Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part one Mrs. Bridge

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books has a single entry for Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, both by Evan S. Connell. They are highly related, even companion pieces. However, they are separate books. Should one discuss one without discussing the other? Mrs. Bridge had been part of my MFA curriculum, Mr. Bridge only being something I looked at later on my own. Obviously they were separate, but there was obviously enough connecting them that I was compelled to look at Mr. Bridge. I debated, and then decided to do both separately…but sequentially. Mrs. Bridge will be this week and Mr. Bridge on my next go. That seemed the best compromise to the situation.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mrs. Bridge is written in little episodes that depict an upper middle class white family in Kansas City, starting around 1920, from the perspective of India Bridge, Mrs. Bridge. Considering the conformity of class in that era? This is it. The characterization is marvelous. Mrs. Bridge strives, and frets endlessly for that. Her life is for the most part stolid, and we have to ask whether it is ultimately satisfying.

Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

Mrs. Bridge has a good life overall, but it feels so stifling. She actually works for that consciously, but there are times where I felt that this was a product of environment and she wouldn’t have if she’d known better. Glimpses seem to shine through to her, but then something happens and they are gone.

Somehow, despite it being pretty much a good life, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Mrs. Bridge. There was so much more that life could have been for her. I feel sorry despite having not a huge amount to feel sorry about, and I think Connell makes me feel it pretty deeply. In fact, though I hate to give away the ending,

I’m going to quote from the ending section to show this. It shouldn’t matter. This isn’t the sort of book you read to find out a result. You read to see what happens along the way. In this bit, Mrs. Bridge is trying to back her car out of the garage. Her husband, the good but distant provider, is long gone. Her kids are out in the world living their lives:

Thinking she might have flooded the engine, which was often true, Mrs. Bridge decided to wait a minute or so.

Presently she tried again, and again, and then again. Deeply disappointed, she opened the door to get out and discovered she had stopped in such a position that the car doors were prevented from opening more than a few inches on one side by the garage partition, and on the other side by the wall. Having tried all four doors she began to understand that until she could attract someone’s attention she was trapped. She pressed the horn, but there was not a sound. Half inside and half outside she remained.

For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called out to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?”

But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.

Talk about a freight train impact of an ending.

Mrs. Bridge was recommended to me for the skill in the characterization, and I have to agree. Connell’s characters spring up three-dimensional from just a few well-placed details. The craft behind that is impressive. If I’ve managed to absorb any of how Connell manages that I’ll count myself lucky. I mean, the characters make this book. It centers around one of the most small-minded women I’ve ever heard of. It should be utterly vapid and uninteresting. It isn’t. Mrs. Bridge is absolutely fascinating.

 

Anton Chekhov & His Short Stories

For today, I read some of Anton Chekhov’s short stories. Now, when Dave and I run across “short stories by…” in Top Ten, it creates a bit of a problem. It never gives a definitive list of which ones. And, by that I mean that often there are multiple editions out, ones that have 15 of the author’s stories, ones that have every word that ever dripped out of the author in them, ones that only have 30, et cetera.

For me, I tend to just pick the book that I feel would be the most representative, sometimes all of them, sometimes less. Sometimes it’s about what book of them I can find and about how the book itself looks (if it has microscopic print, I will go for the one with bigger print because, well it’s more pleasant to read that way).

This collection had approximately 30 of Chekhov’s stories in it.  He has more. But, I always figure that reading even 20 or 30 of a prolific author’s short stories gives you a fairly decent idea of the author’s work.

Chekhov had quite a few fans in Top Ten. The following authors all listed him: Stanley Crawford, Mary Gaitskill, Allan Gurganus, Kent Haruf, Elizabeth Hay, Ha Jin, Valerie Martin, David Means, Susan Minot, David Mitchell, Stewart O’Nan, Roxana Robinson, Arthur Phillips, Francine Prose, George Saunders, Jim Shepard.

