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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Clarimonde and The Deserted House

gautierBy Theophile Gautier and ETA Hoffman respectively.


And now for something completely different. I listened to this on a free audiobook and it really was well written (and read). I have read one of Gautier’s novels before – I think it was Mademoiselle de Maupin and really enjoyed it. Sometimes a bit of decadence and symbolist writing is just what you need on dark December days. This novel kept you guessing and you really couldn’t tell what was real and what was dream after a while. Was he a village priest with strange dreams of living in Venice with a vampire courtesan, or a decadent nobleman who had strange dreams of being a parish priest as he slept? Very enjoyable.

The Deserted House

This was in a similar ‘vein’:  supernatural and full of thwarted love, melancholy and madness. Again, an excellent read. Hoffman is not quite as lyrical as Gautier – more matter-of-fact. This was read on a kindle. The first story I have read on it and I did get lost in Hoffman’s world, but the experience wasn’t as satisfying as a physical book. Maybe the kindle just isn’t as tactile as a book. Still, this was a free download from a great site called which I have been visiting quite regularly looking for books I have been meaning to read. It isn’t a patch on the Tomcat Murr – there isn’t any strange humour. Definitely worth my time.

Two very good short pieces written in the first half of the 19th century and read in two different modern methods.

Soundtrack: Scott Walker – 30 Century Man.

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My Childhood

the-childhood-of-maxim-gorkyBy Maxim Gorky.

After reading this autobiography you can’t help but have a new respect for Gorky. His domestic circumstances were absolutely unbelievable – but the narrative is still given in a very matter-of-fact way. Nobody is all one thing – each person is capable of kindness and evil. That Gorky emerged out of this cyclical poverty is due to his personal qualities and incredible luck. What does shine through the abject hopelessness is Gorky’s humanity. He still believes in people despite how he has been treated. His grandfather, who beats him as well as everyone in the family and is miserly and cunning, is also capable of emotion and Gorky has a few moments where they share a common understanding. Every character is the same – imperfect. But Gorky takes something from each moment and remembers these and sets them down thrity years later. This is maybe one of the best autobiographies I have ever read. There doesn’t seem to be much pride – everything is stated as remembered with no filter. This is the first part and I am going to have to read the final two parts.

Gorky was supposedly a friend of Stalin and he did intercede on behalf of many people with Stalin and Lenin. I wonder how he could have justified the actions of Stalin in later years… Gorky did die in mysterious circumstances before the beginnings of the 1938 purges – so perhaps he didn’t realise the extent of Stalin’s madness and cruelty. Or, perhaps he still believed the elements of humanity he had seen in Stalin would overcome the evil – that good would prevail. At the end of the penultimate chapter Gorky says the following:

Life is always suprising us – not by its rich, seething layer of bestial refuse – but by the bright, healthy and creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through it. It is those powers that awaken our indestructable hope that a brighter, better and more humane life will once again be reborn.

This is probably the answer. Gorky hoped things would get better.

Soundtrack: The American Analog Set – The Kindness of Strangers.

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First Love and The Diary of a Superfluous Man

fl By Ivan Turgenev.

These were two very good novellas; both permeated with melancholy and self analysis. The translation seemed a little old fashioned as it was 80-100years old by Constance Garnet. It may be worthwhile to read a more current translation just to see how they sit.

I think I enjoyed ‘First Love’ more as it was longer and had more breadth. The characters seemed to be fleshed out a little more – probably due to the novella’s length.

The two of them both asked deep questions and, as is usual with Turgenev, leave it up to the reader mostly to draw their own conclusions. The Superfluous man – was he unlucky or did he choose to be superfluous? Can human nature be changed and what are all the factors that influence it? Can form even be imposed on questions like this? With True Love – the story is like a dream as the central participants don’t have much of a beginning and then their lives and the story are cut short leaving you to ask – what was the point of that? Which is what Turgenev was hinting at. It is almost as though they never existed except as a story recounted by gentlemen having a drink years later. Turgenev is worth reading. I think I will need to work through his remaining novels and maybe reread Fathers and Sons.

Soundtrack: The Wild Nothing – Live in Dreams.

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