman departed to look after his horses, and the valet to establish himself in the little dark anteroom or kennel where already he had stored a cloak, a bagful of livery, and his own peculiar smell.
Quote:
But the newcomer applied himself, rather, to phenomena of the internal world, saying that his life might be likened to a barque tossed on the crests of perfidious billows, that in his time he had been fated to play many parts, and that on more than one occasion his life had stood in danger at the hands of foes. At the same time, these tidings were communicated in a manner calculated to show that the speaker was also a man of practical capabilities.
That reads like a man trying to turn the ship around after way too much internal strife, and having a go at nailing onto the original picaresque novel something much more didactic and theoretical, shifting away from the art of the comedy and into a directioned, purposeful, agenda.
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Old 18th Jan 2006, 14:42   #2
Colyngbourne
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Default Re: Nikolai Gogol : Dead Souls

*applauds* An achievement to 'finish' it, as such, and to sum up its unsummed-upness as well. A bit of the Lieu Kije's it sounds like - the manipulation of no-longer/non-existent Russian folk for nefarious gain.
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Old 18th Jan 2006, 14:54   #3
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Default Re: Nikolai Gogol : Dead Souls

Ach! A typo or two noticed there...hopefully picked up now. One thing I need to say is that when mentioning this to friends and family the standard response was, why would I want to read anything so gloomy? It should be pointed out that although none of the characters are particularly pleasant (apart from perhaps the helpful and spiritual Murasov at the end) it's not a gloomy read. There's a bit of post-modern cultural osmosis going on here, and I think folk are getting their Joy Division gloom-meisters (Dead Souls being a song on 1981's Still, a collection of JD rarities) mixed up with their Russian gulag gloom-meisters.
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Old 18th Jan 2006, 15:11   #4
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Default Re: Nikolai Gogol : Dead Souls

I dunno... I'd never heard of the Joy Division track, but as someone who has a positive taste for books, music, films that other people call gloomy, I've always felt that Dead Souls was a step too far even for me. The title, I suppose, is key, plus the 19th-century-Russian factor, and maybe an element even of the Penguin black spine becoming forbidding in the knowledge of the above. And the cover illustration doesn't exactly dispel that air:



Anyway, I'm grateful for amner's sterling work, because now I know that even if I like Gogol's stories - awaiting me somewhere in the second circle of the TBR pile - I needn't bother with Dead Souls.
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Old 5th Oct 2006, 15:15   #5
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Default Re: Nikolai Gogol : Dead Souls

Yep, that cover does scream out 'read me'.
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