Taras Bulba

By Nikolai Gogol.

First of all, the good things about this novel and then the misgivings. The atmosphere and story really transports you. Comparisons can be made to the epic Iliad by Homer and the story is entertaining. With Gogol you can never really tell what is going to happen and the tale goes off on a whole different direction at the end. I loved ‘Dead Souls’ beyond measure but Taras Bulba lacks the humour that you find in the characters of Dead Souls. It does have some fantastic one-liners:

“I want my vodka so clear and frothing that it hisses and whirls like it is possessed!”

I have to say though, I found the anti-semitism and xenophobia directed towards the Turks and Poles distasteful. Throw in a some handfuls of misogyny and rampant nationalism and you start to wonder why you are reading the novel. I finished it though, and went on to another short story (St John’s Eve) that mirrored all these elements again. So this wasn’t a one-off. For context, the story was written at a time just after the Poland had attempted a revolution to self-govern the Russian partition of Poland – so Russian nationalism was probably riding high. As for the anti-semitism there are no mitigating factors apart from the fact that those prejudices were part and parcel of Russian life at the time. However, we don’t find anti-semitism in Lermontov or to anywhere near the same degree in Pushkin. Pushkin may have, in fact, had Jewish ancestors as well as African. Unfortunately, after Taras Bulba it seems that Yankel (who is Jewish) seems to become something of an archetype in much Russian literature. We find this later in Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Babel and Turgenev.

So, should this book be read given these factors? I think so, as long as you are aware of them. Everything you read has to be viewed in context. Works of literature don’t just spring into being from nothing – they are created from the historical, social and political milieu that surrounds them. This is why books are so important – they don’t just tell stories – they tell us about what it was like to live in that place at that particular time.

Right, having leapt into the air and kicked the soapbox away in one fluid motion (today is World Book Day), I will read some more of Gogol’s short stories acutely aware of context.

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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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