Category Archives: Dead Souls

Dead Souls: Read from March 12 to 25, 2013

Ever since I was a kid I always loved astronomy. I remember when Haley’s Comet flew by (very disappointing), I remember watching another comet hit Jupiter (much cooler), I will always remember where I was when the Challenger exploded and when the Columbia disintegrated. For a number of years I ever worked with a man who designed, built, and sold telescopes; an eccentric who lived with his wife and 6 kids in a bus on the side of the mountain. When we weren’t installing personal 8″ mirrors ground by a friend who eventually moved onto to making the mirror for the Next Generation Hubble Space Telescope down in Arizona, he was smoking 2 packs a day, endlessly delaying creditors, yelling at his wife, talking endlessly about how we were all on the cusp of becoming extremely wealthy (something he also told the creditors), and praising Jesus with the local pastor who, I kid you not, believed the angels in the Bible were aliens; he too owned a telescope – a nice $10,000 affair because his church had over 5000 members and so he could afford it.

And what the hell does that have to do with Dead Souls?

Two things: 1) People are not as crazy once you get to know them and 2) There’s a visual phenomena that happens because of the cones in your eye where if you look directly at a faint star it seems to disappear but if you look slightly away from it it snaps into focus nice and clear.

Let’s start with point #2 first. The dead souls in Dead Souls are mostly invisible, they can’t be seen because they are, well, dead. There are no dead peasants walking around and taking up space (unlike the land owners who do little more). No, the dead souls can only be seen by looking off to the side a little, to the census, to the graveyard, to people’s memories. They exist just out of sight. Yet they are there and they can be quite useful to someone willing to take advantage of them, to ‘put them back to work’, if you will.

Of course, as we know, it’s all very morbid and immoral and our hero eventually pays the price for dealing in such a corruption. Yet that’s what someone who is good at corruption relies on – of remaining hidden in plain sight, to deal with everything just off to the side, to be clever to game the system to their advantage and, if one is really talented, make it seem as if you are doing the other person the real favor.

This is one of the points Gogol was trying to make.

Now let’s get back to point #1 – the eccentric people and characters.

The funny thing about trying to describe something that is real is that it requires you do so with something that isn’t in its place. For example, the ‘poshlust’ (bad taste) Gogol goes on about in Dead Souls (and whom Nabokov famously infused into his interpretation of the novel) is an untranslatable word in English but well understood in Russian, yet even Russians, when confronted with ‘poshlust’, would on the one hand recognize it in someone else but probably not in themselves. “Surly I have better taste that that, right?” They would say. In essence it’s not even translatable to oneself no matter what language.

So Gogol invented satiric characters to inhabit ‘poshlust’. Had he created realistic characters he’d also have to give a sympathetic reason for them engaging in such kitsch. In short, once you actually get to know someone, their bad taste isn’t really bad taste anymore, it’s their own unique taste. Yet bad taste still exists just like a star you can only see at night by not looking directly at it. The only way to see it clearly is to look off to the side a bit – in this case by looking at a wildly exaggerated character- to see it.

And what if everyone has bad taste? A universal ‘poshlust’? Well, it’s like trying to define ‘art’, it’s different for everyone and doesn’t really have a solid definitive. An elitist would say it’s ‘the fine arts’, the junkyard welder would say something more urban. And they’d both be right because they will only see the bad, the ‘poshlust’, the corruption, in someone else and not once in themselves.

That’s probably why because the way the books ends in the middle of a passionate appeal to morality, the pages are lost and it just ends. There’s such futility going on because everyone is corrupt in one way or another, that you might as well buy and sell dead souls to make a living than try and get everyone to do the right thing.

Anyway, the novel is brilliant and is just as relevant today than when it was written over 150 years ago in Russian by someone who didn’t even spend that much time living in Russia.

92% done with Dead Souls

This part of the book is where most of the missing pieces would have gone. The overall gist of the story is, luckily, not changed much, the gaps make it hard to find your way back into the story.

Such it is of a book with not much plot.

I’m a little confused at the moment: is Chichikov about to lose his newly acquired and legitimate estate? Are they onto him? This would be interesting since he’s worked so hard.

84% done with Dead Souls

It’s funny how the one thing nearly all the world’s great writers agree on is that instead of being a writer or a learned person it is better to be a serf, a peasant, one with nature, indentured to a master or some god or other.

