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.

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The Giving Tree

Merry Christmas!

I know. I’m late again today. In my defense, it’s my resolution for the new year.

And it has been Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Today I am talking briefly about The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Adriana Trigliani listed it in her Top Ten.

The tale is one of a boy and his tree. As the boy gets older, he keeps demanding more and more from the tree. Who keeps giving and giving. The tale ends with the boy as an old man and the tree as a stump. It is apparently a metaphor for parenthood. I find it disturbing and creepy. And I am a parent. Maybe this is partly where helicopter parents came from. There were too many readings of this in their childhoods.

To me, a story that has the parent or tree always giving and giving until they’re DEAD because of the giving is just wrong.

It’s not a really long book which is why this is not a really long post.

It reminds me of another book that might have contributed to helicopter parenting and is creepy as hell too.

Love You Forever. It’s a story meant to make you “awwww!”. And it does. The first time you hear it. After that it just gets more and more disturbing in some ways. Much like being happy to give until you are DEAD is more and more disturbing each time.

Sadly, I am still reading Brothers Karamazov.

i hope everyone had an amazing Christmas! Tomorrow I get to see Dave in person. I’m excited 🙂 (I also get to see Shannon as well which is even more exciting :p sorry Dave!)

The Brothers Karamazov Part 2

So. Once again I am late. My New Year’s Resolution has become to make sure to get blogs posted on THURSDAY. For those of you that suffer any sort of confusion or angst because of my tardiness on my weeks, I apologize.

I said last week I would finish off The Brothers Karamazov this week. And while this is the last week that an entire blog post will be dedicated to it, unfortunately I will be unable to finish it off. Part of my lateness was because I was determined to attempt to complete it.

But, this is one complex novel! Not like Les Miserables (which sometimes made me miserable, English pronunciation) or Anna Karenina (which I have not blogged at this time as I read it approximately 2 years prior to beginning the blog and have not yet found it appealing to reread). I enjoyed Anna, but in some parts I had to just grasp the edges of the book and plow through, like one does tedious parts of a job.

Karamazov isn’t like that. It’s actually a compelling story. It’s a story that keeps you wondering “But, what next?”. However, there is a lot of depth to it. There’s philosophy, and more theology, and more political talk and basic personality talk. And unlike sections on Russian agriculture (Anna Karenina) and argot (Les Miserables), I can’t skim any of it. I tried. I really did try. Then I got lost and had to go back and re-read the prior ten pages.

But. I can tell you which authors listed Brothers in their Top Ten. Russell Banks, David Anthony Durham, Jonathan Franzen, Barry Hannah, Ha Jin, Norman Mailer, Erin McGraw, and David Means.

The story line has expanded to include more characters. There’s more backstories to more characters (and usually that bogs down a story but this is done phenomenally well).

However, I have two notes of criticism.

  1. While it doesn’t detract from the story, and while for the most part I like it, I do wish the topic of religion could be dropped. Even if just for 50 pages. The same with the “basic character of man” which sometimes is part of the religious talk and sometimes separate from the religious talk.
  2. Every so often, for a bit it seems as if a character is falling into an archetype or a stereotype or is wavering in depth. Usually though, after a few pages the character does something that pulls it out of that hole.

My next blog entry will have a follow up about the end of The Brothers Karamazov and at least one quotation (it’s really hard to pick the ones I wanted to use!! I have at least 20 marked in the book and I’m not even done. So I am going to try at the end to find the one or two that best sum up what I feel about the book). Then I will be discussing a new book. Which I will keep as a surprise! It’s suspenseful!

Have a great week! Hope you get all your Christmas tasks done and also that you have the spiritual Christmas that you should have (and while for me, that involves Christ’s birth, I know others that it means something else to.)

The Brothers Karamazov–part 1

So, this week I am blogging about The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky.

For those of you that are unaware, Dostoevsky is one of the Russian greats. He also wrote Crime and Punishment. Which is a much shorter novel than The Brothers Karamazov. Which is a perfect lead in to my next paragraph.

I haven’t finished the book. I will be having a part 2 next week. In my defense, it is over 800 pages. It is much easier to read than Anna Karenina though.

So, I will give my impressions so far from the first third of the novel.

There is A LOT of theological discussion. Is God real? Not real? Is there a Heaven? Not a Heaven? Is the Church an object of reverence? Or an object of ridicule?

There is also talk of a revolution in it. Which, considering its Russia, might seem normal. Until you realize this was written in the 1800s and the Communist Revolution didn’t happen until the 1900s. So it was interesting to me that it was enough in the consciousness that it was showing up in literature. It appears the country was ripe for Lenin and Marx.

There is also a weird geometric love story happening between two brothers, a father, and two women. The third brother  is a part of the church, while the middle is an atheist. The oldest is sort of a passionate idiot.

I am really enjoying this book. I look forward to talking about it next week with y’all. I’ll also tell you who listed it in their top ten next week. And have possible quotes from it. This isn’t meant as a lure or cliffhanger, or a thing of suspense. It’s more of a “typing this on my phone and my thumb hurts”.

Have a great week! Good luck on any holiday stuff you have going on!

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Not really. Actually Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith)

Me (Dave) again. Kim is taking the next two weeks.

Today I’m going to talk about Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Well, okay, not really. I’m actually going to talk about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

Why not? Pride and Prejudice may be my favorite Jane Austen novel so far (having read that one, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey thus far), but what would I really have to say about it that hasn’t been said already? Pride and Prejudice was on our list, but we’d already done two Austen novels. Though I think it is a moving story of how imperfect humans (in other words, all) fall in love fully of sparkling wit, manners comedy, and a wonderful depiction of English society at that time, that’s all been said.

So why not let that all stand and look at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies instead?

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was 3rd for Kate Atkinson, 5th for Michael Chabon, 6th for Robb Forman Dew, 4th for Alice Hoffmann, 5th for Norman Mailer, 1st for Claire Messud, 6th for Iain Pears, 9th for Ian Rankin, and 8th for Adriana Trigiani.)

After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies pretty much takes the original text and morphs it as it goes along, adding in zombies and such. It isn’t exactly a complete retelling, since so much of the framework is there. It’s more of a recasting, where it’s the background that has been recast as the English countryside overrun with zombies.

To give an example, let us compare the original Austen 3:16 (little wrestling joke there) from Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

with that from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains, must be in want of more brains.

Little differences.

I enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies more than I expected. Grahame-Smith manages to keep enough of Austen’s work alive in this while still creating an interesting new imagining. The framework is pretty much intact, but still creatively done with the addition of zombies.

The zombies can get a bit gimmicky, but then there is the Austen framework to fall back on. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the heart or wit of Austen’s original, but I don’t think that would have been possible and this certainly wasn’t intended to be that kind of book.

The references to China and kung fu are a bit repetitive and overdone, and Grahame-Smith tries to stick in some sexual humor that seems horribly out of place for the characters. Still, overall I enjoyed myself. I think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘s interest is somewhat limited to those who know Austen, as there’s no joke otherwise, but who doesn’t to at least some degree?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies manages to hold a conversation with Austen, and most decent literature is a really conversation with the world in one way or another…particularly with the rest of the world of literature. Grahame-Smith manages in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to do something both interesting and fun.