Etching by Marc Chagall for Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls

HIP/Art Resource/© 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Etching by Marc Chagall for Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, 1923–1927

Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), Russia’s greatest comic writer, thoroughly baffled his contemporaries. Strange, peculiar, wacky, weird, bizarre, and other words indicating enigmatic oddity recur in descriptions of him. “What an intelligent, queer, and sick creature!” remarked Turgenev; another major prose writer, Sergey Aksakov, referred to the “unintelligible strangeness of his spirit.” When Gogol died, the poet Pyotr Vyazemsky sighed, “Your life was an enigma, so is today your death.”

Gogol has remained, in the words of another contemporary, among the world’s most “undeciphered [nerazgadannykh] people.” “To say that Nikolai Gogol is one of the most controversial figures in Russian literature,” Victor Erlich began his classic study of the writer, “is to offer one of the few noncontroversial statements that can legitimately be made about this remarkable writer.” “I am considered a riddle by everyone,” Gogol observed, and he was no less enigmatic to himself. He hoped that his last work, the second part of his masterpiece Dead Souls would solve “the riddle of my existence,” but he recognized that it hadn’t, and so just before he died he burned most of it in a literary auto-da-fé.

Gogol was born, believe it or not, on April 1 (March 20 on the calendar then in use), 1809, in the little Ukrainian town of Sorochintsy. Appropriately enough, the name “Gogol” was a hoax. When his grandfather, Afanasy Yanovsky, married a wealthy Cossack girl possessing some three hundred serfs, Catherine the Great had just decreed that only nobles could own serfs, so Yanovsky sifted through Ukrainian history until he “discovered” his descent from a seventeenth-century warrior, Ostop Hohol (or Gogol in Russian). His grandson was born Nikolai Gogol-Yanovsky and later chose to keep only the fictitious part of his name.

Gogol’s father, a small landowner who wrote bad comedies and worked as a sort of court jester for a wealthy dignitary, died when Gogol was sixteen. Biographers love to dwell on Gogol’s overprotective mother, who not only falsely attributed countless literary works to him (including, to his dismay, very bad ones) but also remained convinced that he had invented the steamboat, the railroad, and every other major technological innovation of the day. The religion she imparted to him centered not on God but on the devil, and throughout Gogol’s masterpieces the devil hides in the most unlikely places.

At boarding school, where he was known as the “mysterious dwarf” and was, in his own words, “suspicious of everyone,” he began his first work, a derivative romantic poem, Hans Küchelgarten. Upon graduation, burning with desire to “serve the state,” he set out for St. Petersburg, where his connections proved worthless and he could find no better employment than as a low-level clerk. When he published Hans Küchelgarten at his own expense, it received only two reviews, both scathing. His reaction set the pattern for future disappointments: having destroyed every copy of his poem that he could find, he fled abroad to Germany.

To pay for his trip, he appropriated the money his mother had sent to pay the mortgage on their estate in Ukraine. Justifying himself, he composed a letter inventing a failed romance with an inaccessible “goddess lightly clothed in human passion,” an ethereal being “whose shattering splendor impresses itself upon the heart.” But why go abroad? In a second letter, in which he apparently forgot what he had said in the first, he explained that he sought treatment for a terrible rash. Putting two and two together, his mother concluded that he had contracted a venereal disease from a courtesan, a conclusion all the more odd because for his whole life Gogol was repulsed by sexuality.

When Gogol returned to St. Petersburg, he obtained a minor civil service position and, more importantly, made the acquaintance of Russia’s leading writers, including Pushkin, who (or so Gogol claimed) suggested to him the plots of Dead Souls and his play—considered by many Russia’s greatest—The Inspector General. Exploiting the fad for stories with local color, he published some well-crafted Ukrainian tales featuring witches, demons, and dashing Cossacks. His finest works—stories, plays, and his novel—soon followed. I know of no stories funnier than “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” “Nevsky Avenue,” “The Diary of a Madman,” and his two best, “The Nose” and “The Overcoat.” According to an (implausible) anecdote, when The Inspector General was staged with Nicholas I in attendance, the usually humorless tsar remarked appreciatively, “Everybody got his come-uppance, and I most of all.”

The play was successful, but Gogol, apparently shocked by some criticisms, again fled abroad, where, except for two visits to Russia, he stayed for twelve years. It was as if he were fleeing from existence, or at least Russian existence, as he had described it. Life, he feared, was nothing but unremitting poshlost, a word that, as Nabokov explained in his delightful book Nikolai Gogol, means something like extreme vulgarity, unrelieved shabbiness, and sheer grossness, all combined with the pretense of taste and culture. According to Gogol, Pushkin

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would always tell me that no other writer has had the ability to portray so vividly the poshlost’ of life, to sketch in so forcefully the poshlost’ of a “poshlyj” man so that trifles which could easily escape one loom so large that no one would miss them.

