Dead Souls (1842) The Nose (1835-36) The Overcoat (1842)
Gogol is, as I understand it, the father of Russian prose, as Pushkin is the father of Russian poetry. On the other hand, his work does not seem anything like as majestic or ponderous as his legacy suggests. I don’t want to make sweeping statements about Russian cultural isolation, but his works span and play with genre expectations in a way that is either subverting well known conventions or someone working without a body of conventions and just writing what they want to. I’ve had the same sense when reading early Gothic novels; Ann Radcliffe wasn’t writing unconvincingly drawn-out ‘suspense’ scenes, she was setting the template for what would become a tradition of cliff-hangers suspense story-telling. Similarly, Gogol’s mixture of comedy and tragedy, of high and low social themes, is confusing and doesn’t always seem to work, but it’s also a refreshing new look at a different way of telling stories.
Take ‘The Nose’ for example, a baker wakes up one perfectly normal morning to find a nose in his bread when he eats breakfast. He recognises the nose, it belongs to Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, and it is unclear how it detached itself… this is a short story and I don’t want to give it away but I really recommend you read how poor Kovalyov responds when his nose starts walking around impersonating a high ranking official. A humble Collegiate Assessor could hardly presume to give orders to anyone with a higher grade in the civil service than himself, but given that said high ranking civil servant is his [former] nose it’s hard to claim this story is pure social commentary. Surrealism, comedy and a deep sense of one’s physical place in society – ‘The Nose’ is a great introduction to Russian Literature.
Of course, if you want to try for an overview of Russian literature, you do have to read ‘The Overcoat, if only because it will feed in so explicitly to Dostoyevsky’s ‘Poor Folk’ twenty years later. The Overcoat is horrible, not badly written, just evocative of the most appalling poverty and social inequality. It tells of the trials of titular councillor Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin. Living on the poverty line, Bashmachkin is a clerk and copyist. For most of the book, he desperately tries to keep warm, patching his inadequate winter coat and starving himself in order to buy a new one. The outcome of his endeavours is truly tragic. The end of the book, honestly, is just bizarre. Please do read it and let me know what you think of the genre bending – the short story starts as harrowing social commentary, the end appears to be from a different writer all together.
Gogol’s magnum opus was ‘Dead Souls’. It is a weighty title, equally so in its alternative English translation, ‘Dead Serfs’. There is an appropriately mystical and portentous background to the novel. Gogol wished to write the answers to Russia’s problems. All of them. The first volume, which was a runaway success, was intended as an equivalent to ‘Hell’ in Dante’s three part ‘Divine Comedy’. The second volume was to contain purgatory, and the promised answers to all problems was to become evident in the ‘heaven’ of the third volume. Nowadays I think most editions contain the full first part and scraps of the second. Gogol, in what is generally described as a ‘decent into madness’ burned most of his draft for the second volume and died, insane, before writing the third.
Few books come with such well-published baggage and so it’s hard to admit that I think ‘Dead Souls’ works best as a picaresque romp though middle-class Russia. The ‘Dead Souls’ of the title are essential a property scam. Chichikov, the main character, has realised a loophole in the economics of serf ownership. This is not social reformation or a critique of slavery, it’s a fraudster who has realised that he can buy, and then mortgage, serfs who have died since the last official census. Their owners win because they get paid in cash for serfs who are no longer of use to them; Chichikov wins because he plans on remortgaging these souls once they are in his possession. The novel follows Chichikov as he tries to persuade confused gentlemen and women to let him buy their dead serfs and as he encounters the petty, the generous, the mean and the stupid of the serf owning class. To be honest, it reminded me most of Dickens, but without the social edge. It is clear that Gogol is poking fun at his characters, and creating some wonderfully believable caricatures, but it is not a book to send you mad or keep you up at night. It’s a classic though, and a highly traditional point from which to start a journey through Russian literature. Remember, all of the writers who follow will have read ‘Dead Souls’.