“Nothing could be more pleasant than to live in solitude, enjoy the spectacle of nature and dip into some book now and then.”
The above quote from the book ‘Dead Souls’ is quite relatable. I guess this feeling is mutual among us who adore and adopt books. This book was another marvelous accident, picked as part of the weird reading goal of mine – the goal of reading one book per country around the globe.
The Book : DEAD SOULS
Country : Russia
Author : Nikolay Vasilievich Gogol
Pages : 424
Genre : Politics/ Satire
First published : 1842
Translated by : Robert A Maguire
Publishing House : Penguin Classics
Nickolay Vasilievich Gogol is the founder of Russian Realism. Gogol is adapted pen name which means ‘Golden-eye Duck’. He was born at 31st March 1809 in a town of Velliki Sorochinici, Ukraine, which was a part of the great Russian Empire at that time. It is observed that the inspiration for this novel, The Dead Souls, came from his friend Pushkin; originally imagined as trilogy, modeled upon Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.
The first part represents the hell; the second part after decades of works was destroyed by Gogol himself. It is also learnt that he became a religious fanatic and burnt the second part of the novel influenced by a priest. Nine days later Gogol died (self-imposed starvation), but luckily some pieces of the manuscripts he had been working on survived. This makes the novel an unfinished work.
Dead Souls – A Poem
Yes, that is what this novel has as a subtitle. This book is the representation of Russian life as a mosaic of strangely intersecting inanities. Gogol mocked, ridiculed and exposed the flaws and foibles of the landowners, mostly rich, stupid and idle, the corrupt bureaucrats who connive with them, the pretty royalties and the hypocrisy of high society and placed them in comic scenes, one after another.
The plot of this book is simple, but the narration and detailing make this work an extravagant reading material. Gogol criticizes the owners of the large estates, their life style and habits. In this novel he attempts to display the bureaucracy and feudal organizations in Russia at his time. The lead character Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov is described as anti-hero similar to a real-life person, unscrupulous and immoral of nature. He tries to buy dead souls as the collateral to obtain a large loan. In pursuit of this mission he travels across provinces, along with his assistant named Selifan (I liked the name a lot) and meets Manilov (The Kind Manner), Plewkshin (Mr. Spitoon), Sobakievich (Mr. Dog), Nozdayor (Mr. Nostril) and Kovobachka (Mrs. Box). Each meeting with the above-mentioned landlords is super engaging and ultra humorous.
Why buying Dead Souls?
This is exactly where Gogol tightens the rope of sarcasm. It is exposing and a satirical examination of 1800s Russian nobility and society. In post-Napoleonic Russia, land owners owned serfs who worked on lands. A man’s wealth was not only measured by the amount of land he possessed, but also by the number of souls he owned. Chichiko, our proclaimed hero decides to become rich by buying those dead souls. In Russia during those days the census was taken only once in a year of these serfs. Chichikov tries to exploit this by owning souls cheaper and then claims those dead souls as his own. Therefore, it could happen that some of the dead people were still considered to be alive. Chichikov asks the land owners to sell him those dead souls, as they would in return become free of paying the fees for all their dead serfs. The actual intention of Chichikov was to set up an estate in the region where the government was selling cheap land. He needed those dead souls so that he could register them to get a bank loan.
This work is translated by Robert A. Maguire, who was the Boris Bakhmeteff Professor Emeritus of Russian studies at Columbia University. His area of specialization, on which he has written widely were the Soviet period and the early nineteenth century. He also received several awards for published works and services to his field of study.
I’m so glad that I could read this book as a part of my reading goal. Even though the work is an unfinished one, this book truly takes us back in time and allows us to experience those glorious vintage stuff and life style of 1840s. As an admirer of history and historical fiction, this takes me through its narration into a time zone which otherwise would have remained like the mystery of black hole.
There is lot of ink left in my pen but I am saving them for another occasion. Happy reading.