If you like short stories and have yet to read Chekhov, go and read him. His short stories are…simple. But, I say simple and realize it seems like I’m calling them stupid. This is not stupidity. His stories don’t have a lot of adornment. There’s no shiny thing yelling “LOOK OVER HERE WHILE THE MAN IN THE HAT DOES SOMETHING OVER THERE” in order to deliver a twist at the end. There’s no pages and pages of description that doesn’t fit into the story. He’s not as spare as Hemingway, but there’s no part of one of his stories that I read that I felt didn’t need to be there.

Chekhov writes what I call “slice of life” pieces. His characters run the gamut from a young woman who finds her living spaces by serving students until they tire of her to a professor at a college near the end of his life. There’s no pretentious morality about his pieces either. He’s not afraid to say that a character had a child out of wedlock or to have one of his characters detail his infidelity with a neighbor’s wife. But he is discreet. There is no singular tone to his stories either. There’s a similar flavor to all of them, but they didn’t run together at all when I was reading them. And, that’s even more amazing since I was reading on my Kindle and my brain doesn’t always process “classics” as well on Kindle as in print.

Please read Chekhov’s stories.

Dave will be with you for the next two weeks, not because I need him to fill in at the last minute (for once!) but because he is reading a two book series (I think it’s 2 books). See everyone in 3 weeks!

Candide by Voltaire

Candide by Voltaire is another one of the classic novels that most people are familiar with but not enough people have read. More people have read Candide than many other classics firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness, but there are still a large number of people are familiar with it without having read it. That’s a shame, because it’s a good time and actually pretty accessible.

(Note: We’ll have to refrain from discussing herein the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.)

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Julian Barnes, 10th for Clyde Edgerton, and 1st G. D. Gearino.)

Candide begins the story living a sheltered life in the paradise of a Baron’s household, schooled as an optimist by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. However, the mantra that Pangloss endlessly chants, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds,” doesn’t help them much as Candide and Pangloss are driven from the Baron’s household and suffer a litany of indignities and tribulations.

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.”

Candide listened attentively and believed innocently; for he thought Miss Cunegonde extremely beautiful, though he never had the courage to tell her so. He concluded that after the happiness of being born of Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, the second degree of happiness was to be Miss Cunegonde, the third that of seeing her every day, and the fourth that of hearing Master Pangloss, the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.

One day Cunegonde, while walking near the castle, in a little wood which they called a park, saw between the bushes, Dr. Pangloss giving a lesson in experimental natural philosophy to her mother’s chamber-maid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very docile. As Miss Cunegonde had a great disposition for the sciences, she breathlessly observed the repeated experiments of which she was a witness; she clearly perceived the force of the Doctor’s reasons, the effects, and the causes; she turned back greatly flurried, quite pensive, and filled with the desire to be learned; dreaming that she might well be a sufficient reason for young Candide, and he for her.

She met Candide on reaching the castle and blushed; Candide blushed also; she wished him good morrow in a faltering tone, and Candide spoke to her without knowing what he said. The next day after dinner, as they went from table, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen; Cunegonde let fall her handkerchief, Candide picked it up, she took him innocently by the hand, the youth as innocently kissed the young lady’s hand with particular vivacity, sensibility, and grace; their lips met, their eyes sparkled, their knees trembled, their hands strayed. Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh passed near the screen and beholding this cause and effect chased Candide from the castle with great kicks on the backside; Cunegonde fainted away; she was boxed on the ears by the Baroness, as soon as she came to herself; and all was consternation in this most magnificent and most agreeable of all possible castles.

This is pretty much how all the novel goes. There’s much more to it than that, but it seems like a good summary to me. Of course, we omit any discussion of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.

By the end, Candide and Pangloss (at least somewhat) have concluded that optimism is crap. Pangloss rails about it, but Candide ends up taking a pragmatic approach. All is not for the best, this is not the best of all possible worlds, but beating their breasts about it isn’t going to do any good. They still have to go on living, regardless of the nature of the world (or of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484).

Candide, on his way home, made profound reflections on the old man’s conversation.

“This honest Turk,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “seems to be in a situation far preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honour of supping.”

“Grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is extremely dangerous according to the testimony of philosophers. For, in short, Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Ehud; Absalom was hung by his hair, and pierced with three darts; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baasa; King Ela by Zimri; Ahaziah by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity. You know how perished Crœsus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Cæsar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II. of England, Edward II., Henry VI., Richard III., Mary Stuart, Charles I., the three Henrys of France, the Emperor Henry IV.! You know——”

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Candide is a delightful little book. Voltaire has a wonderful sense of humor (though obviously not the cleaver he didn’t have in 1484) that keeps me laughing amidst all the bad things that happen. I love how absurdly quickly and consistently things go bad, virtually for everyone in the book but particularly for Candide. I think Voltaire was more concerned about his message than his story, but I guess that is to be expected since he didn’t take novels particularly seriously. Candide is still a remarkable book.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Yes. Already, my resolution has been broken. But, much like a diet, in two weeks I will crawl on the saddle again and get my blog posted by -Thursday-.

I had little girls here, there, and everywhere every day this week. Amelia had friends over every single day. It’s exhausting. Just FYI for any of you without children or with children too young to have friends over every single day.

So, in my last blog post I shared my reading difficulties.

Bless Charles Dickens and David Copperfield. I actually really, really, got into this book. I experienced it in a weird way though. I’m working right now and always listen to audio books. So, David Copperfield is a free audiobook through LibriVox, so I downloaded it by chapter. I’d listen at work, a few chapters a day, which is how I started last week. But I was a little lax on listening because the book -does- start out slow. So, in order to speed things along, I decided on Sunday to start reading the book while at home and listening when in the car or at work. It worked out really, really well. And the book picked up.

John Irving and Kathryn Harrison both listed this in their top ten.

The “word on the street” is that David  Copperfield is Dickens’ most autobiographical work. I could see that a bit. First, flip the initials around. Second, Copperfield ends up being a fairly well known novelist by the end of the book.

Dickens called David Copperfield his “favorite child”.

If you get past the slower chapters at the beginning, you get sucked into David Copperfield’s life. I found myself frothing mad at certain characters, like the b***ch, Miss Murdstone and the a** Uriah Heep. In fact, I was talking to a friend last night and said “I have to go and finish David Copperfield. I want to see if Heep gets his.”.

I won’t tell you whether or not Heep got his. That would ruin it. But, unlike my prior attempts at Dickens, I actually found myself worried for “little Emily”, exasperated with David’s love “Dora” and aching with sympathy for Ham and Mr. Peggotty. I wanted to throw both the Murdstones’ out the window and felt slimy when Uriah Heep pranced across the pages, writhing in fake humbleness all the while (Dickens himself talks about Heep’s writhing). I found myself both disgusted by and in sympathy with Steerforth.

Dickens’ gift seems to me, to be that he can write both classes of the time equally well. Other authors that have survived that period tend to not be able to do that. Austen only can write the upper class. Dickens is not afraid to show the follies and weaknesses of any person, as well as the strength and goodness in them. Copperfield has a few different “flawed” characters that Dickens shows as being human, with shades of gray. There’s Steerforth, who befriends David at a time in which he very much needs a friend, but goes on to do some pretty dickish things. There’s Mr. Micawber, who can’t manage money at all and is constantly being harassed for his debts and spends time in debtor’s prison, but provides family to David at a time when he very much needs family, and is always a friend. Mr. Micawber also becomes one of the big heroes of the latter half of the book. David’s aunt is shown as being a crusty, opinionated woman, but one whom is capable of so much goodness. When Dickens tells her backstory, you find yourself nodding in complete empathy with her. There’s happy endings in here and sad endings to some characters. Some characters get their “just rewards” and others, sadly, continue to be evil idiots.

I was going to put some quotations in here, but I kept adding more and more that I wanted to show that I finally just gave up and figured I’d say this;

Put this on your reading list. Now. Stick with the beginning slowness. Enjoy! :)

Have a great weekend!

 

 

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Today we’re going to talk about one of the true monsters (my copy weighing in at somewhere over 1533 pages) of English literature, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Or, The History of a Young Lady. Or, as I liked to call it, Clarissa Explains it All.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Emma Donoghue and 4th for Vendela Vida.)

