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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)

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev

May 3, 2015 23 comments

Fathers & Sons by Turgenev (1861). French title : Pères et fils. Translated by Françoise Flamant. For quotes, I have used English the translation by Richard Hare that I found online.

Turgenev_Peres_FilsWe are in Russia in 1859 and Arkady Kirsanov comes home to his father’s small country estate. He has finished school and brings with him his friend Bazarov. The book opens with a warm chapter where the Kirsanovs, father and son, meet again after Arkady’s long absence. Nikolai Petrovich is very affectionate with his son and really happy to have him back. In return, Arkady clearly dearly loves his father. Arkady’s mother is dead and the Kirsanov household is composed of his father Nikolai Petrovich, his uncle Pavel Petrovich and Arkady soon discovers that his father has a young mistress, Fenichka and that they have a child together.

Bazarov is introduced right away as a nihilist. He speaks his mind, believes in nothing, is only interested in science and considers art as useless. He despises women and sentiments. He likes arguing for the sake of it and rapidly enters into verbal fights with Pavel Petrovich. Arkady is full of admiration for Bazarov, Nikolai Petrovich is ready to give him some credit since his son finds him so fascinating. The first chapters of the books show these arguments between the young generation represented by Bazarov and the old generation represented by Pavel Petrovich. Bazarov speaks like an extremist, probably fueled by his youth. Turgenev is obviously trying to state a point through these dialogues. He belongs to Pavel Petrovich’s generation and statements such as this one:

Autrefois les jeunes gens étaient obligés d’étudier ; ils n’avaient pas envie de passer pour des ignares, ils se donnaient du mal, bon gré, mal gré. Aujourd’hui, il leur suffit de dire : fariboles, tout n’est que fariboles ! Et le tour est joué. Ils sont bien contents, les jeunes gens. C’est vrai, cela: autrefois ils étaient tout bonnement des propres à rien, et maintenant les voilà tout d’un coup promus nihilistes Formerly young men had to study. If they didn’t want to be called fools they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now they need only say ‘Everything in the world is rubbish!’ and the trick is done. Young men are delighted. And, to be sure, they were only sheep before, but now they have suddenly turned into Nihilists.

made me cringe. This sounds like the eternal dispute between parents and children and I don’t like the idea that youth is depraved, less cultured than their parents, blah blah blah. Every generation has said things like this about their children and for me it comes more from an inability of the oldest to adjust to society’s changes than from the youth being less worthy. Anyway.

After a short stay at Nikolai Petrovich’s, the young men go to town and end up staying at another estate that belongs to Anna Sergeyevna. She’s a young widow who lives with her sister Katya. Arkady has a crush on Anna Sergeyevna who has put him in the friend zone. However, she’s fascinated by Bazarov and they spend long moments discussing, leaving Arkady to entertain the young Katya.

And poor Bazarov who has loudly exposed how foolish it is to fall in love finds himself in a love trap with Anna Sergeyevna while Arkady starts to appreciate Katya’s company. And I won’t say more about the plot.

At the beginning, I didn’t like Bazarov at all. Surely, harsh judgments like this one…

« Pourquoi ne veux-tu pas tolérer la liberté de pensée chez les femmes ? dit-il à mi-voix.- Mon vieux, parce que, d’après mes observations, les seules femmes qui pensent librement sont des horreurs. » “Why do you disagree with free thought for women?” he asked in a low voice.“Because, my lad, as far as I can see, free-thinking women are all monsters.”

…didn’t help his case with me. And it’s repeated several times only with different words.

He has the arrogance of the youth who think they know everything and despise the older generation, on principle. The man is full of principles about everything and also full of himself. Time teaches you that you need to stick to your values in life but be a bit more malleable about principles, otherwise compromises are hard to find. Being in love forces Bazarov to look at himself in a new light. He’s not better than the others and feelings cannot be helped.

