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Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 25 comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.

Food

I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.

Globalization

We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

I need a fix, cause I’m going down

September 24, 2012 25 comments

I Remember my Grandpa by Truman Capote (1943) French Title: L’été indien

The overcoat by Nikolaï Gogol (1842)  French title: Le manteau.

I know, the title of this post will probably get me weird hits on the blog. I didn’t coin the sentence, the Beatles did. It has, in a way, nothing to do with I Remember my Grandpa and in another way everything to do with it. As expected, September is busy. Children are back to school and there are millions of tiny things to organize. Each year you swear you’ll be better prepared the next time and each year you end up running urgent errands at the last minute to buy the precise pencil required by the math teacher. You need to register to football, music classes and other side activities. To top it off, August is a dead month at work in France and when September hits, life resumes and everybody rushes into unsolved issues; your email box explodes and your agenda overflows with meeting requests. Add busy weekends to this weekly flow and your reading life shrinks to an unbearable size.

And that’s what happened to me. I couldn’t concentrate on Proust at night, couldn’t read the Tabucchi book I wanted to start and couldn’t read Anna Edes along with Max as I intended to. It became unbearable. I needed a fix of literature, like some must consume their own drug. But I’m still confused at how much I need to read, at how I feel smothered if I don’t have that quality time with the words of others. I went to the library and borrowed audio books to take advantage of the one-and-a-half hour I spend in the car every day.

That led me to Truman Capote’s short story I Remember my Grandpa. Johnny is seven and he’s living in a remote farm in Virginia with his parents and his grand-parents. His father runs the farm and barely makes ends meet. The farm is so isolated that Johnny can’t go to school. The fragile economical balance of the farm and the fact that its location deprives Johnny from any solid education pushes his father to move out. Johnny discovers they will move the next week to another city, that his father has found a job on another farm, that someone else will rent and run his childhood farm and that they will leave his grandparents behind. This new development saddens the grandpa and he tells Johnny a “secret” before the boy leaves.

Jean-Claude Rey tells the story, he doesn’t read it. His voice is warm, changes of pace and takes the innocent tone of a young boy who sees the events at his own level, understanding more than the adults think he does and less at the same time. We never quite know what children grasp from their surroundings or from the relationships and feelings around them. I’m convinced they build a theory of their own to cope with situations and don’t necessarily ask questions when they feel they have a satisfactory explanation, be it of their own making. Besides this, the short story also shows the difficulty to live upon isolated farms before WWII – I’d say it’s set in the 1930s, since Johnny’s dad has an automobile. Johnny’s father seems to be the villain here since he separates his son from his childhood home and cuts his wife and son from her family. And yet, he’s the one who has enough courage to make that decision, enough love to want a better life for his son and enough intelligence to realize that a good education helps climbing the social ladder. It’s a short and catchy read. I wonder why the French title is L’été indien. True, they leave the farm in the autumn but it’s under a snow storm, not exactly the mild and pleasant weather the idea of Indian summer conjures up.

The busy weekends continue and this weekend we were at the realm of wild capitalism aimed at children, ie Waitingland Disneyland Paris. Believe me, my parental duty now done, I never want to set a foot there in my life again. The organization is lacking, the prices are outrageous and the food is so bad that McDonald’s suddenly seems like a gourmet restaurant. But I get carried away. Thank God for the kindle, I started to read The Overcoat by Gogol when I was in waiting lines. The grotesque tone of the short story suited the situation. Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is a civil servant in Saint Petersburg. He works in an office as a devoted copyist. The man lives poorly, hardly takes care of himself, is always mocked by colleagues but he loves his job and copying. Seen from outside, his life is miserable and copying is the only thing he does but Akaky Akakievich is content. His wages are low and he can’t afford many fantasies, every coin is needed. So when his tailor refuses to mend his overcoat, saying the fabric is thin beyond repair, he’s desperate. Where is he going to find the money to buy a new overcoat? The cold is biting and he endeavours to spare all the money he can to find the way to pay for his overcoat. This adds a new goal in his life and it changes his attitude and… I won’t tell you what happens. It’s great Gogol, in the same trend as The Nose.  He makes fun of the army of civil servants working in St Petersburg and always has a funny word to describe situations. He shows how a goal can change a man, help him stand for himself. He also insists on how the wealthy and powerful tend to trample on poor people, treating them as cows sweep off flies with their tails. The ending is as funny as a fable by La Fontaine. That helped.

