Dead souls, p.1
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           Nikolai Gogol
Dead Souls


  English translation copyright © 1996 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in the United States in hardcover by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.,

  New York, in 1996.

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the Pantheon edition as follows:

  Gogol’, Nikolaĭ Vasil’evich, 1809–1852.

  [Mertvye dushi. English]

  Dead souls / Nikolai Gogol ; translated and annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

  p. cm.

  I. Pevear, Richard, 1943–. II. Volokhonsky, Larissa. III. Title.

  PG3333.M4 1996

  891.73′3—dc20 95-24357

  eISBN: 978-0-307-79781-0

  Random House Web address:




  Title Page



  Translators’ Note





  About the Translators



  Do you like the novel Dead Souls? I like Tolstoy too but Gogol is necessary along with the light.

  Flannery O’Connor

  Gogol designed the title page for the first edition of Dead Souls himself. It is an elaborate piece of not-quite-symmetrical baroque scrollwork, surrounded by airy curlicues in which various objects and figures appear. At the top center is a britzka being pulled by a galloping troika and raising a small cloud of dust. Below it to the left is a sketch of a manor house with a gate, then a well with a long sweep pointing upwards, then a tray with a bottle and four glasses the same size as the house and the well sweep. Centered under the britzka is another bottle, and to the right are more bottles (one fallen over), a glass, and a mysterious pointed object, possibly a tower. Further down around the lettering on the page we find a fish on a platter, a wooden bucket, yet another bottle, some dried fish hanging from curlicues; there is a barrel, a plaited bast shoe, a single boot, a small capering figure raising a glass, a pair of boots. A lyre hangs from the ornamentation beside a solemn satyr’s mask, balanced by a similar satyr’s mask on the other side and what may be more musical instruments. Above the publication date is an oval platter with a big fish on it, surrounded by smaller fish. To the left of the date a balalaika and a guitar, to the right of it a miniature dancing couple. At the very bottom center, amid more scrollwork, is a human face. The curlicues around the words Dead Souls turn out, on closer inspection, to be skulls.

  The words on the title page are presented in lettering of different styles and very unequal sizes. At the top, in the smallest and plainest letters, we read Chichikov’s Adventures; then, in very small cursive, the word or; then, in larger and bolder letters, Dead Souls. In the largest letters of all, in the very center of the page, white against a black background, is the word Poema, the Russian term for a narrative poem. Below that, in small but elegantly ornate lettering, appears the name of the author: N. Gogol. And finally, on a square plaque under the oval platter with the big fish, comes the date of publication: 1842.

  This was Gogol’s own introduction to his book. The sketches suggest something of its content and more of its atmosphere: the road, the racing britzka, country estates, a good deal of drinking and eating, music and dancing, and, in the midst of it all, those little skulls, those slightly menacing satyrs, that ambiguous human face looking out at us. These are all the stuff of Gogol’s poema. But before considering the nature of this paradoxical feast, I want to say something about the words Gogol distinguished so carefully by the size of their lettering and their placement on the page.

  Gogol was thirty-three in 1842, when this first edition of the first volume of Dead Souls was published. A second edition came out in 1846, but the promised continuation of Chichikov’s adventures, the “two big parts to come” mentioned at the end of the first volume, were never finished. Gogol labored over the second part for the last ten years of his life, burned one version in 1845, and another in 1852, a week before his death. What survived among his papers were drafts of the first four chapters, fragmentary themselves, plus part of a later chapter, possibly the last. They were published in 1855, in a volume entitled The Works of Nikolai Vassilyevich Gogol Found After His Death. The first volume of Dead Souls was, in fact, the last good book Gogol wrote.

