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Gogol, timeless and evergreen

Gogol rightly said, “The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes”

Gogol rightly said, “The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes” | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The abrupt, mid-sentence ending to an audio-book of Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol’s (April 1, 1809 – March 4, 1852) Dead Souls (1842) was a shock till one remembered that was how the book ended. After taking several deep breaths and wishing ill on audio books in general and this one in particular, it was time to fix one’s glittering eye on the terrible beauty of the book.

The haunting misery in Dead souls

The book has been variously described as picaresque and Homeric (Konstantin Aksakov). Modernist critics, including Vladimir Nabokov, hold that the plot does not matter one way or the other. Dead Souls is a fascinating, accessible novel bringing alive a time long gone by and is conversely as current as today.

It is as if Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the picaro (the loveable rascal from the picaresque novel and nothing to do with a certain Belgian comic book journalist) would be as much at home in the small towns of India in 2022 as he would have been in the estates surrounding a guberniya in Russia 180 years ago. The rich and colourful cast of characters Chichikov encounters during his journeys including the sentimental Manilov, the economic Sobakevich, the incisive widow, M-me Korobochka, the amazingly miserly Plyushkin and the bully, Nozdryov, are types we know only too well.

The plot involves Chichikov visiting these estates and exploiting a bureaucratic loophole by buying the dead souls of serfs owned by the landowners. It is a get-rich-quick scheme by Chichikov who is revealed to be a corrupt mid-level government official who missed getting jailed by the skin of his teeth. As Chichikov’s childhood is revealed, we learn how the only advice his father gave him was to make and save money. Though Chichikov’s father did not follow his own advice, the young Chichikov set out into the wide world with the singular determination of wanting to amass wealth, seeming to want to collect money for its own sake.

The bizarre and the broad collide in Chichikov’s scheme. Serfs are considered the landowner’s property even upon death, meaning the landowners continue to pay tax for them. Chichikov plans to buy the dead souls from the landowners figuring out they will be only too happy to be rid of the tax liability. He plans to make off with a loan taken against the dead souls in his possession.

While the savage satire and dark humour is there even at a cursory reading of the novel, what persists is that sense of joy that comes with immersing oneself in this wildly vivid world. The novel was supposed to be the first of a trilogy similar to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Close to his death, as Gogol became more and more obsessed with what he perceived as his sinful writings, he burnt the manuscript of the second book.

The ending of Dead Souls in mid-sentence of the Prince’s grand speech, is reminiscent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. The poet said that the poem was incomplete thanks to the interruption of the man from Porlock but could also be looked at Coleridge’s reaction to the critics’ dismissal of his work. While Dead Souls was met with acclaim and put Gogol firmly in the literary stratosphere, Gogol probably left the sentence incomplete to lead into the second book or because he believed “A word aptly uttered or written cannot be cut away by an axe.”

Gogol’s short stories

Apart from Dead Souls, Gogol is known for his short stories. There are two distinct kinds of short stories Gogol wrote — the earlier ones, drawing from his growing up years in Ukraine including The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich and Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and his Aunt and the later ones such as The Nose and the celebrated Diary of a Madman, which revel in the absurd and the bizarre.

The earlier tales with their witches and sentient animals make one think of the brightly-coloured storybooks and Baba Yaga (the crone who lives in a house that spins on a chicken leg and not Keanu Reeves in the John Wick movies).

Diary of a Madman elegantly details the descent of Poprishchin, a civil servant, into madness. It was adapted into a play and toured India including at Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara in 2017. Even as March telescopes into the following months as Marchember, our heart goes out for Poprishchin, who is desperately trying to hold onto a version of reality.

Gogol rightly said, “The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes,” and it is no surprise that Ashoke and Ashima choose to call their baby Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Just like how a single page of The Overcoat changed Ashoke’s life, so too would Gogol’s tales of petty civil servants and canny workers resonate over time and space.


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Printable version | Sep 20, 2022 8:39:43 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/gogol-timeless-and-evergreen/article65317478.ece