Dead Souls, which he completed abroad, depicts a world so replete with poshlost and a hero so filled with vacuity that, as its narrator famously remarks, laughter shades into tears.

After these amazing successes, something strange enough to form the plot of one of his stories happened. In 1842–1843 Gogol experienced a religious crisis, wrote letters combining self-exaltation with masochistic self-loathing, and concluded that he was called to be a great moral teacher. In this mood, he published the scandalous Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847), in which he preached that social conditions, including serfdom, are God-given, that the Russian Orthodox clergy “alone is in a position to solve all our problems,” and that no one can be saved without loving Russia. Convinced of the profundity of these banal ideas and of his stature as a Christian teacher, he urged people to refrain from erecting a statue to him after his death and to read over his instructive letters many times: “Woe to those who do not heed my word! Leave all things for a while, leave all such pleasures that tickle your fancy at idle moments. Obey me.” Conservatives and Slavophiles were as irritated as radicals and Westernizers. As readers have observed ever since, Gogol seemed to have turned into one of his grotesque characters.

Russia’s most influential critic, Vissarion Belinsky, was especially disappointed to discover that the author he had hailed as the hope of Russian literature, and who he had assumed was a radical, turned out to be a reactionary. His open “Letter to Gogol” called his erstwhile hero a “preacher of the knout, apostle of ignorance, defender of obscurantism.” When Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849, one of the charges against him was circulating Belinsky’s letter.

To redeem his frivolous comic works, Gogol tried to draft a second volume of Dead Souls, in which its hero, Chichikov, was to suffer and, coming under the influence of wholly positive characters, begin to reform. If volume one was an inferno, volume two would be a purgatorio, and perhaps there would even be a paradiso. Needless to say, Gogol couldn’t force his genius in this direction. Mikhail Bakhtin called this failed attempt to take satire where it could not go “the tragedy of a genre.”

Gogol’s religious mania kept getting worse. A trip to the Holy Land did not alleviate his moral hypochondria. Eventually, he fell under the influence of the fanatic Father Matvey, who urged him to abandon literature as sinful. For weeks Gogol did not eat—Nabokov recounts that you could feel his spine through his stomach—and he died with doctors torturing him with leeches hanging from his gigantic nose. This ending is all the more grotesque since Gogol was obsessed with noses, snorts, sneezes, mustaches, whiskers, smells of all kinds, and countless Russian idioms involving the olfactory (Nabokov devotes a page to listing them). His last words—“A ladder! A ladder!”—apparently expressed his lifelong wish to rise above what the narrator of Dead Souls calls “the slimy mass of minutiae that has bogged down our life.”

Since much of Gogol’s humor depends on linguistic play, he has proven resistant to adequate translation. Most renditions of Dead Souls aren’t funny, and what is the point of reading a comic novel that isn’t funny? The one exception is the brilliant version done more than seventy-five years ago by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, which has been available in Susanne Fusso’s judicious revision since 1996. At the beginning of the novel, the hero’s servant,

Petrushka the flunky…began settling himself in the tiny anteroom…whither he had already brought…a certain odor all his own, which had been also imparted to the bag he brought in next, containing sundry flunkyish effects.

“Sundry flunkyish effects” is what Gogol often sounds like, but George Reavey’s version makes it “the sack in which he kept his toilet accessories and which he brought in later,” which is not at all funny.

Now Fusso has done an excellent job with some of Gogol’s stories. In his funniest tale, “The Nose,” Major Kovalyov wakes up to discover that his nose is missing—there is nothing but a flat space where it used to be—and goes off in quest of it. He ascertains that the nose has somehow turned into a full-grown, high-ranking official, who evidently has enjoyed a long career, which means that the past, too, has been altered. A mere major, Kovalyov can’t decide how to address the distinguished nose whom he finds praying “with the greatest piety” in the Kazan Cathedral. When Kovalyov finally manages to say that the nose ought to know his place, his former appendage replies that what Kovalyov says makes no sense, which is the most sensible line in the story.

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Only at the tale’s conclusion does Gogol’s narrator reflect that these events are “indeed strange” (tochno stranno)—as if he isn’t too sure and wants to preclude doubt. Andrew MacAndrew’s translation dampens the joke by referring simply to the event’s “strangeness.” In Fusso’s version the narrator identifies something still stranger: “How did Kovalyov not realize that you cannot go to a newspaper office to place an advertisement about a nose?” Like any good humorist, Gogol ends the sentence with the funniest word—nose—but other translators—MacAndrew, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and Constance Garnett—all end it with the newspaper office. Fusso’s ear for humor makes all the difference.