  N. Gogol, as he modestly styled himself, was in 1842 the brightest name in Russian literature. Vissarion Belinsky, a leading radical and the most influential critic of the time, had hailed him in 1835 as a writer who might finally create a truly Russian literature, independent of foreign models. He saw that promise fulfilled in Dead Souls, a new step for Gogol, as he wrote in an article of 1842, “by which he became a Russian national poet in the full sense of the word.” But the conservative Slavophils also claimed him as their own, perhaps with more reason. This all sounds lofty and serious, yet the central figure in Gogol’s work is laughter. It was laughter that gave such brightness to Gogol’s name, that pure laughter which reached its fullest expression in his play Revizor (The inspector, or Government inspector, or Inspector-general), written in 1835 and first staged on April 19, 1836, at the command and in the presence of the emperor Nikolai I. The play was a tremendous success. Gogol literally set all Russia laughing. The emperor insisted that his ministers see it. “Everyone took it as aimed at himself, I first of all,” he is supposed to have said. There are stories of actors laughing as they performed the play, because the audience facing them seemed to be performing it even better themselves. “Revizor is the high point of laughter in Gogol’s work,” Andrei Sinyavsky wrote. “Never either before or after Revizor have we laughed like that!” As the “we” implies, such laughter unites people through time as well as across footlights. (Sinyavsky’s book V teni Gogolya (In Gogol’s shadow) was published in 1975 under the pseudonym of Abram Tertz. It has yet to be translated into English.)

  The idea for Revizor came from Alexander Pushkin, the greatest of Russian poets, who, as Gogol once observed, also “liked to laugh.” Pushkin had been one of the first to recognize Gogol’s talent, and published some of his writings, including the famous story The Nose, in his magazine The Contemporary. Shortly before giving him the idea for Revizor, according to Gogol’s own testimony, Pushkin gave him the subject of Dead Souls, “his own subject, which he wanted to make into a poem.” Gogol set to work at once. The first mention of the book in his correspondence is in a letter to Pushkin dated October 7, 1835: “I have begun to write Dead Souls. The plot has stretched into a very long novel, and it will, I think, be extremely amusing … I want to show all Russia—at least from one side—in this novel.” In the same letter, he asked Pushkin to give him “some plot … a purely Russian anecdote,” to which Pushkin responded with a story that had actually happened to him two years earlier. While stopping in the town of Nizhni Novgorod in September 1833, he dined once or twice with the governor and his wife. The governor for some reason suspected him of being a revizor, an inspector traveling incognito for the emperor, and sent a letter to Orenburg warning the governor there of Pushkin’s coming and informing him of his suspicions. The governor of Orenburg happened to be an old friend of Pushkin’s, and he laughingly told him about it. In Revizor, Gogol’s hero capitalizes on the error throughout the play.

  There is no question about the source of the idea for Revizor. But for Dead Souls Pushkin has a rival much clos
er to home, and even in Gogol’s own family. A distant relation of his, Maria Grigorievna Anisimo-Yanovskaya, left the following reminiscence:

  The thought of writing Dead Souls was taken by Gogol from my uncle Pivinsky. Pivinsky had a small estate, some thirty peasant souls [that is, adult male serfs], and five children. Life could not be rich, and so the Pivinskys lived by distilling vodka. Many landowners at that time had distilleries, there were no licenses. Suddenly officials started going around gathering information about everyone who had a distillery. The rumor spread that anyone with less than fifty souls had no right to distill vodka. The small landowners fell to thinking; without distilleries they might as well die. But Kharlampy Petrovich Pivinsky slapped himself on the forehead and said: “Aha! Never thought of it before!” He went to Poltava and paid the quitrent for his dead peasants as if they were alive. And since even with the dead ones he was still far short of fifty, he filled his britzka with vodka, went around to his neighbors, exchanged the vodka for their dead souls, wrote them down in his own name, and, having become the owner of fifty souls on paper, went on distilling vodka till his dying day, and so he gave the subject to Gogol, who used to visit Fedunky, Pivinsky’s estate, which was about ten miles from Yanovshchina [the Gogol estate]; anyway, the whole Mirgorod district knew about Pivinsky’s dead souls.

  Maria Grigorievna’s information incidentally bears out a passing remark in chapter 8 of Dead Souls concerning the ready availability of drink in the provinces of Little Russia (Ukraine). Her account was reprinted in V. Veresaev’s book Gogol v zhizni (Gogol in life, 1933), which drew high praise (“delightful”) from Vladimir Nabokov.