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson is an eighteenth century epistolary novel about a young woman named, oddly enough, Clarissa. Clarissa’s family is newly wealthy and seeking entrance into the nobility. As part of that, they look to marrying the virtuous Clarissa with Robert Lovelace. However, her brother gets into it with Lovelace and then her family hates him, instead wanting to marry Clarissa to a man she despises. Due to an accident of circumstance, Clarissa ends up going off with Lovelace, though firmly committed to remaining virtuous, and the increasingly despicable Lovelace spends the rest of the book trying to undermine her virtue. He drugs and rapes her before eventually meeting his own horrible end, at least his being deserved.

I was once more offering the key to the lock, when, starting from his knees, with a voice of affrightment, loudly whispering, and as if out of breath, they are at the door, my beloved creature! and taking the key from me, he fluttered with it, as if he would double lock it. And instantly a voice from within cried out, bursting against the door, as if to break it open, the person repeating his violent pushes, Are you there?–come up this moment!–this moment!–here they are–here they are both together!–your pistol this moment!–your gun!–Then another push, and another. He at the same moment drew his sword, and clapping it naked under his arm, took both my trembling hands in his; and drawing me swiftly after him, Fly, fly, my charmer; this moment is all you have for it, said he.–Your brother!–your uncles!–or this Solmes!–they will instantly burst the door–fly, my dearest life, if you would not be more cruelly used than ever–if you would not see two or three murders committed at your feet, fly, fly, I beseech you.

O Lord:–help, help, cried the fool, all in amaze and confusion, frighted beyond the power of controuling.

Now behind me, now before me, now on this side, now on that, turned I my affrighted face, in the same moment; expecting a furious brother here, armed servants there, an enraged sister screaming, and a father armed with terror in his countenance more dreadful than even the drawn sword which I saw, or those I apprehended. I ran as fast as he; yet knew not that I ran; my fears adding wings to my feet, at the same time that they took all power of thinking from me–my fears, which probably would not have suffered me to know what course to take, had I not had him to urge and draw me after him: especially as I beheld a man, who must have come out of the door, keeping us in his eye, running now towards us; then back to the garden; beckoning and calling to others, whom I supposed he saw, although the turning of the wall hindered me from seeing them; and whom I imagined to be my brother, my father, and their servants.

Thus terrified, I was got out of sight of the door in a very few minutes: and then, although quite breathless between running and apprehension, he put my arm under his, his drawn sword in the other hand, and hurried me on still faster: my voice, however, contradicting my action; crying, no, no, no, all the while; straining my neck to look back, as long as the walls of the garden and park were within sight, and till he brought me to the chariot: where, attending, were two armed servants of his own, and two of Lord M.’s on horseback.

Here I must suspend my relation for a while: for now I am come to this sad period of it, my indiscretion stares me in the face; and my shame and my grief give me a compunction that is more poignant methinks than if I had a dagger in my heart. To have it to reflect, that I should so inconsiderately give in to an interview, which, had I known either myself or him, or in the least considered the circumstances of the case, I might have supposed would put me into the power of his resolution, and out of that of my own reason.

For, might I not have believed, that he, who thought he had cause to apprehend that he was on the point of losing a person who had cost him so much pains and trouble, would not hinder her, if possible, from returning? That he, who knew I had promised to give him up for ever, if insisted as a condition of reconciliation, would not endeavour to put it out of my power to do so? In short, that he, who had artfully forborne to send for my letter, (for he could not be watched, my dear,) lest he should find in it a countermand to my appointment, (as I myself could apprehend, although I profited by the apprehension,) would want a device to keep me with him till the danger of having our meeting discovered might throw me absolutely into his power, to avoid my own worse usage, and the mischiefs which might have ensued (perhaps in my very sight) had my friends and he met?

But if it shall come out, that the person within the garden was his corrupted implement, employed to frighten me away with him, do you think, my dear, that I shall not have reason to hate him and myself still more? I hope his heart cannot be so deep and so vile a one: I hope it cannot! But how came it to pass, that one man could get out at the garden-door, and no more? how, that that man kept aloof, as it were, and pursued us not; nor ran back to alarm the house? my fright, and my distance, would not let me be certain; but really this man, as I now recollect, had the air of that vile Joseph Leman.

