Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reviews from Absurdistan part II : Dead Souls by N. Gogol

- Good morning Mr. Gogol. Thank you for allowing some time for this interview on your book “Dead Souls”. I brought you a small present from Belgium: Chocolate Bonbons.

- Oh, delicious, great ! I was once in Belgium, did you know that? I spend some time in Ostend. Beautiful place. But let me thank you, young man, for still showing interest in this old book.

- Funny that you call me “young man”

- Well I am after all 201 years old and you are only what… forty – five?

- ( Grinning ) Let’s get to the book. It is considered your most important work, do you agree?

- What I think doesn’t really matter; it is what the readers think that is important. Fact is that “Dead Souls” is considered one of the most prominent works of 19th-century Russian literature and has become a Universal classic, time and again listed in “best books” lists or “best read” lists. It stands today proudly on the shelf of the Western literary Canon, rubbing shoulders with books like Don Quixote, Moby Dick and other Remembrances of things past ….transcending all geographical borders, literary fashions and … time.

- Can you tell us shortly what it is about?

- Oh, it is a quiet simple story: In the early 1830’s, a man named Chichikov arrives in an unnamed provincial Russian town. He introduces himself to the upper-class milieu and tours the neighboring estates in the countryside. In his meetings with the squires, he proposes to buy up their so called “dead souls”, deceased man-servants who are still administratively considered alive and on which the owners still have to pay taxes. Most of the people are of course suspicious of this morbid deal. In the final chapters, irrational rumors on Chichikov’s untruthful reputation flare up in the midst of the gossip-hungry townspeople. The disgraced traveler is ostracized from the company he had been enjoying and has no choice but to flee the town in disgrace.

- What were your intentions when you wrote this book?

- Initially, I wanted to write another funny book. That is what I do: write funny sometimes absurd, stories. Remember my Folkloric Ukrainian tales like that Christmas story in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, remember the ghost story Viy, the Nose? All funny entertaining stories which were after all the one’s that made me famous, that established my reputation. Did you read “Dead Souls”?

- Yes I did.

- Was it funny?

- It was very funny. I laughed aloud several times, surprising people around me. It was very witty and freshly entertaining.

- Well what did you like exactly?

- The characters and the conversations and your superb ironic descriptive power.

- You see, isn’t it fantastic that my stories can still make you laugh over a gap of 150 years? Let me tell you something. Try to get a copy of “Dead Souls” illustrated by Marc Chagall. Nobody captures the marvelous, unexpected mood of my book better than he does.

- I did read a Chagall illustrated copy and you are right, they are great, especially with that fabulous cast of characters you bring forth. Can you tell us more about them ?

- All of them are typical "humors". They are made funny by exaggeration. There is for instance Sobakevich, the strong, silent, economical man who looks like a bear and lives like one; There is Manilov, the silly sentimentalist; Mme Korobochka, the mother of all stupidity; There is nasty Nozdryov, the cheat and bully, Plyushkin, the miser and so on.

- Sobakevich the “bear man” is absolutely hilarious.

- Yes, it was a laugh creating him.

- Was the idea originally yours? I read somewhere that the story was Pouchkine’s idea?

- No, well yes, it is true that Pouchkine told us ( I was not alone ) the anecdote of a scam he heard … someone buying up dead souls, which would serve as a collateral for a loan or a purchase or something… I picked up the idea and developed it. I was young and like everyone, very much in awe for the great Pouchkine. Once he was teasing me about not finishing the book and I promised him to do it. It was only when he was killed in that cursed duel in 1837 that I realized that I hadn’t fulfilled my promise. Oh, it was such a drama when I heard the news of his death. I was devastated. Much more than when my own father died. I thought I could not write anymore after that. And then I realized that I owed it to Pouchkine to finish “Dead Souls” as I promised him  and I rushed back to the manuscript. So I started in ’35 but finished it only in ’41. But don’t forget that in the mean time I wrote the Revizor.

- Was it a success on publication?

- There was as much a paranoid edge to Mother Russia in my days as today, so the censors had to have their go at it. I had to negotiate 5 months with the administrators of the commission to get “Dead Souls” printed. The stupid comments of the employees of the commission of Moscow might as well be an additional chapter of the book, but I had to accept some minor changes. I had to add for example the subtitle “the adventures of Chichikov” to make sure that the reader would understand that it was a piece of fiction. And so on. I left the country just before publication because I knew that the Government could still try to intervene after the public reaction of the critics. If it turned out that people saw it as an attack against our Government, country or Czar, I could even be in danger. The publication was a scandal. Everybody read it as a social critic, especially a critic of serfdom. Don’t forget that there were still legal slaves in America too in these days! Everybody found something in my book to underscore their political issues: corruption of the administration, misery of the lowest social classes, lazy Aristocracy etc,etc.

- And what happened?

- Well the positive critics matched the bad one’s so in the end I could return to Russia. But in any case the publication of ‘Dead Souls” established me as the most successful writer of my time.

- It is during this trip trough Europe that things were starting to change?

