Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dead Souls, by Nikolay Gogol

Gogol meant Dead Souls to be a three part ‘epic poem in prose’. The novel we have today is only part one; part two was apparently destroyed by the author and the third part never actually written.

When you come to the end of part one, you do get an overwhelming sense that this really is a prose poem, but it’s also very much a grotesque comedy. As the novel has no plot, and follows more the conventions of the picaresque tale, Dead Souls has a lot of the quixotic about it.

While Gogol may show little interest in the architecture of plot, his powers of description and ability to paint character are extraordinary. If anyone has ever seen the Dietrich / Von Sternberg film The Scarlet Empress, with its bold expressionistic sets and art direction, this will give you somewhat of an idea of Gogol’s style (in my opinion at least).

Add to this Gogol’s gift for grotesque comedy and you have something that is relentless in its weirdness. Just some of the descriptions of what people eat are amazing, you wonder if Gogol is describing a real Russian diet or just making something up.

I’d say if you were a young aspiring writer, you should study Gogol to learn what writing is all about. You open one of Gogol’s stories and are amazed by how fresh, vibrant and utterly alive his bizarre Russian world is.

His ambivalent attitude to all he describes will keep you scratching your head the whole way through. What does the author think of all these mad, larger than life people he describes? He describes the morally creepy main character Chichikov with so much relish. What’s that all about I wonder?

Gogol comes across as one of those fragmentary writers that never completed their superb initial promise. Maybe he was too much of a genius, and that’s why he burnt out.
Oh, how I wish Gogol had written so much more. I got to the end of Dead Souls and was sad that his story had finished and I had no other books of his to look forward to.

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