I would normally hate to do this much of a spoiler, but I’m guessing that either you know all this already or you won’t read the book in any event. This is a book that is commonly referred to, but not so commonly read.

It surprised me that Clarissa was written by the same author as Pamela. Sure, Clarissa is a bit preachy in spots and can dwell on a few things that don’t really advance the plot, but the difference is astonishing. Clarissa is the far superior work, in my view.

Clarissa is actually moving, containing developed, human characters who come alive and engage the soul. Though I think Pamela would have been better if cut from 500 pages down to 150 or 200, I found very little in Clarissa that I would cut. Richardson apparently learned a bit between Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela is more of a curiosity piece as I see it, but Clarissa is a truly wonderful early example of what the English language novel could accomplish.

Of course, I don’t actually expect that you’ll read the whole thing.

Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

For this week, I read winesburg, ohio (this is literally how the title is typed on the cover of my Signet Classic paperback, I was not being lazy with my capitalization. As evidenced by my 28 word explanation for it.) I also struggled with Brothers Karamazov, which still remains unfinished (sorry Dave!).

I have a confession to make. In the last couple of months, I have been apathetic about reading. Trust me, this isn’t by choice and sometimes makes me want to cry. I have read approximately two books that I have enjoyed. Both books (The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett and The Given Day by Dennis Lehane) took me approximately a 3 to 7 days to read each (this was prior to Karamazov). This is ridiculously long for me for a book I really am into and enjoying.

So, my opinion of winesburg, ohio -might- be influenced by this apathy. Or it might not. You can judge.

I did manage to read it in 4 days. But, that’s mainly because I treated reading as I do the dishes. Something to plow through.

There were definitely things that I thought were brilliant about it however. Winesburg is a series of either micro fiction short stories or vignettes. I prefer to think of it as vignettes, but I might be wrong. All of these vignettes are of inhabitants of Winesburg, Ohio.

Things I liked:

Anderson’s expert layering of one vignette upon the other. His choice of order of which ones led into the next one. My best example of this is the vignette that focuses on the Reverend Curtis Hartman and his struggle with sin:

           “Reverend Curtis Hartman turned and ran out of the office. At the door he stopped, and after looking up and down the deserted street, turned again to George Willard. “I am delivered. Have no fear.” He held up a bleeding fist for the young man to see. “I smashed the glass of the window,” he cried. “Now it will have to be wholly replaced. The strength of God was in me and I broke it with my fist.”
So ends Reverend Hartman’s chapter.
The very next chapter covers both young George Willard, intrepid reporter, and Kate Swift, schoolteacher, who figures prominently in Reverend Hartman’s chapter.
Anderson does a great job of highlighting how little we know about the people around us. Even in a small town, where everyone knows absolutely everyone, none of us truly know the interior landscape of another person. We know the surface and maybe a bit beneath.
For example, Kate Swift has no idea that she figured so prominently in Reverend Hartman’s life, in his interior landscape over that time. Swift basically changes Hartman’s life in some small and big ways. And she has absolutely no clue and hasn’t even exchanged a word with him.
Thing I didn’t like that might just be due to my apathy and reading listlessness:
It dragged. Some of the vignettes were interesting and even entertaining. But for the most part it just seemed tedious.
That might be due to me though, like I said.
If anyone has any ideas on what I can do, let me know please. Even the thought of re-reading some of my normal favorites that I can rely upon for entertaining just isn’t appealing right now.
I feel like a “normal” person right now. One in which Once Upon A Time on Netflix holds way more interest than any book I own.
Though, if you need a really long audio to listen to, I highly recommend the serialized audio drama, We’re Alive. It’s a podcast. And a zombie story. It’s great. I have needed audio for such things as work, driving and dishes and this filled the 40 hours it lasted quite nicely (actually closer to 50 hours).
Have a great weekend! (I will point out that for at least my first blog post in January, I have succeeded with my resolution of posting on Thursday instead of Friday or Saturday.)

