Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian Literature (1981)
Dead Souls (1842)
Socially minded Russian critics saw in Dead Souls and in The Government Inspector a condemnation of the social poshlust emanating from serf-owning bureaucratic provincial Russia and thus missed the true point. Gogol's heroes merely happen to be Russian squires and officials; their imagined surroundings and social conditions are perfectly unimportant factors just as Monsieur Homais might be a business man in Chicago or Mrs. Bloom the wife of a schoolmaster in Vyshni-Volochok.
Moreover, their surroundings and conditions, whatever they might have been in "real life," underwent such a thorough permutation and reconstruction in the laboratory of Gogol's peculiar genius that (as has been observed already in connection with The Government Inspector) it is as useless to look in Dead Souls for an authentic Russian background as it would be to try and form a conception of Denmark on the basis of that little affair in cloudy Elsinore. And if you want "facts," then let us inquire what experience had Gogol of provincial Russia. Eight hours in a Podolsk inn, a week in Kursk, the rest he had seen from the window of his traveling carriage, and to this he had added the memories of his essentially Ukrainian youth spent in Mirgorod, Nezhin, Poltava all of which towns lay far outside Chichikov's itinerary. What seems true however is that Dead Souls provides an attentive reader with a collection of bloated Dead Souls belonging to poshlyaki (males) and poshlyachki (females) described with that Gogolian gusto and wealth of weird detail which lift the whole thing to the level of a tremendous epic poem; and "poem" is in fact the subtle subtitle appended by Gogol to Dead Souls.
There is something sleek and plump about poshlust, and this gloss, these smooth curves, attracted the artist in Gogol. The immense sphenca\poshlyak (singular of the word) Pavel Chichikov eating the fig at the bottom of the milk which he drinks to mellow his throat, or dancing in his nightgown in the middle of the room while things on shelves rock in response to his Lacedaemonian jig (ending in his ecstatically hitting his chubby behind his real face with the pink heel of his bare foot, thus propelling himself into the true paradise of Dead Souls) these are visions which transcend the lesser varieties of poshlust discernible in humdrum provincial surroundings or in the petty iniquities of petty officials. But a poshlyak even of Chichikov's colossal dimensions inevitably has somewhere in him a hole, a chink through which you see the worm, the little shriveled fool that lies all huddled up in the depth of the poshlust-painted vacuum. There was something faintly silly from the very start about that idea of buying up Dead Souls, souls of serfs who had died since the last census and for whom their owners continued to pay the poll-tax, thus endowing them with a kind of abstract existence which however was quite concretely felt by the squire's pocket and could be just as "concretely" exploited by Chichikov, the buyer of such phantasma. This faint but rather sickening silliness was for a certain time concealed by the maze of complex machinations.
Morally, Chichikov was hardly guilty of any special crime in attempting to buy up dead men in a country where live men were lawfully purchased and pawned. If I paint my face with homemade Prussian Blue instead of applying the Prussian Blue which is sold by the state and cannot be manufactured by private persons, my crime will be hardly worth a passing smile and no writer will make of it a Prussian Tragedy. But if I have surrounded the whole business with a good deal of mystery and flaunted a cleverness that presupposed most intricate difficulties in perpetrating a crime of that kind, and if owing to my letting a garrulous neighbor peep at my pots of home-brewn paint, I get arrested and am roughly handled by men with authentic blue faces, then the laugh for what it is worth is on me. In spite of Chichikov's fundamental irreality in a fundamentally unreal world, the fool in him is apparent because from the very start he commits blunder upon blunder. It was silly to try to buy Dead Souls from an old woman who was afraid of ghosts; it was an incredible lapse of acumen to suggest such a Queer Street deal to the braggard and bully Nozdryov. I repeat however for the benefit of those who like books to provide them with "real people" and "real crime" and a "message" (that horror of horrors borrowed from the jargon of quack reformers) that Dead Souls will get them nowhere. Chichikov's guilt being a purely conventional matter, his destiny can hardly provoke any emotional reaction on our part. This is an additional reason why the view taken by Russian readers and critics, who saw in Dead Souls a matter-of-fact description of existing conditions, seems so utterly and ludicrously wrong. But when the legendary poshlyak Chichikov is considered as he ought to be, i.e., as a creature of Gogol's special brand moving in a special kind of Gogolian coil, the abstract notion of swindling in this serf-pawning business takes on strange flesh and begins to mean much more than it did when we considered it in the light of social conditions peculiar to Russia a hundred years ago. The Dead Souls he is buying are not merely names on a slip of paper. They are the Dead Souls that fill the air of Gogol's world with their leathery flutter, the clumsy animula of Manilov or of Korobochka, of the housewives of the town of N., of countless other little people bobbing throughout the book. Chichikov himself is merely the ill-paid representative of the Devil, a traveling salesman from Hades, "our Mr. Chichikov" as the Satan & Co. firm may be imagined calling their easy-going, healthy-looking but inwardly shivering and rotting agent. The poshlust which Chichikov personifies is one of the main attributes of the Devil, in whose existence, let it be added, Gogol believed far more seriously than he did in that of Cod. The chink in Chichikov's armor, that rusty chink emitting a faint but dreadful smell (a punctured can of conserved lobster tampered with and forgotten by some meddling fool in the pantry) is the organic aperture in the devil's armor. It is the essential stupidity of universal poshlust. Chichikov is doomed from the start and he rolls to that doom with a slight wobble in his gait which only the posblyaki and poshlyachki of the town of N. are capable of finding genteel and pleasant. At important moments when he launches upon one of those sententious speeches (with a slight break in his juicy voice the tremolo of "dear brethren"), that are meant to drown his real intentions in a treacle of pathos, he applies to himself the words "despicable worm" and, curiously enough, a real worm is gnawing at his vitals and becomes suddenly visible if we squint a little when peering at his rotundity. I am reminded of a certain poster in old Europe that advertised automobile tires and featured something like a human being entirely made of concentric rings of rubber; and likewise, rotund Chichikov may be said to be formed of the tight folds of a huge flesh-colored worm.
If the special gruesome character attending the main theme of the book has been conveyed and if the different aspects of poshlust which I have noted at random have become connected in such a way as to form an artistic phenomenon (its Gogolian leitmotiv being the "roundness" of poshlust), then Dead Souls will cease to mimic a humorous tale or a social indictment and henceforth may be adequately discussed. So let us look at the pattern a little more closely.