Otherwise, unread blog entries are piling up in my mailbox, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m still reading The Turn of the Screw and it seems that no tool is going to fix my interest on it. I have to hurry though, or I’ll screw up for my Book Club meeting on Thursday. Yes, I know, the pun is terrible but a weekend of waiting lines turned my brain into mush. I need a fix, cause I’m going down

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

December 21, 2011 20 comments

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol. 1832. French title: La Nuit de Noël, translated into French by Eugénie Tchernosvitow.  

I wanted to read a Christmas story and I found The Night Before Christmas on my shelves. It must have been there for a while since the price is still in francs. It’s a tale from the book Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.

Le dernier jour avant Noël était passé. Une claire nuit d’hiver était descendue sur la terre ; les étoiles apparurent ; majestueuse, la lune était montée au ciel pour dispenser sa lumière aux braves gens, comme d’ailleurs à tous les habitants de ce monde, afin que tous puissent avoir plaisir, cette nuit-là, à chanter les « koliadki » et à glorifier le Christ. The last day before Christmas had passed. A clear winter night had fallen on Earth; the stars appeared; the majestic moon had come in the sky to shed its light on the good people, and on all the inhabitants of this world, so that they could all enjoy signing koliadkis and glorify the Christ during that particular night. (My clumsy translation. I couldn’t find one online)

The villagers prepare for their usual Christmas night. Tchoub is expected to diner at the sexton’s house, leaving his beautiful and conceited daughter Oksana alone at home. The blacksmith and religious painter Vakoula waits for Tchoub to leave his cottage; he intends to pay a visit to Oksana. He’s desperately in love with her but it is unrequited love so far. He would unhook the moon for her if he could. (In French we say décrocher la lune ie, to do something extraordinary. It’s mostly used to describe something you’d do for someone you love deeply.)  

Actually someone does unhook the moon that night. The devil does. He holds a grudge against the blacksmith because he painted him so truthfully on the church’s walls that he now lacks candidates for hell. The devil wants to play havoc with these villagers’ plans and switches off the natural light bestowed by the moon. He hopes that Tchoub will stay at home preventing Vakoula to spend his evening with his beloved Oksana. But does anything go according to plan when devil and humans meddle with each other’s affairs?  

It’ a folk tale which mixes traditional themes (witches, devil, dancing stars…), life in a Ukrainian village with its shrews, its drunkards and its local elite (mayor, sexton, rich artisans). I could picture people gathering around a fire, listening to these stories passed along from one generation to the other, enriched with new details by each storyteller. It’s a testimony of the oral culture that will progressively disappear. It’s also a nice picture of Christmas traditions in rural Ukraine. Young people used to walk from house to house singing koliadkis (Christmas carols) under the people’s windows and were rewarded with food. They gather at the end of the evening to show their prizes.  

But Gogol stretches the tale up to a farce. The scene where the shrews argue reminded me of the song Hécatombe by Georges Brassens. So funny. (It’s worth reading the lyrics of that song if you can read French) He also takes advantage of the tale to scratch the rich and powerful with little remarks and acid comparisons. He exposes ridicules and vanities. As I had already noticed in The Nose, the text includes play-on-words, especially about devil-related expressions.

It was a funny and lovely read. It left me with the image of paintings by Bruegel. I know, it’s not at all the same century but it sounded such an immutable picture of rural life that it came to my mind anyway.

