Monday, April 29, 2013

"Ha, ha, ha!" he cried with a gesture of astonishment: Dead Souls of La Mancha

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, of which novel I've read very nearly almost four whole chapters (that is to say, about a third of the book), has revealed its primary literary influence: Don Quixote. This should be no surprise, since (as Dwight warned me somewhere or other), once you read Don Quixote, you start to see it in every other novel. That might be an overstatement, but Dead Souls, to get back to my more-or-less point, is certainly a picaresque novel. Chichikov, the protagonist, travels over rural Russia on his quest to purchase "dead souls," the title-of-ownership to serfs who have died but who remain on the tax rolls. It's a good deal for the seller, as you can't get a kopeck's worth of work from a dead serf but you still have to pay the tax on them until the next official census, and only the Tsar knows when that will be, God protect him. The question in everyone's mind, of course, is: just what is Chichikov doing with these dead souls, anyway?

Near the end of Chapter 4, Chichikov is asked this question by Nozdrev, a young drunken wastrel of a property owner, when the offer is made to buy up Nozdrev's dead souls. Chichikov offers up the explanations the reader has been mulling over (or at least the reasons I'd been mulling over), only to admit, in the face of Nozdrev's cross-examinations, that these reasons are not true. We do not learn yet why Chichikov is buying up the titles to dead serfs. But we do learn in Chapter 4, as I was saying some time ago, that Dead Souls is a picaresque novel in the vein of Don Quixote. The bulk of Chapter 4 is a character sketch of Nozdrev:

Nozdrev's face will be familiar to the reader, seeing that every one must have encountered many such. Fellows of the kind are known as "gay young sparks," and, even in their boyhood and school days, earn a reputation for being bons camarades (though with it all they come in for some hard knocks) for the reason that their faces evince an element of frankness, directness, and enterprise which enables them soon to make friends, and, almost before you have had time to look around, to start addressing you in the second person singular. Yet, while cementing such friendships for all eternity, almost always they begin quarrelling the same evening, since, throughout, they are a loquacious, dissipated, high-spirited, over-showy tribe. Indeed, at thirty-five Nozdrev was just what he had been an eighteen and twenty--he was just such a lover of fast living. Nor had his marriage in any way changed him, and the less so since his wife had soon departed to another world, and left behind her two children, whom he did not want, and who were therefore placed in the charge of a good-looking nursemaid.

Nozdrev is a comic character and we are treated to a tour of his entire estate, including his collection of dogs, horses and carriages. Nozdrev gambles compulsively, goes on buying sprees, tells tall tales about himself and simply covets everything around him. In other words, he is Gogol's archetypal Russian landowner.

"That is the boundary," said Nozdrev. "Everything that you see on this side of the post is mine, as well as the forest on the other side of it, and what lies beyond the forest."

"When did that forest become yours?" asked the brother-in-law. "It cannot be long since you purchased it, for it never used to be yours."

"Yes, it isn't long since I purchased it," said Nozdrev.

"How long?"

"How long? Why, I purchased it three days ago, and gave a pretty sum for it, as the devil knows!"

"Indeed? Why, three days ago you were at the fair?"

"Wiseacre! Cannot one be at a fair and buy land at the same time? Yes, I was at the fair, and my steward bought the land in my absence."

"Oh, your steward bought it." The brother-in-law seemed doubtful, and shook his head.

This is all good stuff. Not a word of it advances the plot, but it's unputdownable. A feudal society in decline, where the serf class openly disrespects the gentry, and the gentry are in general immoral, dishonest, obsessed with their position in society, and utterly unworthy of respect. Like I say, the Cervantes influence is all over this. Chichikov is not quite The Knight of the Sad Countenance, but Gogol's Russia bears more than a passing resemblance to Cervante's Spain. Just so, Gogol's novel bears more than a passing resemblance to Cervante's epic. If you aren't part of the readalong, why aren't you?


  1. This sounds quite like a contemporary novel I read about today...a "soul buyer" or some such. Buys mortal souls for their energy. Interesting concept but too much paranormal for my taste.

    Do let me know how your book ends.

  2. I don't know how the paranormal genre keeps chugging along the way it is. All of these tropes have been in use for hundreds of years now. Who would claim that buying souls is a new idea? Even though Gogol's protagonist isn't actually buying anyone's immortal souls; it's more like he's purchasing the titles to abandoned cars. The action is all metaphorical rather than mystical. I'm guessing the book you read was YA, so all the paranormal activity was just backdrop for a plucky coming-of-age melodrama with a dash of sex?