The gates of the hostelry in the governmental town of N. [so the book begins] admitted a smallish fairly elegant britzka on springs, of the sort used by bachelors such as retired colonels, staff-captains, country squires who own about a hundred souls of peasants in short by all those who are dubbed 'gentlemen of medium quality.' Sitting in the britzka was a gentleman whose countenance could not be termed handsome, yet neither was he ill-favored: he was not too stout, nor was he too thin; you could not call him old, just as you could not say that he was still youthful. His arrival produced no stir whatever in the town and was not accompanied by anything unusual; alone two Russian muzhiks who were standing at the door of a dram-shop opposite the inn made certain remarks which however referred more to the carriage than to the person seated therein, 'look at that wheel there,' said one. 'Now what do you think would that wheel hold out as far as Moscow if need be, or would it not?' 'It would,' answered the other. 'And what about Kazan I think it would not last that far?' 'It would not,' answered the other. Upon this the conversation came to a close. And moreover, as the carriage drove up to the inn, a young man chanced to pass wearing white twill trousers that were very tight and short and a swallow-tail coat with claims to fashion from under which a shirtfront was visible fastened with a Tula bronze pin in the shape of a pistol. The young man turned his head, looked back at the carriage, caught hold of his cap, which the wind was about to blow off, and then went his way. (3)
The conversation of the two "Russian muzhiks" (a typical Gogolian pleonasm) is purely speculative a point which the abominable Fisher Unwin and Thomas Y. Crowell translations of course miss. It is a kind of to-be-or-not -to-be meditation in a primitive form. The speakers do not know whether the britzka is going to Moscow or not, just as Hamlet did not trouble to look whether, perhaps, he had not mislaid his bodkin. The muzhiks are not interested in the question of the precise itinerary that the britzka will follow; what fascinates them is solely the ideal problem of fixing the imaginary instability of a wheel in terms of imaginary distances; and this problem is raised to the level of sublime abstraction by their not knowing the exact distance from N. (an imaginary point) to Moscow, Kazan or Timbuctoo and caring less. They impersonate the remarkable creative faculty of Russians, so beautifully disclosed by Gogol's own inspiration, of working in a void. Fancy is fertile only when it is futile. The speculation of the two muzhiks is based on nothing tangible and leads to no material results; but philosophy and poetry are born that way; meddlesome critics looking for a moral might conjecture that the rotundity of Chichikov is bound to come to grief, being symbolized by the rotundity of that doubtful wheel. Andrey Bely, who was a meddler of genius, saw in fact the whole first volume of Dead Souls as a closed circle whirling on its axle and blurring the spokes, with the theme of the wheel cropping up at each new revolution on round Chichikov's part. Another special touch is exemplified by the chance passer-by that young man portrayed with a sudden and wholly irrelevant wealth of detail: he comes there as if he was going to stay in the book (as so many of Gogol's homunculi seem intent to do and do not). With any other writer of his day the next paragraph would have been bound to begin: "Ivan, for that was the young man's name" ... But no: a gust of wind interrupts his stare and he passes, never to be mentioned again. The faceless saloon-walker in the next passage (whose movements are so quick as he welcomes the newcomers that you cannot discern his features) is again seen a minute later coming down from Chichikov's room and spelling out the name on a slip of paper as he walks down the steps. "Pa-vel l-va-no-vich Chi-chi-kov"; and these syllables have a taxonomic value for the identification of that particular staircase.
In such works by Gogol as The Government Inspector I find pleasure in rounding up those peripheral characters that enliven the texture of its background. Such characters in Dead Souls as the inn-servant or Chichikov's valet (who had a special smell of his own which he imparted at once to his variable lodgings) do not quite belong to that class of Little People. With Chichikov himself and the country squires he meets, they share the front stage of the book although they speak little and have no visible influence upon the course of Chichikov's adventures. Technically speaking, the creation of peripheral personages in the play was mainly dependent upon this or that character alluding to people who never emerged from the wings. In a novel the lack of action or speech on the part of secondary characters would not have been sufficient to endow them with that kind of backstage existence, there being no footlights to stress their actual absence from the front place.
Gogol however had another trick up his sleeve. The peripheral characters of his novel are engendered by the subordinate clauses of its various metaphors, comparisons and lyrical outbursts. We are faced by the remarkable phenomenon of mere forms of speech directly giving rise to live creatures. This is perhaps the most typical example of how this happens.
Even the weather had obligingly accommodated itself to the setting: the day was neither bright nor gloomy but of a kind of bluey-grey tint such as is found only upon the worn-out uniforms of garrison soldiers, for the rest a peaceful class of warriors except for their being somewhat inebriate on Sundays.
It is not easy to render the curves of this life-generating syntax in plain English so as to bridge the logical, or rather biological, hiatus between a dim landscape under a dull sky and a groggy old soldier accosting the reader with a rich hiccup on the festive outskirts of the very same sentence. Gogol's trick consists in using as a link the word "vprochem" ("for the rest," "otherwise," "d'ailleurs") which is a connection only in the grammatical sense but mimics a logical link, the word "soldiers" alone affording a faint pretext for the juxtaposition of "peaceful"; and as soon as this false bridge of "vprocbem" has accomplished its magical work these mild warriors cross over, staggering and singing themselves into that peripheral existence with which we are already familiar.
When Chichikov comes to a party at the Governor's house, the chance mention of black-coated gentlemen crowding around the powdered ladies in a brilliant light leads to a fairly innocent looking comparison with buzzing flies and the very next instant another life breaks through:
The black tailcoats flickered and fluttered, separately and in clusters, this way and that, just as flies flutter over dazzling white chunks of sugar on a hot July day when the old housekeeper [here we are] hacks and divides it into sparkling lumps in front of the open window: all the children [second generation now!] look on as they gather about her, watching with curiosity the movements of her rough hands while the airy squadrons of flies that the light air [one of those repetitions so innate in Gogol's style that years of work over every passage could not eradicate them] has raised, fly boldly in, complete mistresses of the premises [or literally: 'full mistresses,' polnya khozyaiki, which Isabel F. Hapgood in the Crowell edition mistranslates as 'fat housewives'] and, taking advantage of the old woman's purblindness and of the sun troubling her eyes, spread all over the dainty morsels, here separately, there in dense clusters.
It will be noticed that whereas the dull weather plus drunken trooper image comes to an end somewhere in the dusty suburban distance (where Ukhovyortov, the Ear-Twister, reigns) here, in the simile of the flies, which is a parody of the Homeric rambling comparison, a complete circle is described, and after his complicated and dangerous somersault, with no net spread under him, as other acrobatic authors have, Gogol manages to twist back to the initial "separately and in clusters." Several years ago during a Rugby game in England I saw the wonderful Obolensky kick the ball away on the run and then changing his mind, plunge forward and catch it back with his hands... something of this kind of feat is performed by Nikolay Vasyilievich. Needless to say that all these things (in fact whole paragraphs and pages) were left out by Mr. T. Fisher Unwin who to the "considerable joy" of Mr. Stephen Graham (see preface, edition of 1915, London) consented to re-publish Dead Souls. Incidentally, Graham thought that "Dead Souls is Russia herself" and that Gogol "became a rich man and could winter at Rome and Baden-Baden."
The lusty barking of dogs which met Chichikovas he drove up to Madame Korobochka's house proves equally fertile:
Meanwhile the dogs were lustily barking in all possible tones : one of them, with his head thrown back, indulged in such conscientious ululations as if he were receiving some prodigious pay for his labors; another hammered it out cursorily like your village sexton; in between rang out, similar to the bell of a mailcoach, the persistent treble of what was probably a young whelp; and all this was capped by a basso voice belonging presumably to some old fellow endowed with a tough canine disposition, for his voice was as hoarse as that of a basso profundo in a church choir, when the concerto is in full swing with the tenors straining on tiptoe in their eagerness to produce a high note and all the rest, too, throwing their heads back and striving upwards while he alone with his bristly chin thrust into his neckerchief, turns his knees out, sinks down almost to the ground and issues thence that note of his which makes the window-panes quake and rattle.
Thus the bark of a dog breeds a church chorister. In yet another passage (where Pavel arrives at Sobakevich's house) a musician is born in a more complicated way remindful of the "dull sky drunken trooper" simile.
As he drove up to the porch he noticed two faces which almost simultaneously appeared at the window : one belonged to a woman in a ribboned cap and it was as narrow and long as a cucumber; the other was a man's face and round and broad it was, like those Moldavian pumpkins, called gorlyanki from which in our good country balalaikas are made, two-stringed light balalaikas, the adornment and delight of a nimble young rustic just out of his teens, the cock of his walk and a great one at whistling through his teeth and winking his eye at the white-bosomed and white-necked country-lasses who cluster around in order to listen to the delicate twanging of his strings. (This young yokel was transformed by Isabel Hapgood in her translation into "the susceptible youth of twenty who walks blinking along in his dandified way.")
The complicated maneuver executed by the sentence in order to have a village musician emerge from burly Sobakevich's head consists of three stages: the comparison of that head to a special kind of pumpkin, the transformation of that pumpkin into a special kind of balalaika, and finally the placing of that balalaika in the hands of a young villager who forthwith starts softly playing as he sits on a log with crossed legs (in brand new high boots) surrounded by sunset midges and country girls. Especially remarkable is the fact that this lyrical digression is prompted by the appearance of what may seem to the casual reader to be the most matter-of-fact and stolid character of the book.
