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I imagined it as a gloomy, socially critical, profound book about Russianness, expansive as the steppes. It was nothing like I had imagined.
Moreover, it was one of those masterpieces that change the way you see other books, forever. It could be described as a linguistic phantasmagoria — full of people and things with a hallucinatory reality that rushes into the surreal. Gogol also resembles Dickens in the way in which everything he started to imagine transformed itself and began to wriggle with life.
I admire the way in which Maguire has kept his own brilliantly variegated vocabulary away from 20th-century phrases, without ever looking parodic or antiquarian. The title, Dead Souls, must be one of the most evocative titles ever. Landowners were taxed on their payroll of serfs, which included those who had died between tax-assessments.
Chichikov himself is also of course, a dead soul, a man self-designed to be unremarkable, agreeable and acceptable, a smiling confidence-trickster whose plots, as Nabokov points out, are neither very clever nor very coherent. There are people that exist on this earth not as objects in themselves, but as extraneous specks or tiny spots on objects.
Chichikov consists of his plumpness, his nice clothes, his britzska, his plans. He has a travelling box and a snuff box. What exactly is it? The devil only knows what it is. The authorial voice, asking the same question about the hero — what is he, is he moral or immoral?
Before you know it, a dreadful worm has grown within him, and tyrannically sucked off all the vital juices for itself. One of his most human moments is when he reads the list of the names of dead souls he has acquired.
The reading briefly brings back the dead to life. The written names of the dead souls are people. He starts turning the dead into live stories — unable, like Gogol, not to embroider, not to breathe life into the inanimate. Were you a master-craftsman or just a muzhik, and what sort of death carried you off? Was it in a pothouse or did some lumbering string of carts run over you while you were sleeping in the middle of the road? Another reason why I never read Dead Souls is that I am reluctant to embark on unfinished works — I like closure.
Part one was written not in Russia but abroad — mostly in Rome. Gogol knew it was a masterpiece and was always about to write part two.
He had ambitions for it — it was to take the form of crime, punishment and redemption. While unable to finish — or to start on — part two, he wrote and published Selected Passages from Correspondence with My Friends. In these extraordinarily pompous documents he gives moralising advice to everyone.
I had assumed in my ignorance that a novel called Dead Souls about the system of slave-owning was going to be a satirical criticism of it. But in his letter To a Russian Landowner Gogol tells him that he must tell the peasants to work because God commanded them to work in the sweat of their brows, and gives instructions on how to punish them, and the pointlessness of teaching them to read. They will be too exhausted by good, hard work anyway.
Gogol became very religious, and concerned for the safety of his own soul and the burden of his sins. Urged on by a spiritual advisor called Father Matthew, and by Count Alexey Tolstoi, he made a burned offering of his remaining manuscripts in his stove. He then starved himself to death, having lost the drive to live.
He ended his life in agony, festooned with leeches and soaked in cold water. Dead Souls has that free and joyful energy of a work of art that is the first of its kind, with no real models to fear or emulate like Chaucer again, Shakespeare, or Sterne, whom Gogol admired. Chekhov and Turgenev owed him subtler things. Nabokov was right about his greatness, and right to point out that he was a creator of a new reality.
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Almas Muertas by Nikolai Gogol
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Almas Muertas by Nikolai Gógol
I imagined it as a gloomy, socially critical, profound book about Russianness, expansive as the steppes. It was nothing like I had imagined. Moreover, it was one of those masterpieces that change the way you see other books, forever. It could be described as a linguistic phantasmagoria — full of people and things with a hallucinatory reality that rushes into the surreal. Gogol also resembles Dickens in the way in which everything he started to imagine transformed itself and began to wriggle with life. I admire the way in which Maguire has kept his own brilliantly variegated vocabulary away from 20th-century phrases, without ever looking parodic or antiquarian. The title, Dead Souls, must be one of the most evocative titles ever.