- ( After taking a deep breath )Yes they did. I got depressed by my loneliness, the reception of my book and my poor health situation ( some called me a hypochondriac ), I came up with a bad plan. With the success and the expectations of my readers of “Dead Souls” I wanted to build further on that subject. I got the idea to turn DS in an even greater masterpiece. I wanted to turn it into some triptique, a Dantic “Divina Commedia”. Dead Souls would have been the Inferno, the hell, all that was wrong in Russia, then there would be the “Purgatario” in a second part, a moral education, an evolution to a higher mental state to arrive at a Paradise. That already was bad enough, but I got the idea that I needed to lead by example and to start living a more moral live, to try to attain moral perfection. I never intended "Dead Souls" as a trilogy, people made me do it. I wanted to add a moral dimension but for my sins I lost my spontaneity, my joy, my talent.

- So, there should never have been a second and third part?

- No and some critics have understood that better than me. Susanne Fusso for example argues in her book Designing Dead Souls that Dead Souls is complete in Part One, that there was never meant to be a Part Two or Part Three, and that it is entirely consistent with my method to create the expectation of sequels, and even to break off my narrative in mid-story, or mid-sentence, and that I was only persuaded to embark on the composition of the second part by the expectation of the Russian reading public"

- What went wrong then?

- What went wrong? The thing is I wanted to become a great writer, in the way the public expected, in a how to say it … in a more serious way, a more moral way…I had a mission to write a serious book. I always wanted to write like a…masterpiece…something big… I used the word “Leviathan” at a certain moment…not a work for an ordinary man. What I did not realize was that I already wrote “the great book”… There it was: “Dead Souls” … right in front of me, but I wanted to explain it, to elaborate on it… It was completely stupid… I was erring. I was like these stupid boys who first tell a joke and then try to explain it to you, spoiling all the fun and the mood. A scandelous underestimation of my readers, I understand now.

- (…)

- ( trembling ) And then I met the wrong people. People, who strengthened me in my wrong way of thinking, people like that cursed Church elder, Matvey Konstantinovsky, who should have protected me against myself but used me instead as an instrument in his religious fanaticism.

(During a long uneasy moment of silence, Gogol stares out of the window)

- Sir, should I read “Dead Souls” as a social critic, an attack on the Government, a reformist or satirical work?

- No, No, No, please read it for what is… A funny entertaining story…you were entertained you said?

- Yes, I was … very much

- Well then… forget about all this social critic, governmental critic and all that…See it as a “Comedie Humaine”. Think about the Chichikovs you meet in everyday life. They are everywhere. Wait …you expect some “serious stuff” in this interview I sense… I tell you something. What I have done and what other great writers have done is that we implant “human markers” in the head of our readers, some types of people, which you will encounter in your live, not as extreme as I have depicted them, but by describing them extremely, you will recognize them. If you recognize these people at once, you will avoid much unhappiness in you life or at least you will be able to laugh with your misfortunes.
You will or you already have met Tchitchikov – like people haven’t you ?

- ( smiling ) well…

- And, Manilovs, that happy moron; and these Korobotchka – like women, old and stupidly vicious; you knew what lying Nozdriov was up to before Tchitchikov did, didn’t you not? Look at greedy Pliouchkine, he is as bad as Scrooge. ( laughing ) Molière’s Harpagon is a joke besides Pliouchkine .

- What about that posh-lust interpretation by Nabokov?

- Did you understand what Nabokov meant by that?

- Not fully I guess, it had something to do with an “accusation of mediocrity”.

- Forget about it. It’s Nabokov’s interpretation. Read Nabokov’s memories; there are some of my characters in his family! (Laughing). Vladimir was an Intellectual Literary Russian living in America so everybody bought this Posh-lust or lost or whatever idea. The word stands for "self-satisfied inferiority", moral and spiritual, with overtones of middle-class pretentiousness, fake significance, and philistinism. But if you have read my book well, than you understand that mediocrity is just an aspect, a small part, of that larger Human comedy. Pinning me down, like a butterfly, as a criticizer of Mediocrity is insufficient.

- What happened on the night of February 24, 1852?

- I hoped, you would not ask that question, but here it is. I was a very confused man at that time. Remember, I would die only nine days later. Today, I see it like this: I burned some of my manuscripts which contained most of the second part of Dead Souls. If I did that, it means that I was not satisfied with it. I did burn manuscripts before in my career; there was nothing new to that. The day after that Auto-dafé, I explained this as a mistake to Konstantinovsky. I said that it was a practical joke played on me by the Devil. But if I defended my action, with this explanation to that specific man, means that what I have written was in his eyes good stuff. If it was good to him, then the burning of the manuscript proofs that I finally understood that I was completely on the wrong path and that it was better for me to destroy that ridiculous second part. It was my last intelligent revolt. I saved my “Dead Souls”by doing this . You understand?

- I try.

- Never mind.

- Should I visualize what happened like the scene in the Ilja Repin painting?

- Ilja Yefimovitsch Repin was not a witness to what occurred on the 24 th. I know that he represents the realist school and I agree that he is a great painter, but in this case, it was artistic freedom at its worst. It only contributed in confirming a certain viewpoint on me burning the manuscript.

- Sir, I am coming to the end of my interview and allow me to say once more that “Dead Souls” is one of the funniest books I ever read. It truly is a masterpiece.

- ( Laughing ) Thank you, young man.

- Shall we hug?

- You mean a big Russian bear hug ?

- Yes !





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