After a while, they leave Anna Sergeyevna’s estate and go to Bazarov’s parents. The prodigal son is welcomed with warm embraces and tears of joy. Bazarov’s father was a doctor in the military. The family lived the life of wanderers before Bazarov Senior retired to his wife’s property. Now he grows vegetables, takes care of the villagers and spends time with his wife. He’s like Candide, minding his own business and cultivating his garden. The unwanted love feelings that can’t be repressed alter Bazarov’s behavior. He becomes less arrogant, understands his father better and shows more what his apparent harshness hides, like here, in this discussion with Arkady:

Bazarov ne répondit pas aussitôt.« Sais-tu à quoi je pense ? dit-il enfin en croisant ses bras sous sa tête.- Non. A quoi?

– Au fait que mes parents ont la belle vie ! A soixante ans, mon père se démène, il a plein la bouche de ses “palliatifs”, il soigne les gens, joue les grands cœurs avec les paysans, il s’en paye, quoi; ma mère aussi est heureuse: ses journées sont à ce point bourrées d’occupations de toute sortes, et de gémissements, et de lamentations, qu’elle n’a même pas le temps de se voir vivre ; tandis que moi…

– Toi ?

– Moi je pense que je suis là, couché au pied d’une meule…La toute petite place que j’occupe est si infime en comparaison du reste de l’espace où je ne suis pas et où rien ne me concerne ; et la portion de temps qu’il me sera donné de vivre est tellement insignifiante à côté de cette éternité où je n’étais pas et où je ne serai pas…Et dans cet atome, dans ce point mathématique, le sang circule, le cerveau travaille, désire aussi…Quel scandale ! Quelle inanité !

– Permets moi de te faire observer que ce que tu dis là s’applique à tous les hommes en général…

– Tu as raison, repartit Bazarov. Je voulais dire qu’eux, là, mes parents, ils sont occupés et ne s’inquiètent pas de leur propre insignifiance, elle ne leur monte pas à la gorge…tandis que moi je…je ne ressens que de l’ennui et de la haine. »

Bazarov was silent for a while. “Do you know what I’m thinking about?” he said at last, clasping his hands behind his head.“No. What is it?”

“I’m thinking how happy life is for my parents! My father at the age of sixty can fuss around, chat about ‘palliative measures,’ heal people; he plays the magnanimous master with the peasants–has a gay time in fact; and my mother is happy too; her day is so crammed with all sorts of jobs, with sighs and groans, that she hasn’t a moment to think about herself; while I…”

“While you?”

“While I think; here I lie under a haystack…The tiny narrow space I occupy is so minutely small in comparison with the rest of space where I am not and which has nothing to do with me; and the portion of time in which it is my lot to live is so insignificant beside the eternity where I have not been and will not be… And in this atom, in this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and wants something … how disgusting! How petty!”

“Allow me to point out that what you say applies generally to everyone.”

“You’re right,” interrupted Bazarov. “I wanted to say that they, my parents I mean, are occupied and don’t worry about their own nothingness; it doesn’t sicken them …while I …I feel nothing but boredom and anger.”

At that stage I thought that poor Bazarov had now seen the real reason to his zeal. He was trying to fill the void.

Apart from the conflict of generation, there’s also a political side of Fathers and Sons about the agrarian reform that occurred these years in Russia. If I understood well, the main change is that serfs became farmers. Nikolai Petrovich and Anna Sergeyevna are liberal and in favor of the change. I’m not familiar with this reform and the political context of Russia at the time. Turgenev wanted to make a point but I can’t write about it. The novel is also stuffed with references to scientific theories and scientists of the time as Bazarov is a doctor and interested in sciences. They flew far above my head and only impaired my reading.

Fathers and Sons was our Book Club choice for April and it unanimously received mild appreciation. I have mixed feelings about this novel. Sure, it is interesting on many levels and it is a great piece of literature. I can see what Turgenev brought to Russian literature. But –of course, there’s a but—I never felt engaged in the characters’ story. I felt they were created for the writer to put his ideas in a literary form. Turgenev wanted to make a point more than he wanted to tell a story. I could feel it and that’s why I didn’t love the book.

PS : In May we’re reading Machine Man by Max Barry.