Nobility in poverty is the term that must get bandied about literary circles, yet let’s see one of them go to poverty and willingly stay there!

Greener is the grass of another fool.

71% done with Dead Souls

So at the halfway point of the novel we are introduced to a new character, Tentetnikov, a man exactly opposite in motivation to ‘our hero’ Chichikov.

This also provides some great inner monologues between the two constantly thinking to themselves at the exact same moments “What a curious fellow, this Chichikov / Tentetnikov.”

Tentetnikov is also like a failed Levin, and is quite funny where Tolstoy was serious

65% done with Dead Souls

I keep having to remind myself that Gogol wrote this book decades before Tolstoy. It’s almost as if Gogol foresaw the grand Russian epics with noble characters and their treatises of philosophical and historical concerns towards the Russian character.

Or Tolstoy took up Gogol’s dare as a challenge.

I also love how characters lament the state of corruption by saying the art was better played in older days.

59% done with Dead Souls

I keep having to remind myself that Gogol wrote this book decades before Tolstoy. It’s almost as if Gogol foresaw the grand Russian epics with noble characters and their treatises of philosophical and historical concerns towards the Russian character.

Or Tolstoy took up Gogol’s dare as a challenge.

I also love how characters lament the state of corruption by saying the art was better played in older days.

59% done with Dead Souls

Chichikov’s description of travelling through Russia along a highway are wonderful.

So far Gogol has made fun of everything in Russia, but he’s not wholly critical. In the night when everyone sleeps, or out on the flat expanse of Russia along the roads, Gogol imagines the possibilities of life, the opportunities that exist. It’s only during the day and in the towns were we see failed possibility and things fake.

52% done with Dead Souls

I just realized that I’m reading the literary equivalent of a sit-com.

I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun reading a book. And not because it’s the ‘greatest’ book ever written, it’s just so … me. I love this style of quirky, random humor. I love the macabre of the plot mixed with the bumbling humor of how it plays out.

I bet Tim Burton read this book when he was younger. I bet he loved it too.

46% done with Dead Souls

“Never did a lady say, ‘I blew my nose,’ … No, it had to be, ‘I relieved my nose through the expedient of wiping it with my handkerchief,’ and so forth.

This is great not only to reveal what blowhards everyone is, but what inelegant blowhards they are – they aren’t even good at it!

And when Chichikov imagines the lives of the peasants, it’s both touching and sadly naive.

39% done with Dead Souls

Here’s another thing I love about Gogol: in the scene with the dirty, miserly old man, Gogol compares a glimmer of hope on the man’s face with that of a drowning man. Gogol then describes how it is with a person who is drowning when they come up for what will be their final breath before that pair of hands go under the waves.

That’s how Gogol handles the comparison and it’s brilliant. Morbid? Yes. But brilliant.

35% done with Dead Souls

The trick to good satire is to never be cruel to the characters you’re poking fun at and to always be a little cruel to yourself for making fun of them. This keeps everything from becoming bitter and cynical.

Gogol has a good feel for how far he can take his satire and though at this point I’m beginning to want to know what Chichikov plans to do with the souls, he’s at least cowardly and terrible negotiator too.

29% done with Dead Souls

Gogol is what you would get if Mark Twain and Kafka raised a child together.

I actually have to force myself to stop reading so that I don’t tear through this too fast.

I love that there is a quality similar to The Canterbury Tales here – it’s episodic and all the characters are flawed, caricatures of the Russian middle class.

It’s great how relevant many of the observations are after nearly 2 centuries.

20% done with Dead Souls

You wouldn’t think a Russian novel titled ‘Dead Souls’ would be drop-the-book, laugh-out-loud funny, but it is.

The conversation where Chichikov tries to buy the souls of the lady’s dead peasants is so perfect that it transcends the 160 years and Russian culture without effort.

This is a much welcome follow-up to super-sober Dostoyevsky.

6% done with Dead Souls

I’ve been wanting to read Dead Souls for quite some time but have been building up to it because I don’t think I knew enough about Russia or Russian literature to really appreciate Gogol.

I’ve read The Overcoat and loved it, especially the humor, and so for Dead Souls is shaping up to be even better.