Saturday, October 4, 2014

Dead Souls

Dead Souls
Nikolai Gogol
3.5 / 5

Published 1842

First Sentence
"A rather handsome, light traveling carriage on springs rolled into the gates of an inn in a certain provincial capital, the kind of carriage that is favored by bachelors: retired lieutenant colonels, second captains, landowners possessing a hundred souls or so of serfs--in a word, all those who are called the fair-to-middlin' sort."
Publisher's Description:
Dead Souls is eloquent on some occasions, lyrical on others, and pious and reverent elsewhere. Nicolai Gogol was a master of the spoof. The American students of today are not the only readers who have been confused by him. Russian literary history records more divergent interpretations of Gogol than perhaps of any other classic.

In a new translation of the comic classic of Russian literature, Chichikov, an enigmatic stranger and schemer, buys deceased serfs' names from their landlords' poll tax lists hoping to mortgage them for profit and to reinvent himself as a gentleman.
Dear Reader,

I've been wanting to read some Gogol ever since reading The Namesake several years ago, as that novel revolves around the father having named his son after the Russian author he'd been reading when he survived a train crash. I'd heard good things about Gogol as well, although his name doesn't seem to be nearly as well known as Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. However, those authors wouldn't even exist, perhaps, were it not for Gogol - he invented the notion of the flawed "anti-hero" - or at least made it popular.

I wish I had known going into the book that it was incomplete in a way: the author apparently finished writing it, but then destroyed parts of it shortly before his death; the book literally ends mid-sentence. I only realized that when I would hit so-called "hiatuses", where large chunks of the story were simply missing. I found that slightly frustrating, but not enough so that it detracted from the story. And the novel IS considered whole in its current state - which I find odd, but okay! Some (including Vladamir Nabokov) say that the storyline isn't really the point of the work, anyway.

What is the storyline?, you might ask. Well, this was the story of bumbling Chichikov, who travels around the Russian countryside asking every landowner he meets to sell him his "dead souls" - meaning, those serfs who were listed as alive during the last census, but have since died. I won't go into why he does this, because that is perhaps the most intriguing point of the book. Gogol goes into amazing descriptions of all of his characters - often digressing for long periods before returning to the main storyline - and his caricatures of Russians are endlessly amusing. He wrote characteristics of people and even animals really very well - all of their personalities loom larger than life in this book. And I think that was the best part about it, the descriptions that Gogol employed. He really cared about conveying whole pictures of each and every character he introduced to the reader. I understand now why this is an exemplar of Russian literature. Gogol certainly belongs up there with all of his other famous literary compatriots.


Dead Souls

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