I started off last year reading another Russian novel, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky which ended up being one of my favorite reads of the year. (Dakota enjoyed the book as well. She ate it last July.) I had very little experience with Russian novels, other than the first two-thirds of Anna Karinina I’d not read anything. Besides being an excellent psychological thriller, Crime and Punishment is a very funny book. I was surprised by how funny it was. I’d always been led to believe that Russian novels were difficult stuff.
Look at the cover of Dead Souls. Does it look funny to you? Dead souls? How could that be funny?
Nicolai Gogol wrote one of my all-time favorite short stories, “The Nose“, about a man whose nose runs out on him one day to lead a life that is much more exciting and glamorous than the life it led while a part of the man’s face. It’s difficult to get your nose back once it’s found out how much fun it can have without you. It’s a very funny story.
Dead Souls is a very funny novel. The hero, Tchitchikov, is a “gentleman of the middling” sort without significant money or land. He develops a plan to become wealthy by buying up dead serfs. Serfdom in Russia was a form of slavery that lasted throughout much of the 19th century. When Gogol wrote Dead Souls the Russian government taxed landowners based on how many serfs they owned at the time of the most recent census. Since the census was only done once every ten years, if a serf died before the next census, the owner had to continue paying taxes on the ‘dead soul’ until it could be officially counted as dead. Tchitchikov intends to acquire as many dead souls as he can by taking them off the hands of their owners as a gracious act of kindness and then use them as collateral for a large bank loan. He’ll then use the loan to purchase an estate with actual serfs on it.
Unfortunately, everyone Tchitchikov encounters is immediately suspicious of his plan. They cannot figure out why he wants dead serfs but they suspect he is up to something and they all want in on it. No one will give him their dead serfs, some refuse to sell them outright, others force him to pay high prices for them. The pattern repeats in various forms as Tchitchikov travels from town to town, estate to estate, trying to explain how much money can be saved by avoiding the tax on dead serfs if only he can have them.
Gogol intended to make Dead Souls the first part of a trilogy of books reflecting Dante’s Divine Comedy. He burned all but five chapters of the second book before he died. Dead Souls is his only completed novel.
The more you understand the subject matter, the better satire works, so I imagine that my lack of knowledge about Russian history kept me from getting all of the jokes in Dead Souls, but I enjoyed myself thoroughly none-the-less. Gogol’s sense of humor is probably not for everyone, but it’s right up my alley. He manages to point out the absurdity of his society without letting on how completely he is undermining it. Of course this is a man who wrote a story about a nose cutting out on a face just to spite it. And the next time someone mentions Russian novels, don’t think depressing, don’t think dreary, think funny.
This is the 400th post here at James Reads Books, so I picked something I really loved from my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. That is features a cameo appearance from Dakota was just serendipitous. Dakota used to make regular appearances at Ready When You Are, C.B: posts about books she ate, videos of her choosing give-away winners, cute holiday pictures. She’s been gone six months now, but I admit, I still miss here now and then.
But isn’t that a great little joke at the end–“a nose cutting out on a face just to spite it.” I feel a little smug about that one. 😉