Sometimes the comparison-generated character is in such a hurry to join in the life of the book that the metaphor ends in delightful bathos:
A drowning man, it is said, will catch at the smallest chip of wood because at the moment he has not the presence of mind to reflect that hardly even a fly could hope to ride astride that chip, whereas he weighs almost a hundred and fifty pounds if not a good two hundred.
Who is that unfortunate bather, steadily and uncannily growing, adding weight, fattening himself on the marrow of a metaphor? We never shall know but he almost managed to gain a footing.
The simplest method such peripheral characters employ to assert their existence is to take advantage of the author's way of stressing this or that circumstance or condition by illustrating it with some striking detail. The picture starts living a life of its own rather like that leering organ-grinder with whom the artist in H. G. Wells' story The Portrait struggled, by means of jabs and splashes of green paint when the portrait he was making became alive and disorderly. Observe for instance the ending of chapter 7, where the intention is to convey the impressions of night falling upon a peaceful provincial town. Chichikov after successfully clinching his ghostly deal with the landowners has been entertained by the worthies of the town and goes to bed very drunk; his coachman and his valet quietly depart on a private spree of their own, then stumble back to the inn, most courteously propping up each other, and soon go to sleep too.
... emitting snores of incredible density of sound, echoed from the neighboring room by their master's thin nasal wheeze. Soon after this everything quieted down and deep slumber enveloped the hostelry; one light alone remained burning and that was in the small window of a certain lieutenant who had arrived from Ryazan and who was apparently a keen amateur of boots inasmuch as he had already acquired four pairs and was persistently trying on a fifth one. Every now and again he would go up to his bed as though he intended to take them off and lie down; but he simply could not; in truth those boots were well made; and for a long while still he kept revolving his foot and inspecting the dashing cut of an admirably finished heel.
Thus the chapter ends and that lieutenant is still trying on his immortal jackboot, and the leather glistens, and the candle burns straight and bright in the only lighted window of a dead town in the depth of a star-dusted night. I know of no more lyrical description of nocturnal quiet than this Rhapsody of the Boots.
The same kind of spontaneous generation occurs in chapter 9, when the author wishes to convey with special strength the bracing turmoil which the rumors surrounding the acquisition of Dead Souls provoked throughout the province. Country squires who for years had been lying curled up in their holes like so many door mice all of a sudden blinked and crawled out:
There appeared a certain Sysoy Pafnutievich, and a certain Macdonald Carlovich [a singular name to say the least but necessary here to underline utter remoteness from life and the consequent irreality of that person, a dream in a dream, so to speak], about whom nobody had heard before; and a long lean impossibly tall fellow [literally: 'a certain long long one, of such tall stature as had never been even seen'] with a bullet wound in his hand ...
In the same chapter, after explaining at length that he will name no names because "whatever name be invented there is quite sure to crop up in some corner of our empire which is big enough for all purposes some person who bears it, and who is sure to be mortally offended and to declare that the author sneaked in with the express intention of nosing out every detail," Gogol cannot stop the two voluble ladies whom he sets chattering about the Chichikov mystery from divulging their names as if his characters actually escaped his control and blurted out what he wished to conceal.
Incidentally, one of those passages which fairly burst with little people tumbling out and scattering all over the page (or straddling Gogol's pen like a witch riding a broomstick) reminds one in a curious anachronistic fashion of a certain intonation and trick of style used by Joyce in Ulysses (but then Sterne too used the abrupt question and circumstantial answer method).
Our hero however was utterly unconscious of this [i.e., that he was boring with his sententious patter a certain young lady in a ballroom] as he went on telling her all kinds of pleasant things which he had happened to utter on similar occasions in various places. [Where?] In the Government of Simbirsk, at the house of Sofron Ivanovich Bespechnoy, where the latter's daughter, Adelaida Sofronovna, was also present with her three sisters-in-law, Maria Gavrilovna, Alexandra Gavrilovna and Adelheida Gavrilovna; at the house of Frol Vasilievich Pobedonosnoy, in the Government of Penza; and at that of the latter's brother, where the following were present: his wife's sister Katerina Mikhailovna and her cousins, Roza Feodorovna and Emilia Feodorovna; in the Government of Viatka, at the house of Pyotr Varsonofievich, where his daughter-in-law's sister Pelageya Egorovna was present, together with a niece, Sophia Rostislavna and two step-sisters: Sophia Alexandrovna and Maklatura Alexandrovna.
Through some of these names runs that curious foreign strain (quasi-German in this case) which Gogol generally employs to convey a sense of remoteness and optical distortion due to the haze; queer hybrid names fit for deformed or not yet quite formed people; and while squire Bespechnoy and squire Pobedonosnoy are, so to speak, only slightly drunken names (meaning as they do "Unconcerned" and "Victorious") the last one of the list is an apotheosis of nightmare nonsense faintly echoed by the Russian Scotsman whom we have already admired. It is inconceivable what type of mind one must have to see in Gogol a forerunner of the "naturalistic school" and a "realistic painter of life in Russia."
Not only people, but things too indulge in these nomenclatorial orgies. Notice the pet names that the officials of the town of N. give to their playing cards. Chervi means "hearts"; but it also sounds very much like "worms," and with the linguistic inclination of Russians to pull out a word to its utmost length for the sake of emotional emphasis, it becomes chervotochina, which means worm-eaten core. Piki "spades" French piques turn into pikentia, that is, assume a jocular dog-Latin ending; or they produce such variations as pikendras (false Greek ending) or pichura (a faint ornithological shade), sometimes magnified into pichurishchuk (the bird turning as it were into an antediluvian lizard, thus reversing the order of natural evolution). The utter vulgarity and automatism of these grotesque nicknames, most of which Gogol invented himself, attracted him as a remarkable means to disclose the mentality of those who used them.
The difference between human vision and the image perceived by the faceted eye of an insect may be compared with the difference between a half-tone block made with the very finest screen and the corresponding picture as represented by the very coarse screening used in common newspaper pictorial reproduction. The same comparison holds good between the way Gogol saw things and the way average readers and average writers see things. Before his and Pushkin's advent, Russian literature was purblind. What form it perceived was an outline directed by reason: it did not see color for itself but merely used the hackneyed combinations of blind noun and dog-like adjective that Europe had inherited from the ancients. The sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, the eyes of beauty black, the clouds grey, and so on. It was Gogol (and after him Lermontov and Tolstoy) who first saw yellow and violet at all. That the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day, would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called "classical" writer, accustomed as he was to the rigid conventional color-schemes of the Eighteenth Century French school of literature. Thus the development of the art of description throughout the centuries may be profitably treated in terms of vision, the faceted eye becoming a unified and prodigiously complex organ and the dead dim "accepted colors" (in the sense of "idees reηues") yielding gradually their subtle shades and allowing new wonders of application. I doubt whether any writer, and certainly not in Russia, had ever noticed before, to give the most striking instance, the moving pattern of light and shade on the ground under trees or the tricks of color played by sunlight with leaves. The following description of Plyushkin's garden in Dead Souls shocked Russian readers in much the same way as Manet did the bewhiskered philistines of his day.
