Thursday, May 2, 2013

soaring high above all other geniuses in the world

Happy the writer who, passing by characters that are boring, disgusting, shocking in their mournful reality, approaches characters that manifest the lofty dignity of man, who from the great pool of daily whirling images has chosen only the rare exceptions, who has never once betrayed the exalted turning of his lyre, nor descended from his height to his poor, insignificant brethren, and, without touching the ground, has given the whole of himself to his elevated images so far removed from it. Twice enviable is his beautiful lot: he is among them as in his own family; and meanwhile his fame spreads loud and far. With entrancing smoke he has clouded people's eyes; he has flattered them wondrously, concealing what is mournful in life, showing them a beautiful man. Everything rushes after him, applauding, and flies off following his triumphal chariot. Great world poet they name him, soaring high above all other geniuses in the world, as the eagle soars above the other high fliers. At the mere mention of his name, young ardent hearts are filled with trembling, responsive tears shine in all eyes...No one equals him in power--he is God! But such is not the lot, and other is the destiny of the writer who has dared to call forth all that is before our eyes every moment and which our indifferent eyes do not see--all the stupendous mire of trivia in which our life in entangled, the whole depth of cold, fragmented, everyday characters that swarm over our often bitter and boring earthly path, and with the firm strength of his implacable chisel dares to present them roundly and vividly before the eyes of all people! It is not for him to win people's applause, not for him to behold the grateful tears and unanimous rapture of the souls he has stirred; no sixteen-year-old girl will come flying to meet him with her head in a whirl and heroic enthusiasm; it is not for him to forget himself in the sweet enchantment of sounds he himself has evoked; it is not for him, finally, to escape contemporary judgment, hypocritically callous contemporary judgment, which will call insignificant and mean the creations he has fostered, will allot him a contemptible corner in the ranks of writers who insult mankind, will ascribe to him the quality of the heroes he has portrayed, will deny him heart, and soul, and the divine flame of talent. For contemporary judgment does not recognize that equally wondrous are the glasses that observe the sun and those that look at the movement of inconspicuous insect; for contemporary judgment does not recognize that much depth of soul is needed to light up the picture drawn from contemptible life and elevate it into a pearl of creation; for contemporary judgment does not recognize that lofty ecstatic laughter is worthy to stand beside the lofty lyrical impulse, and that a whole abyss separates it from the antics of the street-fair clown! This contemporary judgment does not recognize; and will turn it all into a reproach and abuse of the unrecognized writer; with no sharing, no response, no sympathy, like a familyless wayfarer, he will be left alone in the middle of the road. Grim is his path, and bitterly he will feel his solitude.

― Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, Chapter VII 

This passage is in Guerney's translation of the novel, but curiously it's not in Hogarth's. Gogol here is refusing to apologize for making his protagonist, Chichikov, a realistic rather than a heroic character. Good on Gogol. No naive fairy tales with easily-understood moral victories on the final page as writ for naive readers, not from Nikolai.


  1. "Grim is his path, and bitterly he will feel his solitude." Ha ha ha ha! Good one, Gogol, another good one. Like he lives in a Cormac McCarthy novel.

    I don't know why that classic translation solution has fallen out of favor. It is so efficient.

  2. When I write my novel about a translator, I'll have to remember to have her solve problems by simply leaving stuff out.

    In the Cormac McCarthy version of Dead Souls, there's a scene early on where a landed gentleman beats a serf to death and then turns to Chichikov: "You will give me a few dirty coins for the mournful spirit of this broken animal too?" There's a long aside where the author reminds us that the serf finds no rest with death, only more pain and confusion, as if passing from this dimension to the next makes no difference to him, and barely any differenct to us. Cue lightning on the horizon.

  3. I'll have to compare my P&V edition's translation of this passage to yours at some point to see for myself for sure, but I had the nagging suspicion throughout Dead Souls that the translation itself was a little flat somehow. Love this passage and translation here and was also delighted by Gogol's writerly asides--had forgotten how much of that there was to appreciate in the novel.

  4. The Hogart version jumps right into Chichikov imagining the real lives of his purchased dead souls, all very fine stuff indeed, but it leaves out a couple of pages of Gogol-on-literature.

    I'm a bit further on now, past the vignette of the Lieutenant who loves boots, and Gogol has declared that it's impossible for him to really give the reader the proper flavor of the ladies of the provincial capital. He's just not the writer for the job, so he'll give you what he can instead. Absolutely marvelous.

    Even so, this is not anything like a perfect translation. See my comments on Tom's post of yesterday about some sanitization of the narrative by Guerney. So the world is still waiting for a good and true English translation of this novel.

  5. Hello. And Bye.