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.
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.