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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy
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Review: Dead Souls

Dead Souls (Everyman's Library, #280) - Nikolai Gogol, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear

We can thank our lucky stars for writer's block, as we'd likely have set fire to the Dead Souls manuscript ourselves if Nikolai Gogol hadn't. Had he, overcome with religious fervor, forged ahead with his plan and complete this three-parter, separated into volumes each of crime, punishment, and redemption, and not starve himself to death, we might've had on our hands a literary misfire it seemed like he, previously so promising, wanted to unleash upon us expectant and unsuspecting masses. Fortunate is everyone, then, that the first (and undeniably best) volume, where Dead Souls plays out its main story, can be taken as more or less self-contained. The second one, while still dazzling in places with great writing, sparkles less so than its predecessor not only because of disjointed chapters, missing words, and lost pages, but also because hints of a crazier and preachier Gogol, already exasperating his friends and fans in real life, start to emerge then in the text. In his later years, he had at one point consoled a critic who had recently lost his wife by this bit of classiness: "Jesus Christ will help you to become a gentleman, which you are neither by education or inclination—she is speaking through me." Another instance: Gogol advised in letters to his readers that "[t]he peasant must not even know that there exist other books besides the Bible." Village priests, he recommended, should accompany them everywhere, and even be made their estate managers. Lovely! It's all a little odd and, considering the incense-smoky shrine to him I'd constructed in my mind after his short stories had so brain-tinglingly won me over, thoroughly disappointing. For all that, on the bright side, what Gogol lit on fire was at least none of the first volume, leading even Vladimir Nabokov to conclude, in his chapter of Lectures on Russian Literature on the author, that "[Gogol] was destroying the labor of long years" not to cleanse himself of the sins he thought his books were, but "because he finally realized that the completed book was untrue to his genius." After that, it's hard to be mad at the guy.

Dead Souls is, give or take a few chapters, two-thirds finished. The occasional paragraph, as the pages dwindle nearer to the last, starts trailing off, ellipses replacing periods, with footnotes explaining that that part of the manuscript had been either torn off, burned away, or simply neglected because inspiration for Gogol had then not been forthcoming. The book wraps up in the middle of a character's speech. In the back of my mind did hover that suspicion, which later must've been totally forgotten because the abrupt ending startled me more than any ice-bucket challenge could have. What point could there be for anyone to invest their time in an unfinished work? That strange, self-flagellating class of completists, into which I was dragged screaming and crying from the womb, may answer that question with scandalized looks and resharpened pitchforks. Here's where that forgetfulness so habitual in me came in super-handy: by the time the wispy feeling that things were amiss gained solid form, I was already nose-deep in the thing and left no choice but to, as was already in my nature, push on and knock out the remaining percentages. At that point, whatever the book was, be it a satirical piece, historical-fictional work, or philosophical reflection, I was already thirsty for more. Gogol had me hook, line, and sinker, and all it took was the right combination of unpredictability and creativity to reel me in. "[Gogol], where are you racing to? Give answer! [He] gives no answer... the air rumbles, shattered to pieces, and turns to wind; everything on earth flies by, and, looking askance, other [readers] and [writers] step aside to make way." (Replace the subject, and re-adjust the subsequent changed words accordingly, with Russia, and you'll get part of the gist of what Gogol hoped to say with Dead Souls: that Russia is great, for one, or that it could be. Rather than overbearing, the dedication slots in so naturally alongside the story that both strengthen each other.)

In yet another knock-out translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (the last time I'll mention them, honestly, as it should be apparent by now that, where Russian literature matters, my policy is Pevear-Volokhonsky or bust), Gogol puts together a tale of corruption, greed, paranoia, and whatnotthe usual suspects. Chichikov, fat, middle-aged, and charismatic, rides into a town in a britzka one day looking to buy up what are called "dead souls," that is, dead servants who are still taxed as if they were alive because the census hasn't been updated yet. Landowners, Chichikov assumes, would eagerly get rid of such tax burdens, though there's an uphill battle ahead of him: they soon enough sign away their dead weights, but because Chichikov prefers the real reason for his wanting dead souls be kept secret, and because the practice is unprecedented, most of the landowners, each more scene-stealing and absurd than the last, doesn't make the task easy for our "hero." If superstition doesn't stymie his efforts, then either cutthroat business sense or good, old-fashioned suspicion would step in and upset his plans, causing me no end of schadenfreude. Yes, Chichikov has place of honor here as Dead Souls' protagonist, but it's shortly revealed that, really, he's a rainbow of jerk, brought up with dubious morals and self-serving in ways few would expect protagonists of books written in Gogol's time and place to be. The man himself, in one of his many pop-in appearances inside the text, acknowledges that because "the virtuous man has been so worn out that there is not even the ghost of any virtue left in him," it is high "time finally to hitch up a scoundrel" for us readers who "fear the deeply penetrating gaze" and "would prefer not to see human poverty revealed."

