Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Review published on September 4, 2017.

Dead Souls, which is often said to be the most popular of the many Russian classics, begins with the unheralded arrival of the mysterious Chichikov into the provincial town of N–. Being almost studiously nondescript, Chichikov would easily have passed unnoticed if, that is, he had not straightaway set about cultivating the acquaintance of the town’s various landowners and other notable personages. Russian social etiquette of the time being rather stringent, Chichikov is initially welcomed by all and treated to the level of social hospitality that his apparent rank dictates.

However, Chichikov has come to N– with a plan in mind, and that plan soon causes his new friends to view him with a mixture of suspicion, pity and avarice. Chichikov’s grand scheme, which gives the novel its title, is to purchase the dead serfs belonging to any landowner who is willing to sell them, and it’s here that a little knowledge of the Russian tax system of the time comes in handy. The number of serfs owned by a landowner was seen as an indication of that landowner’s wealth and hence the landowner was taxed according to the number of owned serfs. Yet, rather than being based on the actual number of serfs owned at the time the tax payment was due, the figure owed was actually based on the number of serfs listed on the landowner’s last census return, some of whom would have died during the intervening period.

So Chichikov’s scheme should serve to save the various landowners some considerable sums of money but, human nature being what it is, many are not willing to give up the worthless resource that is their dead serfs without a fight – or at least not without making a considerable profit. As for Chichikov, he has a glorious vision for his future prosperity that is founded on the ownership of numerous non-existent serfs. His is a bold and highly innovative plan, but it is not necessary a good one.

Dead Souls is a wickedly funny satire in which Nikolai Gogol takes on the folly of social pretentions, bureaucracy and officialdom, greed and materialism, corruption, the mentality of the countryside, and strategic romance. Gogol certainly cast a cynical eye on Russia and Russian society when he wrote this book. Almost every character is a caricature, and a rather unpleasant one at that, which allows him to exaggerate their beliefs and actions in such a way that amusement can be drawn from even the most tragic circumstances. Fortunately, despite the weightiness of the many themes, the humour of the novel is very much accessible. For instance,

“After dinner the gentleman drank a cup of coffee and sat on the sofa, placing behind his back a cushion which in Russian inns is always stuff not with springy wool but with something remarkably like bricks and cobblestones.

Chichikov’s story is an excellent and thoroughly entertaining one, but it is important to remember that Dead Souls is not a complete work. Indeed, as translator Donald Rayfield notes in his introduction to this volume, the book was originally intended to be comprised of three parts. The first part is complete (although Gogol continued to tinker with it), while the second part is fragmentary (Gogol never finished it and he burned a selection of associated manuscripts prior to his death) and the third part was seemingly never begun. With his new translation, Rayfield has sought to bring a more complete version of the second part of Dead Souls to English readers by incorporating passages from earlier versions that Gogol later expunged from part two of the story. The chosen additions, which are detailed in the introduction, while not exactly epic in scale, certainly do enhance the telling of the story and showcase Gogol’s immense talent as a wordsmith.

Dead Souls is arguably the funniest of the great Russian masterpieces of literature as well as the most surreal. It is a bizarre story that is exceedingly well told and Chichikov is an ingenious anti-hero whose increasingly desperate exploits never fail to entertain.

Erin Britton 5/5

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Alma Classics 9781847496287 pbk May 2017

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