Everywhere Gogol describes a world of incandescent inanity. Things may look fascinating, variegated, and endlessly interesting, as the narrators of his stories sometimes suggest at their beginnings, but by the end the world’s metaphysical boredom shines through. As the narrator of “Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich” leaves the town where the eponymous heroes have been quarreling for years about utter triviality, he reflects,

The damp pierced me through and through…. Again the same fields,…the drenched cows and crows, the monotonous rain, the tearful sky without one gleam of light in it: It’s boring in this world, gentlemen!

Gogol creates conversations so insipid as to achieve a kind of negative sublimity. The hero of one early story, “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Auntie,” is proud to utter such profundities as: “I had occasion to observe what distant lands there are in the world!” and “There are a great many flies in summer, Madam!” When Shponka reads, it is always the same book, much as

a government clerk will read a directory of addresses with immense satisfaction several times a day with no ulterior object; he is simply entertained by the printed list of names. “Ah, Ivan Gavrilovich So-and-so!” he mutters mutely to himself…and next time he reads it over again with exactly the same exclamations.

A character in Dead Souls reads anything thrust into his hands because understanding is beside the point: what he loves is “the very process of reading—look and behold ye, some word or other inevitably emerged from out of the welter of letters, even though, at times, the Devil alone knew what that word meant.”

Motion that takes one nowhere, energy expended on nothing, and activity divorced from its purpose create a semblance of biographies lived by a simulacrum of people. In Dead Souls, one character, Nozdryov, lies preposterously for the sake of lying, even against his own interests, and another, Plyushkin, takes stinginess so far that it actually impoverishes him. “And is it to such insignificance, such pettiness, such vileness that a man could sink?” asks the narrator. Many critics have remarked that Gogol’s people are homunculi or pre-individuals hovering “on the very edge of nonentity,” as the nineteenth-century critic Apollon Grigoriev described the hero of “The Overcoat.”

Do these characters have souls? When the public prosecutor in Dead Souls dies, only then do the townspeople discover that he had had a soul at all, “although out of modesty he had never flaunted it.” Even their animal appetites are confined to eating. Gogol’s version of an idyllic married couple, his Baucis and Philemon, in “Old World Landowners” do nothing but feed each other little treats, and his narrators describe endless dishes with such enthusiasm that, Solzhenitsyn reports, the hungry prisoners of Stalin’s Gulag banned the very name Gogol. Some characters are so plant-like that their behavior consists of tropisms: in “Nevsky Avenue,” “a young lady…turns her head toward the glittering shop windows as the sunflower turns to the sun.”

Without a soul to hold a person together, a body part—especially a nose—may entirely detach itself. The insane hero of “The Diary of a Madman” reasons that people cannot see their own noses because noses have all decamped to the moon. Sometimes a facial feature seems to have taken over a life. On Nevsky Avenue, “you meet marvelous mustaches…to which the better part of a life has been devoted.” There is even “a mustache that reduces one to stupefaction.”

Gogol’s best-known tale, “The Overcoat,” is a study in subtraction. How much can you take from a person while leaving him, if just barely, human? The hero, Akaky Akakievich—kakat in Russian baby-talk means “to shit”—has, literally and figuratively, almost no words of his own. He uses filler after meaningless filler—er, you know, well, like—and sometimes never gets any further. He is not only a copying clerk—a sort of human Xerox machine—he also finds in copying “a vision of his own multifarious and pleasant world…. Some of the letters were his favorites, and when he got to them he was beside himself.” At home, he makes copies for his own pleasure.

Though utterly neglectful of his clothes, Akaky Akakievich is at last forced by the Russian winter to replace his impossibly worn overcoat. To save enough for a new one, he eats less and walks “almost on tiptoe” to spare shoe leather. But he has his dream. Though hungry, “he was nourished spiritually, bearing in his thoughts the eternal idea of the future overcoat.” His life becomes fuller,

as if he had gotten married…as if…a pleasant female life companion had agreed to follow life’s path along with him—and that companion was none other than the thickly padded overcoat with a strong lining showing no trace of wear.

No sooner is the coat completed—“the most extremely solemn day in the life of Akaky Akakievich”—than it is stolen. For the first time he breaks protocol to appeal directly to a “significant personage” (who until recently “had been an insignificant personage”), but he is one of those Gogol characters who have no self outside their rank. He loves to nonplus subordinates by demanding, “How dare you! Do you know who you’re talking to?” When he rebukes Akaky Akakievich, the poor clerk goes home and dies.

But that is not the end of the story. Reports circulate that a corpse, which someone recognizes as Akaky Akakievich, has been haunting the streets, muttering unintelligibly, and demanding people’s overcoats. The police issue an order “to catch the corpse at all costs, dead or alive, and to punish him in the cruelest fashion, as an example to others.” In Gogol, even the supernatural is often banal, and no less terrifying for that.

