Thursday, November 15, 2007
Dead Souls-Tiny Book Report
I just finished rereading Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, a book I hadn't read since I was in high school. The plot is simple. Chichikov, an ex-government official, rides into town as a mysterious stranger looking to buy dead serfs (we don't find out the reason until the end, although it is almost beside the point). It is told in 3 acts: negotiation; fall from grace; and the author's revelation of Chichikov's motives and past. It is a surprisingly modern novel (given that it dates to the mid-19th Century) packed with ambiguous characters including a decidedly flawed hero. Gogol's ongoing dialogue with the reader during which time he explains his craft as he is creating it presage Kundera and his open, non-linear style of storytelling. What is also striking is the darkness of the humor. The novel seems to have emanated from a dark part of Gogol's psyche, the starting place of much humor. He shows clear contempt, not only for many of his characters, but often for the reader himself, whom Gogol essentially accuses of misinterpreting his aims or questioning his motives. Gogol often stops himself or articulates that he is crafting his novel in a certain way as to not be misunderstood by the reader. He is like the person that lashes out preemptively with vituperative wit to avoid being hurt. In many ways this is refreshing (and must have been at the time) given that he was a contemporary of Dumas and others whose characters wore their flaws as thin veneer. The flaws in Gogol's characters are fundamental to their being and, in a certain way, he seems to love them more for their imperfections that for their nobler qualities. We recognize the types, but in the end Gogol chides us for that analogizing, telling us to look inward to see how we are Chichikov. While, the set pieces are often hilarious, the novel as a whole is somewhat chilling, strikingly misogynistic and wholly pessimistic as to human nature. Apparently, it was supposed to be the first novel of a trilogy (although this has been disputed) and, if Gogol had answers to foibles of man that he found in Dead Souls, he took them to his grave. A classic, must-read.