  N. Gogol’s full name was Nikolai Vassilyevich Gogol-Yanovsky. He was born on April 1, 1809, in Sorochintsy, Mirgorod district, Poltava province, the son of a minor official and amateur playwright whose family had been ennobled in the seventeenth century. He was the eldest of twelve children, of whom six survived. He grew up in Vassilyevka, an estate of some three thousand acres and two hundred peasant souls belonging to his mother. At the age of twelve he went to study in a boarding school in Nezhin, where he spent the next seven years. At school he was called Yanovsky, but even then he had begun to favor his other name. Perhaps he simply liked it because it was unusual. In Russian, gogol means “drake.” By extension, it also means a dapper fellow, a dandy—inclinations not foreign to our author. With regard to this “totemic” bird, Andrei Sinyavsky cites a legend from northern Russia about the creation of the world:

  Upon the primeval ocean-sea there swam two gogols: one a white gogol, and the other a black gogol. And it was so that in these two gogols there swam the Lord God Almighty and Satan. By God’s command, by the blessing of the Mother of God, Satan breathed up from the bottom of the blue sea a handful of earth …

  The transformation of the lowest (even infernal) matter into a model of the universe by the action of a mysterious breath or energy has analogies in Gogol’s artistic vision and in the style of his prose. Many critics have seen two Gogols in Gogol—unconscious and conscious, artist and moralist, radical and conservative, pagan and Christian—but that is another matter. Believing that he was called to some high mission in service to Russia, Gogol left his native region after graduating from high school (he had been a mediocre student) and went to Petersburg in December 1828, to attempt another sort of transformation. There he suffered one failure as a poet and another as an aspiring actor. And there, in 1830, he published his first story—“St. John’s Eve.”

  Russian prose had attained perfect ease and clarity in the works of Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. Gogol admired them greatly, and did not try to match them. He set about creating another sort of medium, not imitative of the natural speech of educated men, not graced with the “prose virtues” of concision and accuracy, but apparently quite the opposite. Sinyavsky comments: “Gogol overcame the language barrier by resorting not to the speech in which we talk, but rather—to the inability to speak in an ordinary way, which is prose in its fullest sense. Without noticing it, he discovered that prose, like any art, implies a passing into an unfamiliar language, and in this exotic quality is the equal of poetry.” To do this, he stepped back linguistically into Little Russia, seeking a stylization towards the lowest levels, from which he could then leap suddenly into lyrical flight, and so he created the gab of his first narrator, Rudy Panko, beekeeper, in Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, a collection of tales published in 1831. With this lowest matter, this rich linguistic dirt, Gogol transformed Russian prose. A second collection of Evenings appeared in 1832, and in 1835 two more volumes of Ukrainian tales, collectively entitled Mirgorod, as well as Arabesques, containing a series of extraordinary tales about Petersburg. By the autumn of that year, as we have seen, Gogol was already at work on Dead Souls. He left Russia in 1836, following the success of Revizor, and spent most of the next twelve years abroad, mainly in Rome, returning for seven months in 1839–40, and then at the end of 1841 with the completed first volume of Dead Souls.

  In November 1841 the manuscript of Gogol’s new work was submitted to the imperial censors—an ordeal every book published in Russia had to undergo. This brings us back to Gogol’s title page. Gogol learned about the proceedings from an acquaintance on the Moscow censorship committee and described them in a letter to his Petersburg friend Pletnyov dated January 7, 1842. The acting chairman of the committee, a certain Golokhvastov, cried out “in the voice of an ancient Roman” the moment he saw the title: “Dead Souls! No, never will I allow that—the soul is immortal, there can be no such thing as a dead soul; the author is taking up arms against immortality!” When it was explained to him that it was not a question of the human soul, but of deceased serfs not yet stricken from the tax rolls, the chairman cried: “Even worse! … That means it is against serfdom.” And so it went. Gogol’s one defender on the committee could do nothing. (Not so the author, who in the second volume of Dead Souls gave Golokhvastov’s words about the immortal soul to a smug and ignorant young clerk.) Gogol then submitted his manuscript to the censorship committee in Petersburg, where he had hopes of more success. It was eventually passed, but the committee insisted on some thirty small “corrections” and the removal of the interpolated “Tale of Captain Kopeikin” from the tenth chapter. This last Gogol considered one of the best parts, absolutely necessary to the book, and rather than give up his Kopeikin, he rewrote the tale in a way acceptable to the censors (we have translated the original version here). The committee was also uneasy about the title, but accepted the compromise of adding Chichikov’s Adventures to it. That is how those two words in the plainest and smallest letters appeared at the top of Gogol’s design for the title page, though the title was and has always remained Dead Souls and nothing else. Thus, nearly intact, the manuscript went to the printer in April 1842. The book was released on May 21. On May 23, Gogol left Moscow for Petersburg, and ten days later he went abroad again, where he stayed for the next six years, moving about a great deal.

