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Monday, July 02, 2012

Dead Souls ( Мёртвые души) by NIkolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol

Book Review

Dead Souls
by Nikolai Gogol
p. 1842
1842 English Translation by D. J. Hogarth
Read on an Amazon Kindle

     Nikolai Gogol is the first Russian-language author to appear in the 2003 edition of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, and in that regard he's a category creator.  The category is, "The Russian novel."  If you look at the history of the novel before Nikolai Gogol emerged, you are talking about English, French, German, Italian and Spanish language works. After the Russian language Authors begin publishing, you have to go until nearly 1880 before another language appears on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list (Swedish, The Red Room by August Strindberg, published in 1879.)

     In the present day, Russia is a foot note in the world market for culture.  Despite impressive achievements in a variety of Artistic endeavors, the market/Audience size for sales of cultural products is pitiably small.   Russia in that regard is more like Brazil, India or China in terms of having a market for culture that lags behind either the Audience size or cultural tradition or both.

  To talk about the "world market for culture" is to talk about cultural products with a severe slant towards the cultural products of the post-industrial West:  English, French, German, Spanish and Italian language products that appeal to their own populations and same-language speaking markets in other countries.  Thus, Russia, and the Russian language novel is the interesting case of a relatively minor Audience for a cultural product producing an out-size number of practitioners of that art-form.

  From the very beginning, you get the sense that Nikolai Gogol is writing with two Audiences in mind: A largely hypothetical Audience of Russians, and the already existing foreign Audience of novel readers in countries like Germany, France and England.   That is a dual focus that is similar to the perspective of a contemporary musical artist trying to emerge from some underground scene into the main-stream pop environment- they have to producer Art with one eye on each Audience, and the compromise can drive you mad.

 At least, I suspect it drove Nikolai Gogol mad.  Dead Souls is a famously incomplete novel, incomplete in that it is split into two volumes and the second volume contains substantial omissions of crucial episodes that render the work confusing.  Nikolai Gogol burnt two complete versions of Volume II and finally starved himself to death in the throes of madness before completing the third, existing version.

  The plot of Dead Souls: A disgraced government bureaucrat rides around the country-side to buy the rights to dead serfs who remain registered as living with the government to the end that he can then use the souls as collateral to borrow money to buy an estate, is both congruent to the modern reader and a distinctly Russian setting.   Critics have habitually de-emphasized the importance of the plot in favor of a celebration of the style and characterization of Gogol's writing, but the mordant humor and exotic character behavior help explain the long-term success of Dead Souls in English/French/German/Spanish/etc translation.

  Nikolai Gogol wrote "short stories" before they existed as a genre, thus he is often omitted as a "founder" of the short story.  He published five volumes of short stories between 1831 and 1835, in addition to books of essays and plays.   Dead Souls is the last work he is credited with Authoring as well as his only Novel. 

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