Nikolai Gogol published his great novel, “Dead Souls”, in 1842. The plot concerns a man named Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who buys dead serfs from various landowners; not the cadavers of these serfs, rest assured; only their names.
The background of this peculiar enterprise is long and involving: serfdom in Russia, and the taxation system and census reports of those times. Any decent translation of Gogol’s novel will supply a detailed historical overview. And while such information is helpful and interesting, it is not absolutely necessary. All the reader needs to know is that the “hero”, Chichikov, is engaged in a fraudulent scheme calculated to gain him prestige.
He approaches a number of landowners from whom he hopes to gain so many “souls”. Among them we meet Manilov, with whom Chichikov forms a gushingly polite friendship reminiscent of the classic cartoon characters named the Goofy Gophers. Or there is the fretful yet stubborn Mother Korobochka, the outlandishly irresponsible Nozdrev, the tight-fisted Sobakevich, and the dour hoarder named Plewshkin. The latter figure treats discarded rags or nails or scraps of paper as treasured items. It is these encounters—plus Gogol’s eccentric descriptions and digressions—that make “Dead Souls” such an enjoyable read.
The author’s style combines vivid detail with a playful disregard for literary convention. His eye is for the typical, not the unique: thus everything in his novel is ‘familiar’, the ‘well known’, ‘the usual sights’. But the way that Gogol sees the typical, and describes it, is funny indeed; funny in every sense of the word. For example, everything is ‘as it should be’ when Chichikov visits a governor’s residence. His eyes are ‘dazzled by the candles, the lights, and the ladies’ dresses. Everything was flooded with light, and black frockcoats kept flashing by, singly and in clusters, like flies on a gleaming white sugar loaf on a sultry July day…’ The simile continues for another sixteen lines, but it transports the reader to a very different setting; a place where an elderly housekeeper is breaking apart the aforementioned sugar loaf, the shards of which are attacked by swarms of flies. The focus closes in on the flies themselves as they ‘rub their front and back legs together’ or ‘turn and take off, only to return again in new harassing squadrons’. It would be a mistake to force some symbolic meaning onto this glorious, hilarious passage. It does not really mean anything; it is simply Gogol being Gogol.
The author’s genius belonged to the in-spite-of-himself variety; and the eyes he had were not the eyes he wanted. He wanted “Dead Souls” to be something it could not be: a Russian variation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. He attempted a sequel along such lines but ended up burning the manuscript shortly before dying. That is probably fortunate because what we are left with is an inimitable, oddball masterpiece.