An extensive old garden which stretched behind the house and beyond the estate to lose itself in the fields, alone seemed, rank and rugged as it was, to lend a certain freshness to these extensive grounds and alone was completely picturesque in its vivid wildness. The united tops of trees that had grown wide in liberty spread above the skyline in masses of green clouds and irregular domes of tremulous leafage. The colossal white trunk of a birch tree deprived of its top, which had been broken off by some gale or thunderbolt, rose out of these dense green masses and disclosed its rotund smoothness in midair, like a well proportioned column of sparkling marble; the oblique, sharply pointed fracture in which, instead of a capital, it terminated above, showed black against its snowy whiteness like some kind of headpiece or a dark bird. Strands of hop, after strangling the bushes of elder, mountain ash and hazel below, had meandered all over the ridge of the fence whence they ran up at last to twist around that truncate birch tree halfway up its length. Having reached its middle, they hung down from there and were already beginning to catch at the tops of other trees, or had suspended in the air their intertwined loops and thin clinging hooks which were gently oscillated by the air. Here and there the green thicket broke asunder in a blaze of sunshine and showed a deep unlighted recess in between, similar to dark gaping jaws; this vista was all shrouded in shadow and all one could discern in its black depth was: the course of a narrow footpath, a crumbling balustrade, a toppling summer-house, the hollow trunk of a decrepit willow, a thick growth of hoary sedge bristling out from behind it, an intercrossment and tangle of twigs and leaves that had lost their sap in this impenetrable wildwood, and lastly, a young branch of maple which had projected sideways the green paws of its leaves, under one of which a gleam of sunlight had somehow managed to creep in after all, unexpectedly making of that leaf a translucid and resplendent marvel burning in the dense darkness.
On the very edge of the garden several great aspens stood apart, lording it over the rest, with the huge nests of crows propped up by their tremulous summits. On some of these trees dislocated boughs that were not quite detached from the trunks hung down together with their shriveled foliage. In a word all was beautiful as neither nature nor art can contrive, beautiful as it only is when these two come together, with nature giving the final touch of her chisel to the work of man (that more often than not he has piled up anyhow), alleviating its bulky agglomeration and suppressing both its crudely obvious regularity and the miserable gaps through which its stark background clearly showed and casting a wonderful warmth over all that had been evolved in the bleakness of measured neatness and propriety.
I do not wish to contend that my translation is especially good or that its clumsiness corresponds to Gogol's disheveled grammar, but at least it is exact in regard to sense. It is entertaining to glance at the mess which my predecessors have made of this wonderful passage. Isabel Hapgood (1885) for instance, who at least attempted to translate it in toto, heaps blunder upon blunder, turning the Russian "birch" into the non-endemic "beech," the "aspen" into an "ashtree," the "elder" into "lilac," the "dark bird" into a "blackbird," the "gaping" (ziyavsbaya) into "shining" (which would have been siyavshaya), etc. etc.
The various attributes of the characters help to expand them in a kind of spherical way to the remotest regions of the book. Chichikov's aura is continued and symbolized by his snuffbox and his traveling case; by that "silver and enamel
Snuffbox which he offered generously to everybody and on the bottom of which people could notice a couple of violets delicately placed there for the sake of their additional perfume (just as he would rub on Sunday mornings his sub-human, obscene body, as white and as plump as that of some fat wood boring larva, with eau de cologne the last sickly sweet whiff of the smuggling business of his hidden past); for Chichikov is a fake and a phantom clothed in a pseudo-Pickwickian rotundity of flesh, and trying to smother the miserable reek of inferno (something far worse than the "natural smell" of his moody valet) permeating him, by means of maudlin perfumes pleasing to the grotesque noses of the inhabitants of that nightmare town. And the traveling chest:
The author feels sure that among his readers there are some curious enough to be desirous of knowing the plan and inner arrangement of that chest. Being anxious to please he sees no reason to deny them their satisfaction. Here it is, this inner arrangement.
And without having warned the reader that what follows is not a box at all but a circle in hell and the exact counterpart of Chichikov's horribly rotund soul (and that what he, the author, is about to undertake is the disclosure of Chichikov's innards under a bright lamp in a vivisector's laboratory), he continues thus:
In the center was a soap-container [Chichikov being a soap bubble blown by the devil]; beyond the soap-container were six or seven narrow little interspaces for razors [Chichikov's chubby cheeks were always silky-smooth: a fake cherub], then two square niches for sand-box and inkstand, with little troughs for pens, sealing wax and all things that were longish in shape [the scribe's instruments for collecting Dead Souls]; then all sorts of compartments with and without lids, for shortish things; these were full of visiting cards, funeral notices, theatre tickets and such like slips which were stored up as souvenirs [Chichikov's social flutters]. All this upper tray with its various compartments could be taken out, and beneath it was a space occupied by piles of paper in sheets [paper being the devil's main medium of intercourse]; then followed a small secret drawer for money. This could be slipped out inconspicuously from the side of the chest [Chichikov's heart]. It would always be drawn out and pushed back so quickly by its owner [systole and diastole] that it is impossible to say exactly how much money it contained [even the author does not know].
Andrey Bely, following up one of those strange subconscious clues which are discoverable only in the works of authentic genius, noted that this box was the wife of Chichikov (who otherwise was as impotent as all Gogol's subhuman heroes) in the same way as the cloak was Akaky's mistress in The Overcoat or the belfry Shponka's mother-in-law in Ivan Shponka and his Aunt. It may be further observed that the name of the only female landowner in the book, "Squiress" Korobochka means "little box" in fact, Chichikov's "little box" (reminding one of Harpagon's ejaculation: "Ma cassette!" in Moliere's L'Avare); and Korobochka's arrival in the town at the crucial moment is described in buxological terms, subtly in keeping with those used for the above quoted anatomic preparation of Chichikov's soul. Incidentally the reader ought to be warned that for the true appreciation of these passages he must quite forget any kind of Freudian nonsense that may have been falsely suggested to him by these chance references to connubial relations. Andrey Bely has a grand time making fun of solemn psychoanalysts.
We shall first note that in the beginning of the following remarkable passage (perhaps the greatest one in the whole book) a reference to the night breeds a peripheral character in the same way as it did the Amateur of Boots.
But in the meantime, while he [Chichikov] sat in his uncomfortable armchair, a prey to troublesome thoughts and insomnia, vigorously cursing Nozdryov [who had been the first to disturb the inhabitants' peace of mind by bragging about Chichikov's strange commerce] and all Nozdryov's relatives [the 'family tree' which grows out spontaneously from our national kind of oath], in the faint glow of a tallow candle which threatened to go out at any moment under the black cap that had formed long ago all over its wick, and while the dark night blindly stared into his windows ready to shade into blue as dawn approached, and distant cocks whistled to one another in the distance [note the repetition of 'distant' and the monstrous 'whistled': Chichikov, emitting a thin nasal whistling snore, is dozing off, and the world becomes blurred and strange, the snore mingling with the doubly-distant crowing of cocks, while the sentence itself writhes as it gives birth to a quasi-human being], and somewhere in the sleeping town there stumbled on perchance a freize overcoat some poor devil wearing that overcoat [here we are], of unknown standing or rank, and who knew only one thing [in the text the verb stands in the feminine gender in accordance with the feminine gender of 'freize overcoat' which, as it were, has usurped the place of man] that trail [to the pub] which, alas, the devil-may-care Russian nation has burnt so thoroughly, in the meantime [the "meantime" of the beginning of this sentence] at the other end of town. ...