The story of the man who puts his nose where it doesn’t belong

October 7, 2011 20 comments

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol. 1836

In The Breast, Philip Roth refers to The Nose by Gogol and you’ll understand why when I write the review of the Roth. As it is a short-story, I decided to read it. The Nose is the story of the a barber who finds the nose of his client Assessor Kovalev in his breakfast bread one morning, while Assessor Kovalev wakes up and his nose is gone: 

Collegiate Assessor KOVALEV also awoke early that morning. And when he had done so he made the “B-r-rh!” with his lips which he always did when he had been asleep — he himself could not have said why. Then he stretched, reached for a small mirror on the table nearby, and set himself to inspect a pimple which had broken out on his nose the night before. But, to his unbounded astonishment, there was only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been! Greatly alarmed, he got some water, washed, and rubbed his eyes hard with the towel. Yes, the nose indeed was gone! He prodded the spot with a hand — pinched himself to make sure that he was not still asleep. But no; he was not still sleeping. Then he leapt from the bed, and shook himself. No nose!

It is a terrible drama for him who is seeking social ascension. He needs to find a good position as a civil servant, he wants to socialize with the high society and he hopes to marry Alexandra Potdochina’s daughter. All this cannot be achieved without a nose!

Even loss of hands or feet would have been better, for a man without a nose is the devil knows what — a bird, but not a bird, a citizen, but not a citizen, a thing just to be thrown out of window. It would have been better, too, to have had my nose cut off in action, or in a duel, or through my own act: whereas here is the nose gone with nothing to show for it — uselessly — for not a groat’s profit!

The poor man will try anything to catch up with his nose. Once he meets his Nose on the street – a most funny encounter and chases him. He goes to a newspaper to advert and have someone bring his nose back. He tries to find a reason to this disappearance and ends up thinking Alexandra Potdochina is responsible for his loss. It’s surreal, absurd and really funny. I’ve read that Gogol’s aim was to point out all the rules we need to abide by to be part of some social circles. Here, in this society, it would have been admitted to have only one leg but not to have a nose, unless you can be proud of the way you lost it. It questions our identity and how our physical appearance matters when it comes to relationships. The need to look “normal” is powerful and poor Kovalev carries a handkerchief to hide the place where his nose should be, in a vain attempt to keep nosy people away. Gogol isn’t really introspective here, Kovalev has no real internal turmoil and he doesn’t linger on the effects this event have on his inner mind. He emphasizes more on the social consequences and the risk to be an outsider.

The French translation includes play-on-words related to noses and other parts of the face. For example: The Nose says Je n’y comprends goutte and it was translated into English as I cannot apprehend your meaning, which is the same meaning, except that in French, avoir la goutte au nez means to have a runny nose. Well, in French, it’s rather witty. A moment later, when Alexandra Potdochina writes him a letter, the French version says “Vous me parlez d’une histoire de nez. Si vous entendez par là que vous avez essuyé un pied de nez, en d’autres termes que vous avez essuyé un refus de ma part, laissez-moi vous dire que c’est précisément le contraire.” and the English version is “You speak, too, of a nose. If that means that I seem to you to have desired to leave you with a nose and nothing else, that is to say, to return you a direct refusal of my daughter’s hand, I am astonished at your words, for, as you cannot but be aware, my inclination is quite otherwise.” Does that mean that the original is also full of nose-related play-on-words? I heard that Russian grammar can be bent – much more than the French one – and I can only assume that Gogol’s prose is witty too. I also enjoyed the comic effects such as the advertisements clerk offering some snuff to Kovalev to comfort him: the poor man has no nose for it! Or the moment when Kovalev tries to fix his nose back in the middle of his face. Btw, in French we say, “ça se voit comme le nez au milieu de la figure”, literally, “it’s visible like a nose in the middle of a face”, ie it’s obvious. This story is a gold mine for play-on-words.

I really enjoyed this short-story and I’m glad I read it as it is indeed useful to understand the Roth.

PS: I have a question. When Kovalev meets Madame Potdochina and his daughter on the street, he think je n’épouserai pas la gamine… si ce n’est de la main gauche, which means he won’t marry the daughter but might have an affair with her. The English translation says “I’m not going to marry the daughter, though. All this is just — par amour, allow me.” Does “par amour” have a negative connotation and actually means an affair? If yes, fortunately I didn’t read the English version, I would have thought it was a love marriage i.e., the exact opposite.

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