And so I have been trying to find a copy of Narezhnyi’s 1814 novel, A Russian Gil Blas, a little-known predecessor of Dead Souls. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be an English translation.
But it doesn’t really matter, because we have Gogol’s absurd tales and his unfinished masterpiece, Dead Souls.
In Gogol’s satiric novel, Dead Souls, the wily hero, Chichikov, has a mission: he travels through the provinces to buy dead souls, i.e., dead serfs who have not yet been struck from the tax rolls. Since the serfs are not officially dead, he can mortgage them or otherwise exploit them for money. Chichikov, a former government official, believes he can deceive the corrupt government officials, though he himself was fired for corruption and instituting a system of accepting bribes. When he arrives in the town of N., his obsequiousness to the government officials is hysterically funny.
In conversation with these potentates, he managed very artfully to flatter each of them. To the governor he hinted, somehow in passing, that one drove into his province as into paradise, that the roads everywhere were like velvet, and that governments which appointed wise dignitaries were worthy of great praise. To the police chief he said something very flattering about the town sentries…
Chichilov also flatters the confused landowners from whom he buys dead souls. Is he joking, wonders Manilov, a sweet but idiotic landowner married to an equally sweet but dim wife. In the end, he sells them out of friendship. Natasya Petrovna Korobochka believes in ghosts but eventually agrees to sell. Later she goes to town because she worries she has been cheated on the prices, and causes an uproar. Sobakevich tries to increase the value by giving Chichikov detailed histories of each: the carriage-maker built carriages “complete with springs,” the carpenter was seven feet hall, and the bricklayer could build a stove in “almost any house!” There is a riotously funny scene in which Chichikov gloats over his lists and creates still more details about the lives of the dead serfs. But then he notices that Sobakevich slipped in a woman serf (worthless) and is indignant.
Chichikov’s dead souls scheme is so preposterous that we have to laugh, but the plot was taken from real life. His Uncle Pivinsky, a vodka distiller, exchanged vodka for fifty dead peasants after he was told he needed fifty souls to continue distilling vodka.
But the comedy goes deeper than that. Early Russian critics read the novel as a realistic portrait of Russian types and traditional Russian life, while radicals thought it attacked the ruling classes and government bureaucracy . In the introduction to the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Pevear rejects Gogol’s alleged “realism”; instead, he talks about “inverted realism”. Vladimir Nabokov in Lectures on Russian Literature also debunked political and moral interpretations. He says,
But when the legendary… Chichikov is considered as he ought to be, i.e., as a creature of Gogol’s special brand moving in a special kind of Gogolian coil, the abstract notion of swindling in this serf-pawning business takes on strange flesh and begins to mean much more than it did when we considered it in the light of social conditions peculiar to Russia a hundred years ago. The dead souls he is buying are not merely names on a slip of paper. They are the dead souls that fill the air of Gogol’s world with their leathery flutter, the clumsy animula of Manilov or Korobochka, of the housewives of the town of N., of countless other little people bobbing through the book. Chichikov himself is merely the ill-paid representative of the Devil, a traveling salesman from Hades.
In 1841, Gogol had trouble getting the first volume of Dead Souls past the censors. The title offended them: they thought he was saying the soul was not immortal, and when they learned it referred to serfs, they thought he was condemning serfdom. And so the title was changed to Chichikov’s Adventures. Published in 1842, it established him as a great Russian writer, the first (or one of the first) who was not using European models for his work. He spent the next 10 years struggling to write the second and third volumes. And he grandiosely believed the novel as a whole would save Russia, because Chichikov would reform. But before his death, he burned the manuscript. The second volume was composed from fragments and published in 1852. I very much enjoyed it: Chichikov finally goes to jail. But does he reform? I didn’t see it! Poor Gogol either burned a good manuscript or didn’t finish. (The latter!)
Even if you don’t know much about nineteenth-century Russia, Dead Souls will make you laugh. Gogol’s characters are hysterically funny, the dialogue is sharp and witty, and even the digressions are meaningful and necessary to the text. And Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation is magnificent. Is there such a thing as a bad translation of Dead Souls?