Let us pause here for a moment to admire the lone passer-by with his blue unshaven chin and red nose, so different in his sorry condition (corresponding to Chichikov's troubled mind) from the passionate dreamer who had delighted in a boot when Chichikov's sleep was so lusty. Gogol continues as follows:
. . .at the other end of the town there was happening something that was to make our hero's plight even worse. To wit: through remote streets and by-alleys of the town rumbled a most queer vehicle which it is doubtful anybody could have named more exactly. It looked neither like a tarantas [simplest kind of traveling carriage], nor like a calash, nor like a britzka, being in sooth more like a fat-cheeked very round watermelon set upon wheels [now comes a certain subtle correspondence to the description of round Chichikov's box]. The cheeks of this melon, that is, the carriage doors, that bore remnants of their former yellow varnish, closed very poorly owing to the bad state of the handles and locks which had been perfunctorily fixed up by means of string. The melon was filled with chintz cushions, small ones, long ones, and ordinary ones, and stuffed with bags containing loaves of bread and such eatables as kalacbi [purse-shaped rolls], kokoorki [buns with egg or cheese stuffing], storodoom [skoro-dumplings] and krendels [a sort of magnified kalach in the form of a capital B, richly flavored and decorated]. A chicken-pie and a rassolnik [a sophisticated giblet-pie] were visible even on the top of the carriage. The rear board was occupied by an individual that might have been originally a footman, dressed in a short coat of speckled homespun stuff, with a slightly hoary stubble on his chin, the kind of individual known by the appellation of 'boy' (though he might be over fifty). The rattle and screech of the iron clamps and rusty screws awakened a police sentry at the other end of the town [another character is born here in the best Gogolian manner], who, raising his halberd, shocked himself out of his slumber with a mighty roar of 'Who goes there?', but upon becoming aware that nobody was passing and that only a faint rumble was coming from afar [the dream melon had passed into the dream town], he captured a beast of sorts right upon his collar and walking up to a lantern slew it on his thumbnail [i.e., by squashing it with the nail of the curved index of the same hand, the adopted system of Russians for dealing with hefty national fleas], after which he put his halberd aside and went to sleep again according to the rules of his particular knighthood [here Gogol catches up with the coach which he had let go by while busy with the sentry]. The horses every now and then fell on their fore knees not only because they were not shod but also because they were little used to comfortable town pavements. The rickety coach after turning this way and that down several streets, turned at last into a dark lane leading past the little parish church called Nikola-na-Nedotychkakh and stopped at the gate of the protopopsha's [priest's wife or widow] house. A kerchiefed and warmly clothed servant girl climbed out of the britzka [typical of Gogol: now that the nondescript vehicle has arrived at its destination, in a comparatively tangible world, it has become one of the definite species of carriages which he had been careful to say it was not] and using both her fists banged upon the gate with a vigor a man might have envied; the 'boy' in the speckled coat was dragged down somewhat later for he was sleeping the sleep of the dead. There was a barking of dogs, and at last the gates, gaping wide, swallowed, although not without difficulty, that clumsy traveling contrivance. The coach rolled into a narrow yard which was crammed with logs of wood, chicken coops and all sorts of cages; out of the carriage a lady emerged; this lady was a collegiate secretary's widow and a landowner herself: Madame Korobochka.
Madame Korobochka is as much like Cinderella as Pavel Chichikov is like Pickwick. The melon she emerges from can hardly be said to be related to the fairy pumpkin. It becomes a britzka just before her emergence, probably for the same reason that the crowing of the cock became a whistling snore. One may assume that her arrival is seen through Chichikov's dream (as he dozes off in his uncomfortable armchair). She does come, in reality, but the appearance of her coach is slightly distorted by his dream (all his dreams being governed by the memory of the secret drawers of his box) and if this vehicle turns out to be a britzka it is merely because Chichikov had arrived in one too. Apart from these transformations the coach is round, because plump Chichikov is himself a sphere and all his dreams revolve round a constant center; and at the same time her coach is also his roundish traveling case. The plan and inner arrangement of the coach is revealed with the same devilish graduation as those of the box had been. The elongated cushions are the "long things" of the box; the fancy pastries correspond to the frivolous mementoes Pavel preserved; the papers for jotting down the dead serfs acquired are weirdly symbolized by the drowsy serf in the speckled jacket; and the secret compartment, Chichikov's heart, yields Korobochka herself.
I have already alluded, in discussing comparison-born characters, to the lyrical gust which follows immediately upon the appearance of stolid Sobakevich's huge face, from which face, as from some great ugly cocoon, emerges a bright delicate moth. The fact is that, curiously enough, Sobakevich, in spite of his solemnity and bulk, is the most poetical character in the book, and this may require a certain amount of explanation. First of all here are the emblems and attributes of his being (he is visualized in terms of furniture).
As he took a seat, Chichikov glanced around at the walls and at the pictures that hung upon them. All the figures in these pictures were those of brawny fellows full length lithographic portraits of Greek generals: Mavrocordato resplendent in his red-trousered uniform, with spectacles on his nose, Miaoulis, Kanaris. All these heroes had such stout thighs and such prodigious mustachios that it fairly gave one the creeps. In the midst of these robust Greeks a place had been given, for no earthly reason or purpose, to the portrait of a thin wispy little Bagration [famous Russian general] who stood there above his little banners and cannons in a miserably narrow frame. Thereupon a Greek personage followed again, namely the heroine Bobelina, whose mere leg seemed bigger than the whole body of any of the fops that swarm in our modern drawing rooms. The owner being himself a hardy and hefty man apparently wished his room to be adorned with hardy and hefty people too.
But was this the only reason? Is there not something singular in this leaning toward romantic Greece on Sobakevich's part? Was there not a "thin wispy little" poet concealed in that burly breast? For nothing in those days provoked a greater emotion in poetically inclined Russians than Byron's quest.
Chichikov glanced again around the room: everything in it was both solid and unwieldy to the utmost degree and bore a kind of resemblance to the owner of the house himself. In one corner a writing desk of walnut wood bulged out on its four most ridiculous legs a regular bear. Table, chair, armchair everything was of the most heavy and uncomfortable sort; in a word, every article, every chair seemed to be saying: 'and I also am Sobakevich!' or 'and I also am very much like Sobakevich!'
The food he eats is fare fit for some uncouth giant. If there is pork he must have the whole pig served at table, if it is mutton then the whole sheep must be brought in; if it is goose, then the whole bird must be there. His dealings with food are marked by a kind of primeval poetry and if there can be said to exist a gastronomical rhythm, his prandial meter is the Homeric one. The half of the saddle of mutton that he dispatches in a few crunching and susurrous instants, the dishes that he engulfs next pastries whose size exceeds that of one's plate and a turkey as big as a calf, stuffed with eggs, rice, liver and other rich ingredients all these are the emblems, the outer crust and natural ornaments of the man and proclaim his existence with that kind of hoarse eloquence that Flaubert used to put into his pet epithet "Henorme."
Sobakevich works in the food line with great slabs and mighty hacks, and the fancy jams served by his wife after supper are ignored by him as Rodin would not condescend to notice the rococo baubles in a fashionable boudoir.
No soul whatever seemed to be present in that body, or if he did have a soul it was not where it ought to be, but, as in the case of Kashchey the Deathless [a ghoulish character in Russian folklore] it dwelled somewhere beyond the mountains and was hidden under such a thick crust, that anything that might have stirred in its depths could produce no tremor whatever on the surface.
The "Dead Souls" are revived twice: first through the medium of Sobakevich (who endows them with his own bulky attributes), then by Chichikov (with the author's lyrical assistance). Here is the first method Sobakevich is boosting his wares:
'You just consider: what about the carriage-maker Mikheyev, for instance? Consider, every single carriage he used to make was complete with springs! And mind you, not the Moscow kind of work that gets undone in an hour, but solid, I tell you, and then he would upholster it, and varnish it too!' Chichikov opened his mouth to observe that however good Mikheyev might have been he had long ceased to exist; but Sobakevich was warming up to his subject, as they say; hence this rush and command of words.
'Or take Stepan Probka, the carpenter. I can wager my head that you will not find his like anywhere. Goodness, what strength that man had! Had he served in the Guards he would have got every blessed thing he wanted: the fellow was over seven feet high!'
Again Chichikov was about to remark that Probka too was no more; but Sobakevich seemed to have burst his dam: such torrents of speech followed that all one could do was to listen.
'Or Milyushkin, the bricklayer, he that could build a stove in almost any house! Or Maxim Telyatnikov, the shoemaker: with his awl he would prick a thing just once and there was a pair of boots for you; and what boots they made you feel mighty grateful; and with all that, never swallowing a drop of liquor. Or Yeremey Sorokoplekhin ah, that man could have stood his own against all the others: went to trade in Moscow and the tax alone he paid me was five hundred roubles every time.'"
