I finished reading Nikolai Gogol‘s Dead Souls today. This is actually the second time. I first read it for a Russian literature class circa 1979. I always remembered the ending of the first book as the protagonist Chichikov rides across the majestic, endless Russian landscape in his carriage off to who know what future for its beauty, drama, and keeping the reader on the edge of his/her seat as to what lay ahead.
I remember that my Russian professor (who was actually Ukrainian), Dr. Wowk (pronounced as “woke”) had us read only the first book. Dead Souls was originally intended to be what we now call a trilogy, but Gogol never wrote the third book, because he became a religious fanatic, as Dr. Wowk said (and as I recall), and fasted himself to death. Compared to the Wikipedia article, this is at the least oversimplified. My memory, though, is not what it used to be.
If you read my previous update on Dead Souls, you recall that I consider the first book a masterpiece of Russian literature. I can see now why he did not have us read the second book. It is not nearly as entertaining as the first and is rather boring. It doesn’t have the action or dramatic satire of the first book and the characters are not nearly as interesting. Gogol also grows increasingly pedantic, in a somewhat less that subtle way. His characters sometimes drone on about the nature of the Russian character or how one should go about becoming wealthy or any number of other things. In one instance, Gogol goes into great detail about how and why Chichikov chose a particular fabric to buy so that he could have a suit made from it later. This struck me as odd, because in the first book, he shunned unnecessary details and gave an example of how some writers write giving ridiculously unnecessary details rather than writing in “broad strokes” as he phrased it, which he tended to do. This change in writing style with its focus more on how to live a better life and how to make a decent living while being of benefit to one’s nation and to others made me realize that the value in reading the second part is not for the story per se, but in watching how Gogo’s attitude toward life and his mind changes as he becomes more religious/spiritual as he falls under the spell of Matvey Konstatinovsky. It is tragic, but also fascinating, to see this brilliant mind morph as it subtly devolves.
Would I recommend Dead Souls? Absolutely! I recommend the first book to everyone. It is a hugely entertaining satire that reaches across the centuries and across peoples. You see elements of human nature that are common to all people. You will probably even recognize some of the types Gogol exhibits here in people you know.
The second book though, I would recommend to scholars of Russian literature, primarily, but I would also recommend it to people who have an interest in psychology and how one’s mind can slowly deteriorate with the introduction of questionable ideas and philosophies.
I have a long trip to make tomorrow. I will probably start listening to Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.
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