Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1809 to 1852, Russia) is a book I have known I should have read by now for a long time. (It is funny, it seems the more you read, the more books there are that you should have read by now!) I first heard of it as a young very bookish boy in Clifton Fadiman's Life Time Reading Plan. Dead Souls is a very high canon status novel. Its influence is simply tremendous. Think of all the novels about a lead figure on a journey through a mad land. Dead Souls looks back to Don Quixote. There is a big difference though. In Don Quixote it is the quester who is insane, in Dead Souls it is the world.
As the novel opens, we are on a journey through the provinces of Russia with Chichikov. We stop at small inns and meet people of all sorts. I loved the descriptions of the inns and the foods and people in them. I get the feeling Gogol loved to feast on a giant Russian sturgeon. The rich descriptions reminded me of Dickens at his best. Even the most minor people in the story are brought totally to life. I was glad to see Chichikov was a lover of the reading life.
Chichikov is on an odd quest. In Russia every year land owners are taxed on the serfs the census says they own. Censuses are very irregular and can be years apart. The problem is if a serf dies in 1830 and there is no new census until 1838, the landowner has to pay taxes on the "Dead Soul" all those years. Chichikov offers to purchase dead souls from all the land owners he meets. Everyone is very confused as to why he wants to do this. The different reactions of land owners to this proposal are brilliantly handled. For a long time we are kept in suspense as to why he wants them but once we find out it makes perfect sense.
Dead Souls is an unfinished book but in a way that is almost a good thing! The unclosed nature of the book mirrors the world it depicts. Parts of it are very funny. The sections in the inns are simply a great wonder. I really felt I was along for the ride through darkest Russia. Somehow it seems a prediction of a walk through a world whose total destruction is near. I could at times feel the vast darkness of the Russian night.
Somehow I see Dickens looking at the misery of the poor in England and creating a world of sympathy and I see Gogol looking at the poor in Russian and letting us seem them as real people. I love Dickens but I would only say now that Dickens weeps and Gogol laughs. One is divine tears the other laughter. Maybe we need both.
Dead Souls is not a hard, difficult to follow book. It really only has one central character. I found it fun to read, not a chore to get done so I could check it off a lifetime list. Maybe I need to read it again soon or read Nabokov's commentary, but I liked part one better than part two. I think maybe you should read his "The Overcoat" first as a kind of Gogolian (imagine that said in the accent of old St Petersburg) training ground. Actually I think "The Overcoat" belongs as firmly on a canon list as Dead Souls.
Dead Souls is kind of like a great salt lake, it is easy to swim along the top but very hard to get to the bottom!
It would make a good first Russian novel also, I think. All the Russian masters genuflected to him.
Amateur Reader and all, do you still regard this as the best novel written from 1800 to 1850? In my limited reading, I can see only the two big novels of Stendhal as challengers. If pushed to vote I would put Stendhal first most days but on days when the world seems too absurd for words I would pick Gogol. Gogol will probably speak to more people than Stendhal.