Chichikov tries to remonstrate with this strange booster of non-existent wares, and the latter cools down somewhat, agreeing that the "souls" are dead, but then flares up again.
'Sure enough they are dead But on the other hand, what good are the live peasants of today? What sort of men are they? Mere flies not men!'
'Yes, but anyway they can be said to exist, while those others are only figments.'
'Figments indeed! If only you had seen Mikheyev Ah, well, you are not likely to set eyes on anybody of that sort again.
A great hulky mass that could hardly have squeezed into this room. In those great big shoulders of his there was more strength than in a horse. I should very much like to know where you could find another such figment!'
Speaking thus Sobakevich turns to the portrait of Bagration as if asking the latter's advice; and sometime later when, after a good deal of haggling the two are about to come to terms and there is a solemn pause, "eagle-nosed Bagration from his vantage point on the wall watched very attentively the clinching of the deal." This is the nearest we get to Sobakevich's soul while he is about, but a wonderful echo of the lyrical strain in his boorish nature may be discerned further on when Chichikov peruses the list of Dead Souls that the burly squire had sold him.
And presently, when he glanced at these lists of names belonging to peasants who had really be peasants once, had labored and caroused, had been ploughmen and carriers, had cheated their owners, or perhaps had simply been good muzhiks, he was seized with a queer feeling which he could not explain to himself. Every list seemed to have a special character of its own, and consequently the peasants themselves seemed to acquire a special character. Almost all those that had belonged to Korobochka possessed various appendages and nicknames. Brevity distinguished Plyushkin's list, where many of the peasants were merely defined by the initial syllables of their Christian names and patronymics followed by a couple of dots. Sobakevich's list struck one by its extraordinary completeness and wealth of detail
'Dear me,' said Chichikov to himself with a sudden gust of emotion peculiar to sentimental scoundrels, 'how many of you have been crowded in here! What sort of lives did you lead, my friends?' [He imagines these lives, and one by one the dead muzhiks leap into existence shoving chubby Chichikov aside and asserting themselves.] 'Ah, here he is, Stepan Probka, the giant who would have graced the Guards. I guess you have tramped across many provinces with your axe hanging from your belt and your boots slung over your shoulder [a Russian peasant's way of economizing on footgear], living upon a pennyworth of bread and some dry fish forthe double of that, and bringing in every time, I guess, [to your master] at the bottom of your money bag, a hundred silver roubles or so, or perhaps a couple of banknotes sewed up in your canvas trousers or thrust deep into your boot. What manner of death was yours? Had you climbed right up to the domed roof of a church in trying to make more money [in wages for repairs] or had you perhaps hoisted yourself up to the very cross on that church, and did you slip from a beam thereon to dash your brains out on the ground whereat [some elderly comrade of yours] standing nearby only scratched the back of his head and said with a sigh: 'Well, my lad, you sure did have a fall' and then tied a rope round his waist and climbed up to take your place '
'. . . And what about you, Grigori Doyezhai-ne-doye-desh [Drive-to-where-you-won't-get]? Did you ply a carrier's trade and having acquired a troika [three horses] and a bast-covered kibitka, did you forsake forever your home, your native den, in order to trundle merchants to the fair? Did you surrender your soul to God on the road? Were you dispatched by your own comrades in a quarrel for the favors of some plump and ruddy beauty whose soldier husband was away? Or did those leathern gauntlets you wore and your three short-legged but sturdy steeds tempt a robber on some forest road? Or perhaps, after a good bit of desultory thinking as you lay in your bunk, you suddenly made for the pothouse, just like that, and then plunged straight into a hole in the ice of the river, never to be seen again?'
The very name of one "Neoovazhai-Koryto" (a weird combination of "disrespect" and "pigtrough") suggests by its uncouth straggling length the kind of death that had befallen this man : "A clumsy van drove over you as you were lying asleep in the middle of the road." The mention of a certain Popov, domestic serf in Plyushkin's list, engenders a whole dialogue after it has been assumed that the man had probably received some education and so had been guilty (note this superlogical move) not of vulgar murder, but of genteel theft.
'Very soon however some Rural Police Officer comes and arrests you for having no passport. You remain unconcerned during the confrontation. 'Who is your owner?' asks the Rural Police Officer, seasoning his question with a bit of strong language as befits the occasion. 'Squire So-and-so,' you reply briskly. 'Then what are you doing here [miles away],' asks the Rural Police Officer. T have been released on obrok [meaning that he had been permitted to work on his own or for some other party under the condition that he paid a percentage of his earnings to the squire who owned him], you reply without a moment's hesitation. 'Where is your passport?' 'My present boss, the merchant Pimenov, has it.' let Pimenov be called!. You are Pimenov?' I am Pimenov.' 'Did he give you his passport?' 'No, he did nothing of the sort,' 'Why have you been lying?' asks the Rural Police Officer with the addition of a bit of strong language. 'That's right,' you answer briskly, I did not give it him because I came home late so I left it with Antip Prokhorov, the bellringer.' 'Let the bellringer be called!' 'Did he give you his passport?' 'No, I did not receive any passport from him.' 'Lying again,' says the Rural Police Officer, spicing his speech with a bit of strong language. "Come now, where is that passport of yours?' T had it,' you answer promptly, 'but with one thing and another it is very likely I dropped it on the way.' 'And what about that army coat?' says the Rural Police Officer, again treating you to a bit of strong language. 'Why did you steal it? And why did you steal a trunk full of coppers from the priest?'
It goes on like that for some time and then Popov is followed to the various prisons of which our great land has always been so prolific. But although these "Dead Souls" are brought back to life only to be led to misfortune and death, their resurrection is of course far more satisfactory and complete than the false "moral resurrection" which Gogol intended to stage in the projected second or third volumes for the benefit of pious and law-abiding citizens. His art through a whim of his own revived the dead in these passages. Ethical and religious considerations could only destroy the soft, warm, fat creatures of his fancy.
The emblems of rosy-lipped, blond, sentimental, vapid and slatternly Manilov (there is a suggestion of "mannerism" in his name and of tuman which means mist, besides the word manil, a verb expressing the idea of dreamy attraction) are: that greasy green scum on the pond among the maudlin charms of an "English garden" with its trimmed shrubs and blue pillared pavilion ("Temple of Solitary Meditation"); the pseudo-classical names which he gives to his children; that book permanently lying in his study, and opened permanently at the fourteenth page (not fifteenth, which might have implied some kind of decimal method in reading and not thirteenth which would have been the devil's dozen of pages, but fourteenth, an insipid pinkish-blond numeral with as little personality as Manilov himself); those careless gaps in the furniture of his house, where the armchairs had been upholstered with silk of which, however, there had not been enough for all, so that two of them were simply covered with coarse matting; those two candlesticks, one of which was very elegantly wrought of dark bronze with a trio of Grecian Graces and a mother-of-pearl shade, while the other was simply "a brass invalid," lame, crooked and besmeared with tallow; but perhaps the most appropriate emblem is the neat row of hillocks formed by the ashes that Ma nilov used to shake out of his pipe and arrange in symmetrical piles on the window-sill the only artistic pleasure he knew.
Happy is the writer who omits these dull and repulsive characters that disturb one by being so painfully real; who comes close to such that disclose the lofty virtue of man; who from the great turmoil of images that whirl daily around him selects but a few exceptions; who has been always faithful to the sublime harmony of his lyre, has never come down from those heights to visit his poor insignificant kinsmen and remained aloof, out of touch with the earth, wholly immersed in remote magnificent fancies. Ay, doubly enviable is his admirable lot: those visions are a home and a family to him: and at the same time the thunder of his fame rolls far and wide. The delicious mist of the incense he burns dims human eyes; the miracle of his flattery masks all the sorrows of life and depicts only the goodness of man. Applauding crowds come streaming in his wake to rush behind his triumphal chariot. He is called a great universal poet, soaring high above all other geniuses of the world even as an eagle soars above other high flying creatures. The mere sound of his name sends a thrill through ardent young hearts; all eyes greet him with the radiance of responsive tears. He has no equal in might; he is God.