  We come now to the boldest and most central word in Gogol’s design: Poema. It is clearly meant to alert readers to the author’s own conception of his work, to warn them that what is to come is not a novel—that is, an extended prose narrative portraying characters and actions representative of real life, in a plot of more or less complexity, as the manuals have it. In fact, Gogol himself sometimes referred to Dead Souls as a novel, for instance in the letter to Pushkin quoted earlier. But that was precisely earlier. As his work progressed, his sense of it grew and changed. Finally, several times in the text itself, and here on its title page, he resolutely asserted its poemity.

  Our understanding of what Gogol meant in calling his book a poem is helped considerably by a little manual he wrote himself in the latter part of his life. It is entitled A Guidebook of Literature for Russian Youth and contains, among other things, some interesting remarks on the novel as a genre. He describes it as “too static” a form, involving a set of characters introduced at the start and bound to a series of inci
dents necessarily related to the hero’s fate, allowing only for an “overly compressed interaction” among them. If we reverse these strictures, we will have the beginnings of a formal description of Dead Souls: a dynamic form, involving characters not necessarily bound up with the hero’s fate, who can be introduced (and dropped) at any point, and allowing the author great freedom of movement in time, place, and action. In his guidebook, Gogol introduced his concept of such a form, midway between the novel and the epic, calling it “minor epic.” His examples are Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso. While the epic hero is always an important and conspicuous public figure, the hero of a minor epic can be private and socially insignificant. The author leads him through a series of adventures and changes intended at the same time to present a living picture of the age, a chart of its uses and abuses, and “a full range of remarkable human phenomena.” Indeed, Gogol plunges so much in medias res that we learn nothing about his hero’s life until the last chapter of volume 1. Figures and events emerge the way the “dead souls” emerge from Chichikov’s chest in the seventh chapter, not part of any plot, but indispensable to the poem. So, too, the theme of Russia (“Rus!”) does not derive from situation or character, but is added lyrically by the author, forming part of the poetical ambience of the book, as do the many epic or mock epic similes, the asides, the lyrical flights and apostrophes. To portray “all Russia,” Gogol needed this freedom of the road, of movement in several senses, allowing him to include a diversity of images, to multiply views metaphorically, because the road is also the writing itself, the “scrawling” of landscapes along the racing britzka’s way. All this is what is promised by the word poema.

  Many of those who heard Gogol read from the second volume of Dead Souls (some listened to as many as seven chapters) praised it in terms similar to those of his friend L. I. Arnoldi, who described such a reading in a memoir of his friendship with the author: “ ‘Amazing, incomparable!’ I cried. ‘In these chapters you come even closer to reality than in the first volume; here one senses life everywhere, as it is, without any exaggerations …’ “ Could this be the same Gogol? Had he finally stooped to writing a conventional novel? But, in fact, what we find in the surviving fragments of volume 2 is not life “as it is,” but a series of nonpareils—the perfect young lady, the perfect landowner, the perfect wealthy muzhik, the perfect prince, and also, since nonpareils need not be moral ideals, the perfect ruined nobleman, the perfect Germanizer, the perfect do-nothing—all of them verging on the grotesque, but on an unintentional and humorless grotesque. While we can see where Gogol was straining to go, we are aware mostly of the strain. He is still arm in arm with his hero at the end, but, as he says, “This was not the old Chichikov. This was some wreckage of the old Chichikov. The inner state of his soul might be compared with a demolished building, which has been demolished so that from it a new one could be built; but the new one has not been started yet, because the definitive plan has not yet come from the architect and the workers are left in perplexity.” Amid the rubble and perplexity of the second volume, the unsinkable squire Petukh, met by chance when Chichikov takes a wrong road, sounds the last great cockcrow of Gogol’s genius.

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