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

I normally loathe reading unfinished works. However, I made an exception for Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. A Russian novel published in 1842 where a mysterious character is going around buying dead peasants? How could I not read it?

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Mary Gaitskill, 8th for Ken Kalfus, 8th for Robert Pinsky, 7th for James Salter, and 1st for George Saunders.)

Seriously, Dead Souls has to be one of the strangest Russian novels I’ve ever read, particularly from that era. I mean, one can’t forget the wild works of Mikhail Bulgakov, but Gogol definitely gives Bulgakov a run for his money in this one:

“Look here, my good man,” said Manilov. “How many of our serfs have died since the last census revision?”

“How many of them have died? Why, a great many.” The bailiff hiccoughed, and slapped his mouth lightly after doing so.

“Yes, I imagined that to be the case,” corroborated Manilov. “In fact, a VERY great many serfs have died.” He turned to Chichikov and repeated the words.

“How many, for instance?” asked Chichikov.

“Yes; how many?” re-echoed Manilov.

“HOW many?” re-echoed the bailiff. “Well, no one knows the exact number, for no one has kept any account.”

“Quite so,” remarked Manilov. “I supposed the death-rate to have been high, but was ignorant of its precise extent.”

“Then would you be so good as to have it computed for me?” said Chichikov. “And also to have a detailed list of the deaths made out?”

“Yes, I will—a detailed list,” agreed Manilov.

“Very well.”

The bailiff departed.

“For what purpose do you want it?” inquired Manilov when the bailiff had gone.

The question seemed to embarrass the guest, for in Chichikov’s face there dawned a sort of tense expression, and it reddened as though its owner were striving to express something not easy to put into words. True enough, Manilov was now destined to hear such strange and unexpected things as never before had greeted human ears.

“You ask me,” said Chichikov, “for what purpose I want the list. Well, my purpose in wanting it is this—that I desire to purchase a few peasants.” And he broke off in a gulp.

“But may I ask HOW you desire to purchase those peasants?” asked Manilov. “With land, or merely as souls for transferment—that is to say, by themselves, and without any land?”

“I want the peasants themselves only,” replied Chichikov. “And I want dead ones at that.”

“What?—Excuse me, but I am a trifle deaf. Really, your words sound most strange!”

“All that I am proposing to do,” replied Chichikov, “is to purchase the dead peasants who, at the last census, were returned by you as alive.”

Granted, Dead Souls doesn’t end up being quite as strange as it at first seems. Chichikov mysteriously shows up and is treated like a prince. He begins buying peasants who have died but are still on the official census, costing their owners tax money until the next census. Turns out he’s doing this because estates are mortgaged based on number of peasants, a number which is never verified because bankers assume the births will offset the deaths. He plans to buy a tiny estate with a huge number of cheaply acquired dead peasants, take out a huge mortgage, and flee with all the money. However, the greed, rumors, and other foul aspects of society blow up and Chichikov is forced to flee.

Dead Souls ends up being more of a depiction of various examples of the Russian character, and the flaws and faults therein, than the progression of Chichikov’s schemes. Worse, the book is supposed to be in three parts. All we have complete is part one, two being only a fragment (four chapters or so in draft form that remained in Gogol’s papers, two supposed full versions having been reportedly burned by Gogol during his life, the last a week before his death) and three being completely nonexistent. The fragment of two even stops in the middle of a sentence. There is no way of describing how aggravating that was, needing to know how this was all going to pull off in a bigger picture.

Still, anyone I’ve known who has read Dead Souls has loved it, both fans of Russian lit and not. Whether much comes of it or not, you have to love a mid nineteenth century Russian novel about a guy buying dead peasants (suggested alternate title: 101 Uses for a Dead Peasant). It’s wild, the characters are wild, and the ride along the way is wonderful.

It’s just so tragic that we can’t ride Dead Souls all the way to the end. We don’t even get halfway there. What we have is amazing, but the full thing would have to have been absolutely incredible. We can only imagine.