Gogol’s world is populated by impersonators, counterfeits, and confidence men, voids made flesh. The title Dead Souls refers literally to a palpable nothing. A Russian landowner’s wealth and tax liability were determined by the number of “souls”—adult male serfs—that he owned. Between censuses, landowners were obliged to pay taxes on serfs who died—that is, on “dead souls.” Chichikov, the novel’s hero, arrives in a provincial town, charms the local officials with his extravagant flattery and chameleon-like ability to share their obsessions, and then visits landowners in the surrounding countryside. After making himself the perfect listener, he offers to buy a landowner’s dead souls—that is, to execute an official deed of purchase listing the souls as if they were living. The landowner would benefit in two ways: from whatever payment he received and from eliminating his tax liability. Only at the novel’s end do we learn that Chichikov plans to use this legally attested property as collateral for a mortgage.

Sometimes Chichikov has trouble making a landowner understand his proposition. Korobochka, the narrator explains, is one of those people who, no matter what arguments you use, cannot shift their way of thinking. She worries that she “might take a loss somehow.” To no avail does Chichikov ask, How can you take a loss on nothing, and how can you need something that exists only on paper? Another landowner, Sobakevich, drives a hard bargain: “You hold a human soul at the same value as a boiled turnip. Give me three rubles at least.” When Sobakevich claims to be “taking a loss,” Chichikov points out that what he is selling is nothing, a fiction, an insubstantial shadow, a puff of air, of no good to anyone. Perhaps so, Sobakevich replies, but then, of what good are the living? “They are so many flies, not people!”

Returning to town, Chichikov, like the devil, peruses with delight the list of souls he has acquired. When he is asked if he has sufficient land for so many serfs, he replies, “As much as will suffice for the peasants I bought.” Someone worries about an uprising among these uprooted people, but Chichikov explains that they “were extraordinarily docile in character.”

When it comes out that he has been buying dead souls, the townspeople labor to understand why anyone would want them. Perhaps, they reflect, the very phrase “dead souls” has a hidden meaning, which each person discovers to be his own worst transgression. For that matter, they ask, who is Chichikov? Perhaps he is a government inspector in disguise? The fact that he doesn’t act as if he is in disguise only proves how good a disguise it is. Farfetched theories generate still more farfetched theories. Could Chichikov be Napoleon, who has somehow escaped from Elba and sneaked into Russia to corner the market on dead souls? Maybe he is really…the antichrist? If readers object that all this is quite improbable, the narrator remarks, they should watch how scholars develop their favorite theories.

The human inclination to treat lack of evidence as evidence—an inescapable feature of conspiracy logic—shapes the plot of The Inspector General. As the play opens, the mayor of a remote town summons all the town’s officials, who are incompetent and corrupt even by Russian standards, in order to reveal startling secret information: the imminent visit of an incognito inspector general. Quickly, they must make things look presentable. Can’t you do something about that clerk of yours who always stinks of vodka? the mayor demands. No, the official replies, it’s his “natural smell”: “his nurse dropped him as a baby and he has smelled a little of vodka ever since.” The official in charge of hospitals insists they cure patients “like flies.”

Two local busybodies rush in to declare that the inspector in disguise is already at the inn. It can be no one else because he refuses to pay his bill and won’t leave. In fact, the visitor is a frivolous young man, Khlestakov, who has lost all his money at cards. As the mayor and officials flatter, regale, and bribe him, he at first can’t make out what is going on. Careless critics have described Khlestakov as a con man, but that is to miss the point: the town officials con themselves—as people do more often than they realize. When Khlestakov at last catches on, he can’t restrain himself. He romances the mayor’s daughter: “We’ll flee to some happy dale beneath the shade of brooks!” Inflating his importance, he claims to employ “35,000 messengers,” serve watermelons worth seven hundred rubles, and hobnob with Pushkin: “‘Well, old Push, how are things going?’—‘As usual, my dear fellow,’ he says…. Quite a character!” As Gogol explained, the inspired Khlestakov is so carried away that he forgets he is lying: “This is in general the best and most poetic moment of his life.”

When Khlestakov, at his servant’s urging, finally leaves town before the truth comes out, he can’t resist writing a friend a letter filled with unflattering portraits of his hosts. The postmaster, of course, opens the letter and reveals Khlestakov’s identity to the assembled officials. They have all been fools and wasted their bribes, but the worst of it, the mayor complains, is that when the story gets out some scribbler—“the damn liberals!”—will put them in a comedy. As the audience laughs, the mayor suddenly turns on them—on us—with the most quoted line in Russian comedy: “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!”

At just this point a gendarme enters to announce the arrival of the real inspector general, who is not at all in disguise. The play closes with everyone standing in shock, frozen in grotesque postures and attitudes, a “dumb scene” that lasts “almost a minute and a half.” It doesn’t take much effort to detect an allegory of the Last Judgment, or of our own conscience, or, in some way, of the horrible truth catching up with us.