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Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 26 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)

Life doesn’t deserve that one fears for it. Believe me.

November 25, 2013 22 comments

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov 1995 French title: Le pingouin. Translated from the Russian by Nathalie Armagier.

Victor posa sa machine à écrire sur la table de la cuisine et se mit, un mot après l’autre, à composer des portraits vivants de futurs défunts. Victor put his typewriter on the kitchen table and, one word after the other, started to compose lively portraits of future deceased.

book_club_2For November our Book Club had selected Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I have read the French translation, which means I’ll have to translate into English the quotes I want to include in this billet. I’ll leave the French translation for you as well. If you can read in French, then at least you’ll read a version by a professional translator. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with my attempts at translation. Now back to the book.

We’re in Kiev in the 1990s and the main character of our novel is the would-be writer Victor. He’s been trying to write a book, to no avail. He needs a job to pay the bills, so when an editor at the Stolitchnaïa, Igor Lvovitch wants to hire him to write obituaries, he accepts. Victor writes “little crosses” about people who are still alive; the newspaper will be prepared in case of their death.

Kurkov_pingouinVictor lives in a two-bedroom flat with his penguin Micha. He adopted him the year before when the zoo was giving animals away because they couldn’t afford to feed them. Victor knows nothing about penguins but the waddling presence of Micha distracts him from his solitude. They complement each other.

Soon after taking on this new job, at which he is very good, several people enter into Victor’s universe. First, he strikes up an acquaintance with a man named Micha. He comes upon Igor’s recommendation and requests a necrology for a dying friend. Victor accepts to write it and Micha becomes an occasional visitor, coming with his daughter Sonia. Then he meets Sergueï, a policeman who accepts to come at Victor’s and feed Micha while Victor is away. Victor and Sergueï quickly become friends, taking Micha the penguin out and spending time together.

Victor slowly realises that since he’s taken on this new job, weird things happen around him. The persons he has written about seem to die suddenly and of unrealistic cause:

Il est tombé du cinquième étage. Il semblerait qu’il ait été occupé à laver les carreaux, mais étrangement, ce n’était pas chez lui. En outre, il faisait nuit. He fell down from the fifth floor. It seems he was cleaning the window, but strangely, it wasn’t his. And, it was at night.

It reminds me of a Corsican death where the guy commits suicide by shooting himself three bullets in the back. Then Micha disappears, leaving Sonia under Victor’s care. Then Igor warns Victor that he should maintain a low profile for a while, which leads him to spend Christmas in Sergueï’s dacha. Micha the man doesn’t come back and Victor hires Sergueï’s niece Nina to babysit Sonia. The three of them start living together. In a short span of time, Victor goes from living like a hermit with a penguin to sharing his life with a child and a woman.

That’s not the most important preoccupation here. With what kind of mob has Victor become involved? What should he do? Close his eyes and look the other way? Stop writing “little crosses”? But can he stop? I was interested by the plot and wanted to know who was behind Victor’s job and what it was all about.

However, there’s more to Death and the Penguin than just that. It was written in 1995, not long after the collapse of the USSR. Through the characters’ everyday life, Kurkov depicts life in Ukraine during those years. Material goals prevail. Everybody wants to survive and that’s the most important. Public services are in bad shape and corruption is everywhere. Here’s Pidpaly, one of Victor’s acquaintances after he has discovered that he has cancer:

– Et le médecin, il en dit quoi ?- Le médecin, il dit que si je lui donne mon appartement, je vivrai encore trois mois… – And what does the doctor say ?– The doctor says that if I give him my apartment, I’ll live three months more…

We’re far from the Hippocratic oath, aren’t we? The environment is violent: the book opens with Victor being hit by stones and the dachas are protected from thieves by antipersonnel land mines. Charming. On a lighter tone, I enjoyed reading about underground malls, parties on the ice to let Micha the penguin have fun, Christmas traditions and dishes.

In Kurkov’s voice I heard typical Russian literature. There’s a strong sense of humour and of the grotesque. The idea of a man living with a penguin that eats frozen fish, takes baths in a bathtub and sleeps on a little blanket is rather funny. The penguin attracts attention and affection. He’s a silent but comforting presence in Victor’s life. Micha is depressed but his sadness seems to reflect Victor’s. Gogol could have invented him.

Victor is a strange character. He’s passive and adapts to the events as they happen. He changes his diet when Sonia starts living with him because she needs to eat properly. He doesn’t particularly like children but never tries to get rid of her. She comes into his life, he adjusts. Nina wants them to live as a family, he adjusts. Igor needs to hide for a while, he helps him. When Pidpaly is in the hospital and dies, he takes care of the ceremony even if he only briefly knew the man. Victor brings his help to people who need it and yet he seems indifferent to everything. There’s a strong feeling of resignation in the novel, something I attach to Russian literature. Perhaps I’m wrong to generalise.

Kurkov’s style is quite lively. I liked his description of the city, the weather and how it impacts Victor’s mood.

Dehors, l’hiver que le gel faisait croustiller suivait son cours. Tout était plutôt calme. Outside, winter that frost made crusty followed its path. All was rather quiet.

It’s a tale laced with black humour or comic stemming from situations. I laughed at this passage:

Victor était assis tout au bout du divan, Sergueï occupait le fauteuil, et le pingouin restait debout ; la nature ne l’avait pas doté de la faculté de s’asseoir. Victor was sitting at the end of the couch, Sergueï was in the armchair and the penguin was standing. Nature hadn’t granted him the faculty to sit down.

In literature, we often see children speaking like little adults and too mature for their assumed age. In Death and the Penguin, I thought that Sonia’s voice was convincing. I could hear a young child speaking when reading her dialogues. She makes observations typical from young children. When spring comes back and the ice starts to melt outside, she says Uncle Vitia! (…) The icicles are weeping! It reminded me of our son who declared very seriously one morning Look Mom, the orange juice is smiling. He was about Sonia’s age at the time.

The combination of the plot, the offhand observations of the Ukrainian society and the picturesque characters makes of Death and the Penguin a funny tale tainted with crime fiction. I had a good time reading it. In our book club, someone couldn’t finish it, she couldn’t care less about Victor’s fate and didn’t accept the assumption that it is perfectly plausible to live with a penguin. (No problem for me, I remind you that I’m totally sold on a story about a man who lives with a python who hugs him, written by the way, by a Frenchman of Russian origin.). Just to say that opinions aren’t unanimous on this one. For another review, please find Guy’s here.

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