Dead Souls. Nikolai Gogol.

Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls. First published (in Russian) 1842. This translation (Pevear and Volokhonsky) vintage classics, New York, 1996. Electronic version from Kindle. F; 09/15.

Russia. I’ve never been there but over the years it’s loomed large and dark in my mind: as a little boy in the 1950s I was seriously terrified that the awful eerie air raid sirens would start up while I was at school and a hydrogen bomb would incinerate us before I could get home to my parents. As a father of young children spending a year in Europe I was afraid to venture into Russia because somebody said they’d kill us for our blue jeans and travellers’ cheques.

My dad, who had spent his formative years in sawmills in Poland and the Ukraine, tried to reassure me. “The Russians are nothing to be afraid of. They are like frightened poor people who don’t know what’s going on.” Somehow this only reinforced in my mind a picture of dark and nasty places and people that could never understand and respect… me.

In this story, published in 1842 by an apparently very successful and self-important 19th-century Russian author, we get a spectacular piling-up of a world where feudalism and European Enlightenment coexist, long before the Cold War: serfs, peasants, and hereditary landed nobility such as hadn’t existed in any other European country for a couple of centuries. Definitely a dark and nasty place. But also a culture sensing the aromas carried by the wind of change from England and France evident not only in clothing and furniture styles, but also in the writing of people like the author Nikolai Gogol.

This translation is by an obviously erudite and sincere husband-and-wife team, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I got the idea of reading this book from the latest Paris Review, in which they were interviewed. They both take translation seriously, and bounce their ideas off one another to create what we are told is a fairly close-to-the-original feel in some of the great Russian fiction.

This story is about an ironic picaresque-style romp by charming morally ambiguous scoundrel Chichikov, who sets out to get rich buying up from landowners indentured peasants who have died, and mortgaging them. This is possible because there is a time lag from one census to another, during which these dead souls might as well, from an administrative point of view, still be alive.

The tale unfolds in a rich collage of contemporary Russian life. Trite Christian values coexist with economic and interpersonal pragmatism, feudal servants’ lives depend on the philosophy and skill of their landowners, popular social perception (although completely absurd) is more important than anything else, and money and social position preoccupy everyone. And yet we also see a couple of brilliant successful landowners whose wealth depends on hard work and shrewd commerce.

Chichikov experiences the love and respect of everyone in a village he waltzes into until he gets infatuated with a gorgeous teenager and is scandalized out of town for that, and his dead souls scam. Subsequently it looks like he might end up in prison for the rest of his life, but obfuscation and skulduggery by an unscrupulous lawyer (reminiscent of Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad) and a wealthy landowner with a situational approach to ethics rescue him.

There are Kafkaesque government-office scenes, 19th century fiction behind-the-hand divulging of his true artistic intent by the author, sharply-rendered characters always just overstated into irony, pompous nationalistic pronouncements, and endlessly connived and over-folding moral ambiguity, all of which adds up to an enormously complicated picture of Russia about 75 years before its revolution: detailed, contrasting and artistically accurate.

I can’t say I enjoyed every page of this longish book, but it’s beyond my Dostoyevsky-Tolstoy-Solzhenitsyn experience so I have another angle on the wild and mysterious country that used to frighten me 60 years ago, and still seems a sinister worrisome force in the world today. And I still wonder, as I wondered as a little boy: how do we look to them?

8.1/8.6 (subject to translation).

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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