Monday, May 6, 2013

It would be better for the reader, if he is willing, to make up the end of that story for himself.

I am only a couple of pages away from finishing Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls. The final chapter has been the backstory--the early history--of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist, the buyer of dead souls. Gogol tells how Chichikov led a life of striving for money, primarily as a dishonest civil servant who specialized in graft and corruption. It's been a life of ups and downs, as Chichikov gained one position after the next where he made a great deal of money by illegal means and was then fired in an office purge. He lost half a million rubles earned illicitly in the Customs department, and found himself disgraced, unemployed, middle-aged, in possession of a dozen nice shirts, a couple of suits, an old carriage and two drunken serfs. This is, more or less, the Chichikov we encounter at the beginning of the novel. I have no idea just what Gogol will put onto his final ten pages, and likely I won't say anything more about this book on this blog when I've finished reading Dead Souls (hopefully in a few hours during my lunch break), except for the usual bit of influence spotting that I always do when talking about books. Dead Souls, I'm sure I've said already, is formally influenced by Don Quixote (and also, I just realized, by The Iliad). I don't know how it's thematically influenced, but I can see how Gogol in turn influenced Dostoyevski, Chekhov and Bulgakov, at least.

This is not a novel to take as a model, not really, as it's quite messy in shape. See above comment about Dostoyevski, though. What I mean is that nowadays, in general, a novel is found in the tightly-structured three-act shape of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I think Gogol would have a difficult time selling Dead Souls to an agent or an editor. Insert here all the usual writerly gripes about the current narrowmindedness of the publishing world and how famous author X could never get a book deal today. Dead Souls, no matter how it actually ends, is a marvelous mess of a book. It's funny and cutting and wild, though Gogol in the final chapters proves that he can write with true feeling and compassion for even an antihero. You know Gogol disapproves of Chichikov, but he doesn't judge him so much as he examines him. Gogol holds his scoundrel up to the light, turning him so we are able to see his many facets, and declares him, in the end, human. Chekhov will learn much from this, and as we are all better off for knowing Chekhov, we are better off for knowing Gogol.

I am going to try not to read more Russian novels for a while, to sort of clear my head. I will, of course, be reading volumes 11-13 of Chekhov's stories during the remaining months of this year, God willing. Possibly I'll wrap around and start in on the first volumes of the collection before the year is over. That doesn't count as reading Russian novels, though. But wait: I planned to read The Devils this summer. Huh. Well, there's plenty of time before summer begins.

In other news: My debut novel continues to sell steadily, if in smaller numbers. Go buy a copy, whyncha? Right now I'm doing a last-minute revision to The Transcendental Detective, because my publishers will want to have it in a month or two for editorial. It seems like an admirable little book, and I think it will be a lot of fun once it's been published. I am, I admit, writing a sequel to this novel. I have no idea how to write a sequel, so in a lot of ways I'm just pretending it's a whole new book. One hopes it will be better than Gogol's sequel to Dead Souls. One hopes that I, at least, will live to finish it. After the detective sequel, I will finally--I swear by all that's holy--write the Antarctica novel Nowhere But North. I will also be shopping a new novel around to agents. We'll see how that works. I will also be adding material (and a possible new first chapter) to the short novel Mona In The Desert. So, lots to do. Also, I am working on Vittorio Monti's Czardas. It's a fun sort of intermediate violin piece that is not as difficult as it looks. My sautille needs work, but I think I can manage those passages after a bit more practice. Kreutzer, probably, will be deployed for this task. Maybe Sevcik as well. We'll see. Then, I think, it's Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances. I need to find a pianist. Or an accordionist. Yes, that would be fun.

Edited to add:
"The troika flies, sails, bright as a spirit of God. O Russia, Russia! whither goest thou?"


  1. By the time I got to the end of your to do list I forgot what you said in the beginning. You're such a busy writer/musician! Go, Mr. B! I just finished reading my first James Salter novel. I still haven't made up my mind on it, but may read more of his work just to try and figure him out.

    I'm glad The Astrologer is still selling well!!

  2. Maybe all of the Gogol-like writers who are still being published today are old-timers, I don't know, but they are out there, Thomas Pynchon most prominently.

    Or César Aira - so Gogolians can still be published in Argentina.

  3. I've never read any Pynchon. There's a strange European-weirdo influence on South American fiction. Which I call a good thing.

  4. Davin, I don't know your Salter fellow at all. Tell me about it!

    Astrologer is doing okay, but you know usually you only get a couple of months (if that) of sales right after publication. The numbers are beginning to decline, which makes me sad. Alas, poor book, soon to be forgotten, etc.

  5. I'm excited about all of your books! Isn't it nuts that you just put one out there and now you have to turn around and turn another one in? And write a sequel? This is why I'm exhausted. I'm just so damned tired. Which is why I haven't written anything for about 10 weeks.

  6. Scott, thanks for your entertaining posts-in-progress on "Dead Souls" throughout the otherwise poorly-attended group read. "A marvelous mess of a book"? Agreed! I don't know if you've read Quevedo's 1626 "The Swindler" before or not, but "Dead Souls" to me seems almost as indebted to something like that as to "Don Quixote" for its "comic realism" and its showcasing of high and low language use. In any event, I look forward to reading some of Gogol's short stories and novellas before the end of the year now that I've recharged my Gogolian batteries with this novel of his.

  7. Michelle, yes I do understand your exhaustion. I'm going to take this winter off from writing, I think. Unless I spend it revising "Mona in the Desert." We'll see. But yeah, nuts.

    Richard, I don't know Quevedo, but I like the sound of it. One more for the TBR pile.

    I skipped trying to read Book II of "Dead Souls," because it's really just a collection of notes and scenes that Gogol never finished. It gets a lot of bad press, but that's unfair to Gogol. We have no idea what his final version might have been. It should be published as writerly ephemera, like Dostoyevski's "Writer's Journal," not passed off as a real novel.

    Tonight, if I remember (unlikely, but still), I'm going to re-read "The Overcoat."