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin

October 14, 2012 7 comments

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin. 1836

When I loved a book or when I hated one, billets seem to write themselves on their own will. In both cases I have many things to say about a novel that stirred strong emotions. When the time I spent with a book only triggered mild feelings, I have difficulties writing about it without yawning. And that’s where I am now that I’m supposed to write about The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin, which was our Book Club’s choice for October.

If I’m correct, with The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin wrote the first great novel of Russian literature. After his poetry work, he decided it was time to try prose and was inspired to do so after reading Sir Walter Scott. [Note to self: read Scott one of these days, he influenced so many Western writers of the early 19th century.]. I read a French version translated in 1973 by Brice Parrain. The free version available online is a translation by Louis Viardot  which dates back to the 19th century. Turgenev helped him translate Pushkin and Gogol into French. So it’s supposed to be faithful to the original and yet the newer translation sounds better. My question now is whether this new translation isn’t too modern and thus erases the formal atmosphere of the original. I’ll never know.

The story takes places in 1773 when Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, a young aristocrat is sent into military service in a remote fort near Orenburg, the Belogorsky fortress. During his journey, he is caught in a snow storm and generously compensates with a coat a fellow traveler who leads him to a shelter for the night. Pyoth eventually arrives to the fortress which is actually barely better than a village with a fence around it. He gets acquainted with his commanding officer, the captain Ivan Mironov, his wife Vassilia and his daughter Masha. Pyotr and Masha fall in love but Pyotr’s parents refuse the alliance as they judge that the girl is beneath him. At that moment, the Pugachev rebellion spreads in the region and the fortress is besieged. What will become of the two lovers?

The Pugachev uprising is a historical event that took place in Russia in 1773-1774. Pushkin was interested in it and wrote nonfiction about it. Catherine The Great wad ruling Russia at the time and Pugachev claimed to be emperor Peter III and started a civil war. He raised an army and won several battles against the Empress’s army. Pushkin made an enquiry, visiting people who had lived through the period, collecting stories and building up a novel with this raw material. I suppose that this historical side is the link between Pushkin and Scott. I wasn’t blown away by the book, even if I was eager to know what would happen as it is full of twists and turns. Perhaps the translation impaired my reading and the Russian prose is better than the French. I was into the story but didn’t feel strong emotions; the novel doesn’t linger on psychological insight and is more on the side of a plot-driven novel.

However, side aspects interested me because I learnt details about Russia at the time, in addition to the historical events. Of course, I’d never heard of the Pugachev uprising and the footnotes of my paper edition were useful. I didn’t understand all the details but understood the main events.

Through the pages you can pick up information about the Russian Empire, for example how noblemen estimate their wealth according to the number of souls they own. (And there will be Gogol’s Dead Souls in 1842) I noticed that Pyotr’s personal servant behaves like a slave and yet is surprisingly literate as he can write good letters. I laughed at the description of the French teacher Pyotr had as a child. The man was lazy and more interested in wine and duels than in actual education.

Then some war customs in the 18th century Russia horrified me. Do you know what they did to traitors? Cut their nose and/or their ears. As I write this, I wonder if this custom has something to do with Gogol’s choice for his wandering appendix in The Nose. (1835-1836). And deportation, sorry exile, in Siberia was already fashionable.

The Belogorsky fortress is only a fortress by name; the army there is little trained, Captain Mironov isn’t tight on practicing. They have only one cannon and only dispose of few weapons. It doesn’t give a good image of the imperial army. I thought about Lermontov and the fortress he will describe in A Hero of Our Time (1840).

The captain’s family is nice and loving as if Pushkin wanted to put forward a part of the society which usually remained behind the curtains. The Captain’s Daughter is light but doesn’t hide the atrocities of the Pugachev uprising or the bad shape of the Russian army. For me, this novel is to the Russian literature I’ve read what Ladies’ Paradise is to Zola’s work: a unique piece without darkness, with hope and good people. I probably would have made more of it if I knew better about Russian literature.

Now you’ve read this post and seen different covers for it. But none of the quite matches with the story. My edition has a portrait of Catherine The Greatand the ones I included here are anachronistic.

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In November, our Book Club is reading Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

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