Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls

I’ve been burning through books during my vacation, which I’m finding a welcome alternative when I kinda unplug—although I’m not really unplugged, just kinda—and I am in the middle of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls which is absolutely hysterical.

The biographical details behind the writing of the book is insane, and I recommend you click the link for the book title above to find out more, but I picked it up because I found the whole concept of a wannabe nobleman buying up dead peasants and using paper ghosts to build an empire is fascinating, and very much inline with the devilish spirits of the derivative market economy we have come to know and love in the 21st century.

Anyway, I might have more to say about that and the book in general, but I just wanted to give you a sense just how funny and far out Gogol’s narrator/author is in this novel, here’s a passage that attempts to describe the wealthy land owner Manilov, who in this scene is receiving the “protagonist” Chickikov (or the dead soul wrangler) at his home. Manilov is a brilliant creation, and much of that genius is framed by the author’s inability to describe him given his lack of character. It makes for me one of the funniest passages in a novel full of absurd comedy and wit that would shame even the likes of Beckett and Ionesco.

The two friends kissed each other warmly and manilov conducted his visitor into the house. Tough the time during which they will be passing through the hall, the anterooms and the dining-room is somewhat brief, we shall do our best to use of it to say a few words about the master of the house. But at this point the author must confess that such an undertaking is very difficult. it is far easier to depict characters on a grander scale: there all you have to do is to fling handfuls of paint at the canvas – black, burning eyes, beetling brows, a furrowed forehead, a black or fiery scarlet cloak thrown over a shoulder, and the portrait is finished; but these are all gentleman of whom there are a great many in the world and whom are very much like one another in appearance, and yet when you look at them more closely, you discover that they possess a great number of of the most elusive peculiarities – such gentlemen are terribly hard to portray. In cases like these, you must concentrate all your attention before you can force all these subtle and invisible traits to disclose themselves to you, and, generally, you have to train your eye, already expert in the science of uncovering the secret places of the heart, to penetrate more deeply.

God alone could say what Manilov’s character was like.

And that’s the point at which I broke down, you can can finish the paragraph here, you won’t be disappointed.

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4 Responses to Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls

  1. Tk says:

    I’m in the middle of slowly reading this now also (along with David Copperfield, which is much more devious than I remember Dickens being) and loving it. However, I’m still not clear on where things are going, so I am going to forgo the links.

    To more substantively bring something to the table, I’ll note that my favorite passage akin to what you quote comes when Gogol starts writing about the ladies of the town after they start thinking that Chichikov is a millionaire.

    But incomparably more striking was the impression (a matter for unbounded surprise!) which he produced upon the ladies.
    Properly to explain this phenomenon I should need to say a great deal about the ladies themselves, and to describe in the most vivid of colours their social intercourse and spiritual qualities. Yet this would be a difficult thing for me to do, since, on the one hand, I should be hampered by my boundless respect for the womenfolk of all Civil Service officials, and, on the other hand—well, simply by the innate arduousness of the task. The ladies of N. were—But no, I cannot do it; my heart has already failed me. Come, come! The ladies of N. were distinguished for—But it is of no use; somehow my pen seems to refuse to move over the paper—it seems to be weighted as with a plummet of lead. Very well. That being so, I will merely say a word or two concerning the most prominent tints on the feminine palette of N.—merely a word or two concerning the outward appearance of its ladies, and a word or two concerning their more superficial characteristics. The ladies of N. were pre-eminently what is known as “presentable.”

    Source: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1081/1081.txt

  2. Jared Stein says:

    As Tk points out, it is hard to see where this is going unless you were spoiled with the punchline ahead of time. But that’s also part of the brilliance of the narrative. I won’t say any more, but if you’ve never read this, read on at least until you get Chichikov’s bag.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I also have mad love for Dead Souls. What’s even better is the gradation of emotion you go from Manilov to Plyushkin. It’s such a fine change but Gogol takes pains for you to notice as well by changing the narrator’s tone & focus. It’s almost a joy to lose yourself in the book.

  4. Reverend says:

    @Tk:
    Brilliant quote, and the narrator is really something. The way he completely interrupts the novel with a kind of fumbling between scenes is brilliant, and I wonder if Gogol read Tristan Shandy, cause there are a lot of similarities. And what’s more, is that I had no idea how indebted Dostoevsky was to gogol until coming across this novel, though I have to say Dostoevsky has no where near the humor, but is far more willing to do what this narrator won;t 🙂

    @Jared:
    Still waiting for the bag, but I have no intentions of giving it up, the book is a blast.

    @Elizabeth:
    I think you nail it, the ay he moves between characters is actually a device made possible through the narrator, who seems like bumbling fool, but is in many ways selectively omniscient. I think unreliable would be the wrong description, calculating and somewhat devious might fit better 🙂

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