But a different lot and another fate await the writer who has dared to evoke all such things that are constantly before one's eyes but which idle eyes do not see the shocking morass of trifles that has tied up our lives, and the essence of cold, crumbling, humdrum characters with whom our earthly way, now bitter, now dull, fairly swarms; has dared to make them prominently and brightly visible to the eyes of all men by means of the vigorous strength of his pitiless chisel. Not for him will be the applause, no grateful tears will he see, no souls will he excite with unanimous admiration; not to him will a girl of sixteen come flying, her head all awhirl with heroic fervor. Not for him will be that sweet enchantment when a poet hears nothing but the harmonies he has engendered himself; and finally, he will not escape the judgment of his time, the judgment of hypocritical and unfeeling contemporaries who will accuse the creatures his mind has bred of being base and worthless, will allot a contemptible nook for him in the gallery of those authors who insult mankind, will ascribe to him the morals of his own characters and will deny him everything, heart, soul and the divine flame of talent. For the judgment of his time does not admit that the lenses through which suns may be surveyed are as marvellous as those that disclose the movement of otherwise imperceptible insects; for the judgment of his time does not admit that a man requires a good deal of spiritual depth in order to be able to throw light upon an image supplied by base life and to turn it into an exquisite masterpiece; nor does the judgment of his time admit that lofty ecstatic laughter is quite worthy of taking its place beside the loftiest lyrical gust and that it has nothing in common with the faces a mountebank makes. The judgment of his time does not admit this and will twist everything into reproof and abuse directed against the unrecognized writer; deprived of assistance, response and sympathy, he will remain, like some homeless traveler alone on the road. Grim will be his career and bitterly will he realize his utter loneliness
And for a long time yet, led by some wondrous power, I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through unknown invisible tears. And still faraway is that time when with a gushing force of a different origin the formidable blizzard of inspiration will rise from my austere and blazing brow and, in a sacred tremor, humans will harken to the sublime thunder of a different speech."
Immediately after this extravagant eloquence, which is like a blaze of light revealing a glimpse of what at the time Gogol expected to be able to do in the second volume of his work, there follows the diabolically grotesque scene of fat Chichikov, half naked, dancing a jig in his bedroom which is not quite the right kind of example to prove that "ecstatic laughter" and "lyrical gusts" are good companions in Gogol's book. In fact Gogol deceived himself if he thought he could laugh that way.
Nor are the lyrical outbursts really parts of the solid pattern of the book; they are rather those natural interspaces without which the pattern would not be what it is. Gogol indulges in the pleasure of being blown off his feet by the gale that comes from some other clime of his world, (the Alpine-ltalianate part), just as in The Government Inspector the modulated cry of the invisible reinsman ("Heigh, my winged ones!") brought in a whiff of summer night air, a sense of remoteness and romance, an invitation au voyage.
The main lyrical note of Dead Souls bursts into existence when the idea of Russia as Gogol saw Russia (a peculiar landscape, a special atmosphere, a symbol, a long, long road) looms in all its strange loveliness through the tremendous dream of the book. It is important to note that the following passage is sandwiched between Chichikov's final departure, or rather escape, from the town (which had been set upside down by the rumors of his deal) and the description of his early years.
Meanwhile the britzka had turned into emptier streets; soon, only fences [a Russian fence is a blind grey affair more or less evenly serrated on top and resembling in this the distant line of a Russian firwood] stretched their wooden lengths and foretold the end of the town [in space, not in time]. See, the pavement comes to an end and here is the town barrier ["Schlagbaum": a movable pole painted with white and black stripes] and the town is left behind, and there is nothing around, and we are again travelers on the road. And again on both sides of the highway there comes an endless succession of mileposts, post station officials, wells, burdened carts, drab hamlets with samovars, peasant women and some bearded innkeeper who briskly pops out with a helping of oats in his hand; a tramp in worn shoes made of bast trudging a distance of eight hundred versts [note this constant fooling with figures not five hundred and not a hundred but eight hundred, for numbers themselves tend toward an individuality of sorts in Gogol's creative atmosphere]; miserable little towns built anyhow with shabby shops knocked together by means of a few boards, selling barrels of flour, bast shoes [for the tramp who has just passed], fancy breads and other trifles; striped barriers, bridges under repair [i.e., eternally under repair one of the features of Gogol's straggling, drowsy, ramshackle Russia]; a limitless expanse of grassland on both sides of the road, the traveling coaches of country squires, a soldier on horseback dragging a green case with its load of leaden peas and the legend: 'Battery such-and-such'; green, yellow and black bands [Gogol finds just the necessary space allowed by Russian syntax to insert "freshly upturned" before "black," meaning stripes of newly plowed earth] variegating the plains; a voice singing afar; crests of pines in the mist; the tolling of church bells dying away in the distance; crows like flies and the limitless horizon Rus! Rus! [ancient and poetic name for Russia] I see you, from my lovely enchanted remoteness I see you: a country of dinginess and bleakness and dispersal; no arrogant wonders of nature crowned by the arrogant wonders of art appear within you to delight or terrify the eyes: no cities with many-windowed tall palaces that have grown out of cliffs, no showy trees, no ivy that has grown out of walls amid the roar and eternal spray of waterfalls; one does not have to throw back one's head in order to contemplate some heavenly agglomeration of great rocks towering above the land [this is Gogol's private Russia, not the Russia of the Urals, the Altai, the Caucasus]. There are none of those dark archways with that tangle of vine, ivy and incalculable millions of roses, successive vistas through which one can suddenly glimpse afar the immortal outline of radiant mountains that leap into limpid silvery skies; all within you is open wilderness and level ground; your stunted towns that stick up among the plains are no more discernible than dots and signs [i.e., on a map]: nothing in you can charm and seduce the eye. So what is the incomprehensible secret force driving me towards you? Why do I constantly hear the echo of your mournful song as it is carried from sea to sea throughout your entire expanse? Tell me the secret of your song. What is this, calling and sobbing and plucking at my heart? What are these sounds that are both a stab and a kiss, why do they come rushing into my soul and fluttering about my heart? Rus! Tell me what do you want of me! What is the strange bond secretly uniting us? Why do you look at me thus, and why has everything you contain turned upon me eyes full of expectancy? And while I stand thus, sorely perplexed and quite still, lo, a threatening cloud heavy with future rains comes over my head and my mind is mute before the greatness of your expanse. What does this unlimited space portend? And since you are without end yourself, is it not within you that a boundless thought will be born? And if a giant comes will it not happen there where there is room enough for the mightiest limbs and the mightiest stride? Your gigantic expanse grimly surrounds me and with a dreadful vividness is reflected in my depths; a supernatural power makes my eyes bright Oh, what a shining, splendid remoteness unknown to the world! Rus! . . .
' 'Stop, stop, you fool,' Chichikov was shouting at Selifan [which stresses the fact of this lyrical outburst's not being Chichikov's own meditation]. 'Wait till I give you a slap with my scabbard,' shouted a State Courier with yard long moustaches, ... 'Damn your soul, don't you see that this is a governmental carriage?' And like a phantom the troika vanished with a thunder of wheels and a whirl of dust.
