Dead Souls

DeadSouls1By Nikolai Gogol.

What a lovely edition of the novel from Donald Rayfield. I read this years ago and thought it was good. But either my taste has matured or this translation is the best yet, because the novel with the scenes and characters struck me as so very vivid.

Chagall’s illustrations are amazing as well. Chagall is another Picasso-type genius – he had so many ideas and you can see that for him creating was a form of play. Quite different from chancers like Damien Hirst who will have a couple of mediocre ideas in their life and will repeat them over and over endlessly, unlike Picasso and and Chagal with their twenty or thirty thousand great ideas each.

Dead Souls is actually very funny. There is a definite slapstick element there and then the way the author or narrator pokes his nose into the action adds another dimension to the levity. The story itself is satire and so uses humour to help the pill (or message) go down. So what is the message? Gogol is concerned with morality and virtue and we see an examination of this within the range of characters that inhabit the story. But is virtue in Gogol’s modern world really present, or is it a superficial thing and is it traded to gain advantage? Gogol thinks the latter. This is a good quote from the novel – when the narrator makes one of his appearances:

I haven’t chosen a man of virtue for my hero, and I can explain why: the poor virtuous man must be given a well-earned rest , because the very phrase ‘virtuous man’ is beginning to sound shallow on people’s lips, because the virtuous  man has been turned into a sort of horse and there’s no author who hasn’t ridden him…”

The only positive character is Murazov the wealthy merchant who has prestige and influence but is humble and generous. Is Gogol promoting a liberal conservatism with this stance? I don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. I do, however have Belinsky’s open letter to Gogol. This letter is critical of Gogol and after reading it I may be able to give more of an informed contextual opinion.

After reading Dead Souls I can see elements of Gogol in Ilf and Petrov, Bulgakov, Erofeev and other modern Russian writers. The book doesn’t seem dated at all. Do yourself a favour and buy this and every evening read a chapter – your life will be better for it. A great novel to end the year on.

Soundtrack: The Church – The Feast.

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