Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is funny, kind of weird but still deep. Published in 1842, it has the distinct honor of holding the title of “The First Russian Novel”. For a country so well-known for its novels, I was shocked to hear this is the first of its kind from the country. I guess Russia was late to the game, but they were (very) fashionably late.
The main character of the novel is basically an all-around douche bag, but the side characters are pretty gullible that I don’t really entirely blame him for what transpires throughout the novel. The plot revolves around him (Chichikov) entering a new town and his journeys throughout his time at the town (i.e. introductions to various characters, social functions and visiting various estates).
What was Great
- The humor in the novel was spot-on: I loved the multitude of side characters who are often such ridiculous caricatures that you wonder how many people were offended reading this book.
- The depiction of human nature: At first the townspeople love Chichikov who presents himself very nicely as a sociable gentleman landowner. However, it is slowly revealed that he has an ulterior motive and he is in fact a serial scammer and that he has come to the town to purchase deeds of dead souls for tax fraud. I love how his “scamming” gets greatly exaggerated as his story spreads throughout the town (kind of like in modern times where gossip gets passed through an elaborate network of Chinese whispers that it gets exaggerated so much to the point where most of what gets spread around isn’t even close to accurate).
What was not so Great
Nothing, but on my personal list of books, this isn’t in my list of top favorites. As a work of literature I can’t deny its importance and influence, but I just couldn’t fully connect with it for some reason.
This novel was meant to be the first in a trilogy and Gogol had actually written part of the second book but burnt the manuscript about a week before he died, igniting a debate amongst literary scholars regarding 1) how the novel should be read, 2) how the novel should be translated and 3) Gogol’s intentions. Translators who believe he meant to burn the manuscript because he wasn’t happy with it choose to only include the first portion. I chose to go with one of these versions, the one by Guerney, because I had read somewhere that it’s the translation Nabokov recommended (and who am I to argue with one of the greatest writers in the 20th century? One who wrote beautifully in both English and Russian). So in case you’re looking to buy the book and are confused why some versions have 300ish pages while others have 400ish pages, this is why.
Verdict: A must-read if you love satirical novels.