Vengeance in Anna Karenina
Mia Forbes considers the central theme in Tolstoy's novel, considered by many to be one of the ...
'Gogol was a strange creature, but then genius is always strange.'
Gogol (1809 -1852) was a Russian playwright and author. His life and character
were as dark and strangely comic as his writings. He was described as a weedy
little fellow with a tapir-like nose who was known at school as the ‘mysterious
dwarf.’ His behaviour and attitude to life was eccentric. He disliked making
love to women, avoided his mother to the point of forging foreign postage stamps
on his letters to make her believe he was living abroad. He was morbidly
dependent on his friends' company. ‘Forget your wretched teeth,’ he wrote to a
friend who wanted to go to see a dentist. ‘The soul is better than teeth.’
These idiosyncratic capricious traits informed much of his writings.
his most successful play was The
Government Inspector, which is a satire on
provincial bureaucracy, a comedy of errors that exposes small-town political
corruption and human greed. The title role has appealed to comedians including
such diverse performers as Danny Kaye and Tony Hancock. The play possesses the
same comic tone as his novel Dead Souls (1846), which
is admired as the greatest humorous work of literature in the Russian language.
It was written in the same satirical genre as Pickwick Papers – indeed Gogol has Dickens’ talent for creating a
series of grotesque portraits and wonderfully farcical comic set pieces.
days of serfdom in Russia, serfs were referred to as ‘souls’ and a man’s wealth
was measured by the number of ‘souls’ he possessed. The absurd hero of this
book is the obese, lazy and cunning Chichikov. He makes it his business to
purchase ‘dead souls’ – the papers relating to serfs who have died since the
last census, but who remain on record and therefore still attract a tax demand.
By pawning these souls he plans to raise
enough money to buy himself an estate. His quest leads him all across the land and
in the course of his travels he meets many odd and droll characters who reflect
the mixed nature of Russian society at the time. Of course, Chichikov himself is also a dead soul, a man
self-designed to be unremarkable, agreeable and acceptable, a smiling
confidence-trickster whose plots are neither very clever nor very coherent.
The novel is filled with witty and perceptive
observations which have a timeless quality to them such as: ‘However
stupid a fool's words may be, they are sometimes enough to confound an
Gogol recollected how the idea of this book appealed to him:
enabled me to travel all over Russia with my hero… All I knew was that
Chichikov’s activities would lead to a variety of characters and people as I
went along, and that my own desire for laughter would suggest comic episodes
which I wanted to intersperse with more serious passages.’
In the first part of the novel Gogol reveals an encompassing picture of the
ailing social system in Russia after the unsuccessful French invasion. As in many of
Gogol's short stories, the social criticism of Dead Souls is
communicated primarily through absurd and hilarious satire.
At the end of part one, Gogol leaves Chichikov, in a
famous and much-quoted lyrical description, rushing out in his troika (a horse
drawn carriage) into the magical and
endless space that is ‘Rus’, the spiritual home of Russians who all love fast
driving. Part one was written not in Russia but abroad - mostly in Rome. Gogol
knew it was a masterpiece and was always about to write part two. He had
ambitions for it - it was to take the form of a biting treatise on crime,
punishment and redemption.
The novel was published in 1842 but Gogol had envisaged
this as the first section of an ambitious three part major work: 'All Russia
will appear in it!’ he promised. But
this was not to be. After the success of
his early writings, Gogol left Russia and spent
twelve years in self-imposed exile. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,
slowly developed a religious mania and fell into the hands of a fanatic Russian
Orthodox priest who persuaded Gogol that art was sinful. Thus an artist who all
his life had been dissatisfied with his own writings and had often destroyed
his work in the interests of perfection now burned his manuscripts in the
interests of God. In 1852, Gogol slipped
into depression and delivered reams of his writings to the flames, including
what was to be the sequel to Dead Souls.
Gogol’s religious mania grew and he became obsessed for
the safety of his own soul and the burden of his sins. In the end, he starved
himself to death, having lost the drive to live. He ended his life in agony.
Despite his tragic end, Dead Souls remains a great comic
masterpiece – a satirical and splendidly exaggerated epic of life in the
benighted provinces of Russia. Gogol
hoped to show the world ‘the untold riches of the Russian soul’ in the novel,
which he populated with a kaleidoscopic swarm of characters: rogues and
scoundrels, landowners and serfs, conniving petty officials–all of them both
utterly lifelike and alarmingly larger than life.
Because of the surreal element to the narrative, it has not been an easy one to translate for a dramatic interpretation. There was a stage version at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1932 and a Russian opera in 1976. The novel was adapted for screen in 1984 by Mikhail Schweitzer as a television miniseries. In 2006 the novel was dramatised for radio in two parts by the BBC and broadcast on Radio 4. It was played more for comic than satirical effect, the main comedy deriving from the performances of Mark Heap as Chichikov and the narrator, played by Michael Palin.
Worthy as these ventures might be, to capture the full richness of Gogol’s wide ranging comic tapestry, it is best to read the book.
Image: Commemorative plaque to Russian writer Nikolai Gogol at Via Sistina in Rome, Italy. Gogol was living in this house when he wrote 'Dead Souls'. Contributor: Azoor Photo Collection / Alamy Stock Photo