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.

Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York by Gail Parent

Although I haven’t previously read most of the books we talk about here on the blog, it isn’t like I am exactly unfamiliar with the vast majority of them. Most of them I’d intended to read for quite a while, having heard a great deal about them, but just haven’t gotten around to it (BEFORE I read and talk about them). I mean, I knew about books like Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, and so on. However, I had never even heard of Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York before checking out The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. This one was a completely new territory for me.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Frankly, I ran across the title and immediately knew I had to read it. The description only further cemented my decision. The subject? A young woman, Sheila Levine, has reached the age of thirty while living in New York and, despite her most desperate efforts, has been unable to get married. As such, she decides to kill herself. Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York is her suicide note.

Now, before you think I’m really dark here, this alone wouldn’t have sparked my interest. But, when you combine the above with the all-important line from the description I read that this is perhaps the funniest suicide note ever written, well…that changes everything. That’s what caught my attention.

But, let’s have Sheila herself speak on the topic:

Yes, I am going to kill myself. When they find my body in my small, overpriced one-room apartment, it will be slumped over this suicide note. My father will read it and nod his head. My mother will take it to bed with her and read a little each night with a glass of warm milk, slowly massaging wrinkle cream on her hands and face. My sister will skim through, and my friends…my friends? No, no real friends. Sorry.

My name is (was?) Sheila Levine. Sheila Levine? People named Sheila Levine don’t go around killing themselves. Suicide is so un-Jewish.

I lived, when I lived, at 211 East Twenty-fourth Street, formerly of East Sixty-fifth Street, formerly of West Thirteenth Street, formerly of Franklin Square, Long Island, formerly of Washington Heights. Which means there are only about a hundred thousand other Jewish girls like me. Exactly like me, all with hair that has to be straightened, noses that have to be straightened, and all looking for husbands. ALL LOOKING FOR HUSBANDS. Well, girls, all you Jewish lovelies out there, good news! The competition will be less. Sheila Levine has given up the fight. She is going to die.

In short, Sheila is sick of it. She was conditioned from an early age to aspire only to getting married and having children. She goes to college and wants to get a ‘creative job,’ but other than dreams from the movies (that involve marriage), she doesn’t even really know what that is. Anyway, all the jobs out there for young women involve typing and nothing creative. So, she does anything she can to land guys and get married. Instead, all she gets is guys she isn’t even interested in. Worse, even they aren’t interested in marrying her. She’s sick of it all and she is going to kill herself.

Looking back at that description, I expect that I would have been bored to tears by this book…but I wasn’t. Sheila herself kept me raptly interested from first page to last. Sure, she’s bitching the whole time, but she’s hilarious:

            “So, Sheila, how was your date?”

            “Boring, awful, disgusting.”

            “Did he ask you out again?”

            “Yes. I really can’t stand him. He’s so repulsive to me. There’s something wrong with him. He’s too Jewish.”

            “He sounds very nice. When are you going to see him again?”

            “A week from Saturday[.]”

Here is another fun one:

            “I don’t know, Mom. I’ll be home the first chance I get. [She must have thought I was Baby Jane Holzer.] Listen, Mom, could I borrow the car on Saturday?”

            “Where are you going?” (Mom, for God’s sake, I’m thirty years old. Can’t I once borrow the car without telling you where I’m going?)

            “I’m going up to Connecticut to Bingo Memorials to pick out my gravestone.” (I didn’t say that.)

            I did say: “I’m going up to Connecticut with this boy I met a few weeks ago. He said he loves Connecticut and I said I love Connecticut, so we’re going up there just for the day.” (I knew by now exactly the right thing to say.)

            “Very nice. Why don’t the two of you come out here first and pick up the car?” (She wanted a look-see at my fictitious beau.)

            “He would love to come, Mom, but he can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because he doesn’t really exist. I made him up.” (I didn’t say that either.)

Now, I do want to consider possible feminist themes in the book. After all, I would assume that they would be there in a book about a girl who is conditioned to want marriage and is going to kill herself when such is impossible. However, and you’ll have to read the book for this, marriage seems to be what Sheila really wants. Sure, she wishes at one point that a girl could be happy AND single, but Sheila never really wants anything but marriage. I just don’t think this book carries an extremely feminist message as whether or not Sheila was programmed on the ‘Mrs’ track, that’s all she really and most deeply desires.

All in all, for me, Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York is about Sheila. Sheila is bizarre, fun, and going to kill herself. Perhaps it makes me look a bit morbid, but all that fascinated me. I didn’t want Sheila to die, but I was thrilled to listen to her go on and on about it. I have a feeling other people will be as interested in Sheila as I was. There just aren’t a whole lot of books like Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York.