November 14, 2017
I recently finished reading Dead Souls (the David Magarshack translation) and I don’t know what to do now. I finished the unfinished novel today. I guess I’m still sitting with it, trying to process it.
I loved it and I’m happy that I read it but I’m really sad about finishing it because the book itself is incomplete and the story ends abruptly, with the hero, Chichikov being banished and Prince chastising his officers for being dishonest and stealing and something else that is only hinted at. I feel a sort of sadness that I will never get to finish the actual story and see what else Gogol had planned for Chichikov. We’ll never know if he changes his ways and makes good as a man of the earth, tilling his soil and living modestly, or if he continues on his roguish ways and finds himself in new predicaments in other parts of Russia.
I was gonna write a blog post about this but then I started writing a synopsis of the plot and no one needs to read that. Just read the book. It’s so good and so funny. It’s an old book or whatever but the ideas are all very relevant, and the way Gogol talks about society and class and social norms and trends is brilliant and hilarious. I’m probably going to re-read it so I can highlight the sections I laughed really hard at. I spent a lot of time reading this book in public and laughing out loud, like running on the treadmill and cracking up.
There was something that I kept thinking about while reading, however. I was very conscious of Gogol’s presence in the novel, his role as the narrator and the narrator’s commentary on his observations and the craft of writing itself. There was also plenty of commentary on the part of the characters who spoke of the nonsense “scribblers” put out into the world, books that made people want luxuries and to live beyond their means. How education corrupts and spoils. Dead Souls isn’t just a novel and it isn’t just a parable and it isn’t just social commentary and it isn’t just an epic poem about an immoral man. It is all of those things and it also feels super personal. It feels like a perfect novel, even though it is unfinished.
The funny thing about reading an older piece of literature is trying to talk about it with other people in a normal conversation. It’s like that stand-up piece about watching Heat. I think of that piece a lot because I tend to catch onto films and albums after everyone else is already over them. It’s funny to try to talk with someone about a movie that you just saw and are excited about even though it came out 20 years ago, but it’s an even stranger experience dropping a Penguin Classic into casual conversation.