But speak for yourself, Gogol, as in this day and age, bring on the gloomy truth and color none of it with bright, cheery paints. Ours is a happily cynical generation whose skin crackles and pops, like vampires' in the sun and bacon in the pan, when in proximity with disingenuously optimistic books and their sugary characters. Here, Gogol's characters, Chichikov most of all, are spared none of the harsh spotlight the author indiscriminately aims at them to reveal the ugly pockmarks of their worst traits and truest intentions. The landowners and town officials, from brownnosing Manilov, paranoid Korobochka, and lying Nozdryov to disillusioned Tentetnikov, incompetent Khlobuev, and bureaucratic Koshkarevnot to mention still more characters thrown at you from the myriad and tortuous metaphors only to be snatched away, their purpose served, in the next instantare lightnings Gogol coaxes towards Dead Souls to electrify it into dancing, buzzing life. And in the center of all that stands Chichikov, whose picaresque antics had me cheering when he got stonewalled and impressed when he outdid himself yet again when it comes to lack of tactthe proper thing to do, dude, when a landowner has suffered a misfortune and lost their serfs is, as opposed to your knee-jerk reaction, not to look so happy about it in front of them.

Dead Souls is not immune to slow spots, to be frank, especially where Gogol panders to his dendrological demographic and describes trees in exhaustive detail, though they can be forgiven because they're also brain candy for those who are equally aroused by well-done writing. Even without that, the giant question mark blocking from view the answer to what the dealio was up with Chichikov and his purchased nothings served well enough as the carrot dangling in front of me and powering my progress. "What was this riddle, indeed, what was this riddle of the dead souls? There was no logic whatsoever in dead souls. Why buy dead souls?" Cue petulant foot-stomping. So follows about fifty more questions from the various irritated town inhabitants expressing the same frustrated confusion readers at that point would be feeling. The mystery is fun to poke at and theorize about, but its significance feels tangential: Gogol appears more concerned with capturing that quintessential Russian spirit, not excluding even the pussy zits and bulby warts, encompassing everything from the natural beauty of the countryside and the cool hustle-bustle of industrial living to the quick and piercing wit of its people and their casual and unthinking prejudices. Sexism, ageism, and anti-Semitism are worn on everyone's sleeves. On the country itself, the book points out what we're all thinking: it's "poor, scattered, and comfortless," and "there['s] nothing to seduce or enchant the eye." Look at the majesty of London, the splendor of Paris, and the art of Rome, and what is there in Russia that can be submitted for consideration? Before anyone gives themselves a brain sprain in straining for an answer, Gogol presents his own as a series of striking questions: "But what inconceivable, mysterious force draws one to you?" "What calls, and weeps, and grips the heart?" "Is it not here that the mighty man is to be, where there is room for him to show himself and walk about?" Russia is self-explanatory.

Like in his short stories, Gogol can't resist joining in on the action, dispersing writing advice and lamenting about his writerly lot in life on this page, raging against man's idiocy and championing the truth on that page. A lot of the times, it breaks up what could've been monotonous reading, and is all sorts of enlightening and entertaining to read besides. Then, before the page number started drawing my interest more than the book did, a timely sentence of the most pleasing creation and translation jumped out and hooked me back in anew. Dead Souls is even richer in comedy. Chichikov's interactions with the assorted landowners, plus his general shamelessness and amorality, are just up my alley which dead-baby and too-soon jokes, properly executed, have filled it with unexpected snorts. Running gags, too, fall under Gogol's area of easy expertise: "five or six pieces of soap for preserving the freshness of [Chichikov's] cheeks" and "his tailcoat of the flames and smoke of Navarino" are phrases I can't read anymore without breaking out into a grin. A joke that at first seems otherwise would run on for half a dozen pages before someone else interrupts it with the most brilliant of punchlines. A character who's a lawyer gives out legal advice that's illegal to implement. A game of checkers with a cheat goes pear-shaped. Hemorrhoids, for some reason, are constantly mentioned, sending me every time into a state of amused bafflement ("There's that word again.") Multiple times does Gogol emphasize the importance of truth that justifies the hardships writers are sure to face if they "[haven't] clouded people's eye... flattered them wondrously, concealing what is mournful in life, showing them a beautiful man," but boldly do the opposite and take a sledgehammer to their comfortable illusions. A shame he couldn't follow his own advice to the end.