Lately I've been reading Dead Souls, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Writing about a book that has so much in it, is difficult.
The title, at the basic level, refers to the dead muzhiks that are not yet registered as dead. A man named Chichikov appears out of nowhere and arrives at the town of N. A short while later he starts buying dead souls. Chichikov is well liked, the deal is simple and advantageous for both sides, the people accepting his offer transfer the dead souls to him, get money, lose nothing and at the same time transfer all of the tax burdens to Chichikov. They simply have to keep the secret and act like the peasants are alive.
After some difficulties in persuading people, Chichikov successfully achieves the 1st step of his plan. Things appear to go well. As the whole town know he buys peasants, he tells stories of settlement and, when people spread the rumour that he may be a millionaire, he becomes more and more popular.
Until the secret is revealed. The whole town go mad- curious and puzzled and confused, people ask questions, look for answers, invent stories from nothing, spread rumours... No one questions the buying and selling of living human beings, but everyone goes mad when a strange man suddenly appears and acquires dead peasants, who clearly bring no profit, for reasons no one knows, everyone goes mad because it is mysterious, because nothing is known about Chichikov, because nobody knows what he needs the dead souls for and what is behind it all, because there are so many possibilities, because once people have an idea, however incredible, they give it flesh and make it plausible and complex, and cling to it and in the end believe in it themselves.
However it's not only that. Dead Souls is not a polemic, not a political novel, not a literary work depicting the unjust system in order to call for a social change. In fact Gogol's not even a realist. More importantly, the dead souls of the story are the living ones, the members of the town: the philistines, the flatterers, the liars, the cheats, the hypocrites, the small-minded, artificial, shallow people, the heartless misers, the opportunists, the vulgarians... They are depicted as banal and shallow from the start. They never go straight to the point in Russian, for instance, and instead use euphemisms, choose more polite, more genteel expressions... but once they start speaking French, they may use words and phrases that are a lot worse. As Chichikov arrives, they, empty as they are, quickly yield to his so-called charm, his flattery, his way of saying things people want to hear. Everyone likes him, everyone treats him as if they have been close friends for a long time, and once it is believed that he may be a millionaire, people throw heaps of favour on him. Does this sound like people's change of attitude towards Pierre in War and Peace? But Gogol is not Tolstoy. This is an absurd world, and the characters are grotesque- they are both individual (each with some exaggerated characteristics, like Manilov the flatterer, Sobakevich the greedy cynic, Nozdryov the cheat and big-mouthed liar, Mme Korobochka the paranoid idiot, Plyushkin the miser, etc.) and lumped together as a bunch of banal, conformist, empty people, and yet they have a strange quality of convincingness, or rather, Gogol has a way of telling the story and describing their characters and exploring their personalities and creates such strong images that makes us accept their existence in this bizarre world without questioning, without thinking of them as caricatures, in the negative sense of the word. They have no inner life, because they are indeed empty, and each blends with the space behind them, with their own house, their own furniture, etc.
The funniness of Dead Souls is increased when the town know Chichikov buys dead souls. Somehow, all the possibilities the members of the town think of, which start from nothing and get developed into intricate, detailed plans as though these people do know the truth, remind me of the debate surrounding Shakespeare. Little is known about him, and there are some periods in Shakespeare's life that are complete blank, about him we have almost nothing, then historians and scholars write biographies around nothing and develop so many theories about the real author that can never be proven definitely because there's not enough evidence. The little information people actually have, the more room for the imagination.
But then I've digressed.
Chichikov is a dead soul himself. At this point, I haven't finished volume I and don't know about his life before he comes to the town of N. But from the start, one can see that he praises and flatters everyone and has no opinion of his own. Then he creates a lie, tells others about it, imagines detailed plans as though they're real, brags, celebrates... almost to the point of believing in it himself. He has nothing, he is nothing.
It should be noted, the plot of Dead Souls is unimportant. The social, political ideas are unimportant. Whether it reflects Russia and the Russian soul is unimportant. Gogol, as I see here, is above all that. His art lies in the creation and depiction of this absurd world and all the people in it, lies in the way he tells the story, making it original, unexpected and bizarre, lies in the way he once having an idea gets carried away until the topic is exhausted but never seems to be off the track, lies in the flow of his prose and his vivid descriptions, lies in his strangeness and his unique vision, which makes him different from other giant Russian authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Leskov (though at 1st Gogol made me think of Leskov)... That's his greatness. And that's what matters.