Dead Souls

overcoming fear of the blank page

I started reading Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol in February 2011… and I just finished it.

Gah what a hard going piece of work it is, to be sure. I started reading it through DailyLit which is a good concept but somehow just didn’t work for me. Probably because I always seem to have more than 75 unread emails in my inbox at any time. I counteract that by applying filters… which merely makes the problem disappear behind a gauze curtain.

So, Gogol’s Dead Souls. Well… at first I was super impressed. I love Russian literature, I love the introspective nature of much of it – and usually done in a way which hides the author’s criticism of the Russian life because criticism was forbidden.

Dead Souls follows Chichikov, a bureaucrat so thorough that all he really knows is how to circumvent, corrupt and utilise the corrupt bureaucracy. The first half gives you can overwhelming sense of the uselessness of Russian bureaucracy. I’ve spent a lot of time in communist and post-communist nations and I know that this uselessness is not made-up, no matter outrageous it may seem. It’s simply… staggering. I can’t explain it. And Chichikov is the perfect man to exploit its gaps and hideous shortfalls.

In many parts it’s hilarious in a truly awful way. People are too simple to be able to understand what the sale and purchase of dead souls means, particularly the widow Korobotchka, who cannot understand how such a sale can take place. Again and again, she fails to understand his intentions and wishes to sell him honey, hemp, groats — anything, but Chichikov finds her impenetrable to the idea of selling ‘souls’, a commodity that exists only on paper. True modern credit.

I guess I don’t understand the complexity of the time and how impressive this story was. The stories within stories and the effects of the Western world upon Russian society were oddly lost on me. Which is odd, cos I normally eat that shit up. Maybe the disjointed second half (Gogol set fire to his manuscripts and much of the second half of Dead Souls was lost) dis-engaged my full attention, or maybe it was the affect of reading on my iPod while on the loo… well, anyways, I’d love to hear from people who can convince me it was a more interesting book than I eventually found it.

On a related note, what the hell is with Russian writers writing an awesome story which is then utterly demolished by a dull, preachy, religious, goody-two-shoes ending? (I’m thinking mostly of Crime and Punishment – I’m too drunk to think of other examples, but I know I often have this experience reading Russian literature. Gods damn religion!)

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.


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