The remoteness of the poet from his country is transformed into the remoteness of Russia's future which Gogol somehow identifies with the future of his work, with the second part of Dead Souls, the book that everybody in Russia was expecting from him and that he was trying to make himself believe he would write. For me Dead Souls ends with Chichikov's departure from the town of N. I hardly know what to admire most when considering the following remarkable spurt of eloquence which brings the first part to its close: the magic of its poetry or magic of quite a different kind; for Gogol was faced by the double task of somehow having Chichikov escape just retribution by flight and of diverting the reader's attention from the still more uncomfortable fact that no retribution in terms of human law could overtake Satan's home- bound, hell-bound agent.
... Selifan added in a special singsong treble key something that sounded like 'Come, boys.' The horses perked up and had the light britzka speeding as if it were made of fluff. Selifan contented himself with waving his whip and emitting low guttural cries as he gently bounced up and down on his box while the troika either flew up a hillock or skimmed downhill again all along the undulating and slightly sloping highway. Chichikov did nothing but smile every time he was slightly thrown up on his leathern cushions, for he was a great lover of fast driving. And pray, find me the Russian who does not care for fast driving? Inclined as he is to let himself go, to whirl his life away and send it to the devil, his soul cannot but love speed. For is there not a kind of lofty and magic melody in fast driving? You seem to feel some unknown power lifting you up and placing you upon its wing, and then you are flying yourself and everything is flying by: the mile posts fly, merchants fly by on the boxes of their carriages, forests fly by on both sides of the road in a dark succession of firs and pines together with the sound of hacking axes and the cries of crows; the entire highway is flying none knows whither away into the dissolving distance; and there is something frightening in this rapid shimmer amid which passing and vanishing things do not have time to have their outlines fixed and only the sky above with fleecy clouds and a prying moon appears motionless. Oh troika, winged troika, tell me who invented you? Surely, nowhere but among a nimble nation could you have been born: in a country which has taken itself in earnest and has evenly spread far and wide over one half of the globe, so that once you start counting the milestones you may count on till a speckled haze dances before your eyes. And, methinks, there is nothing very tricky about a Russian carriage. No iron screws hold it together; its parts have been fitted and knocked into shape anyhow by means of an axe and a gauge and the acumen of a Yaroslav peasant; its driver does not wear any of your foreign jackboots; he consists of a beard and a pair of mittens, and he sits on a nondescript seat; but as soon as he strains up and throws back his whip-hand, and plunges into a wailing song, ah then the steeds speed like the summer wind, the blurred wheel spokes form a circular void, the road gives a shiver, a passer-by stops short with an exclamation of fright and lo, the troika has wings, wings, wings And now all you can see afar is a whirl of dust boring a hole in the air.
"Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all falls back and is left behind! The witness of your course stops as if struck by some divine miracle: is this not lightning that has dropped from the sky? And what does this awesome motion mean? What is the passing strange force contained in these passing strange steeds? Steeds, steeds what steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes? Is every sinew in you aglow with a new sense of hearing? For as soon as the song you know reaches you from above, you three, bronze-breasted, strain as one, and then your hoofs hardly touch the ground, and you are drawn out like three taut lines that rip the air, and all is transfigured by the divine inspiration of speed! ... Rus, whither are you speeding so? Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes Wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.
Beautiful as all this final crescendo sounds, it is from the stylistic point of view merely a conjuror's patter enabling an object to disappear, the particular object being Chichikov.
Leaving Russia again in May 1842 Gogol resumed his weird wanderings abroad. Rolling wheels had spun for him the yarn of the first part of Dead Souls; the circles he had described himself on his first series of journeys through a blurred Europe had resulted in round Chichikov becoming a revolving top, a dim rainbow; physical gyration had assisted the author in hypnotizing himself and his heroes into that kaleidoscopic nightmare which for years to come simple souls were to accept as a "panorama of Russia" (or "Homelife in Russia"). It was time now to go into training for the second part.
One wonders whether at the back of his mind which was so fantastically humped, Gogol did not assume that rolling wheels, long roads unwinding themselves like sympathetic serpents and the vaguely intoxicating quality of smooth steady motion which had proved so satisfactory in the writing of the first part would automatically produce a second book which would form a clear luminous ring round the whirling colors of the first one. That it must be a halo, of this he was convinced; otherwise the first part might be deemed the magic of the Devil. In accordance with his system of laying the foundation for a book after he had published it he managed to convince himself that the (as yet unwritten) second part had actually given birth to the first and that the first would fatally remain merely an illustration bereft of its legend if the parent volume was not presented to a slow-witted public. In reality, he was to be hopelessly hampered by the autocratic form of the first part. When he attempted to compose the second, he was bound to act in much the same way as that murderer in one of Chesterton's stories who was forced to make all the note paper in his victim's house conform to the insolite shape of a fake suicide message.
Morbid wariness may have added certain other considerations. Passionately eager as he was to learn in detail what people thought of his work any kind of person or critic, from the knave in the Government's pay to the fool fawning on public opinion he had a hard time trying to explain to his correspondents that what merely interested him in critical reviews was a more extensive and objective view that they were giving him of his own self. It greatly bothered him to learn that earnest people were seeing in Dead Souls, with satisfaction or disgust, a spirited condemnation of slavery, just as they had seen an attack on corruption in The Government Inspector . For in the civic reader's mind Dead Souls was gently turning into Uncle Tom's Cabin. One doubts whether this bothered him less than the attitude of those critics blackcoated worthies of the old school, pious spinsters and Greek Orthodox puritans who deplored the "sensuousness" of his images. He was also acutely aware of the power his artistic genius had over man and of the loathsome to him responsibility that went with such power. Something in him wanted a still greater sway (without the responsibility) like the fisherman's wife in Pushkin's tale who wanted a still bigger castle. Gogol became a preacher because he needed a pulpit to explain the ethics of his books and because a direct contact with readers seemed to him to be the natural development of his own magnetic force.
Religion gave him the necessary intonation and method. It is doubtful whether it gave him anything else. A unique rolling stone, gathering or thinking he would gather a unique kind of moss, he spent many summers wandering from spa to spa. His complaint was difficult to cure because it was both vague and variable: attacks of melancholy when his mind would be benumbed with unspeakable forebodings and nothing except an abrupt change of surroundings could bring relief; or else a recurrent state of physical distress marked by shiverings when no abundance of clothing could warm his limbs and when the only thing that helped, if persistently repeated, was a brisk walk the longer the better. The paradox was that while needing constant movement to prompt inspiration, this movement physically prevented him from writing. Still, the winters spent in Italy, in comparative comfort, were even less productive than those fitful stage coach periods. Dresden, Bad Gastein, Salzburg, Munich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Florence, Mantua, Verona, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Karlsbad, Prague, Greifenberg, Berlin, Bad Gastein, Prague, Salzburg, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Nice, Paris, Frankfurt, Dresden, and all over again, this series with its repetitions of names of grand tour towns is not really the itinerary of a man seeking health or collecting hotel labels to show in Moscow, Idaho, or Moscow, Russia but merely the dotted line of a vicious circle with no geographical meaning. Gogol's spas were not really spatial. Central Europe for him was but an optical phenomenon and the only thing that really mattered, the only real obsession, the only real tragedy was that his creative power kept steadily and hopelessly ebbing away. When Tolstoy surrendered the writing of novels to the ethical, mystical and educational urge, his genius was ripe and ruddy, and the fragments of his imaginative work posthumously published show that his art was still developing after Anna Karenina's death. But Gogol was a man of few books and the plans he had made to write the book of his life happened to coincide with the beginning of his decline as a writer after he had reached the summits of The Government Inspector , The Overcoat, and the first volume of Dead Souls.
The period of preaching begins with certain last touches that he put to Dead Souls those strange hints at a prodigious apotheosis in the future. A peculiar biblical accent swells the contours of his sentences in the numerous letters he writes to his friends from abroad. "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: during one year, one year only, attend to the affairs of your country estate." Sending landowners back to face the problems of country life (with all the contemporary implications of the business unsatisfactory crops, disreputable overseers, unmanageable slaves, idleness, theft, poverty, lack of economic and "spiritual" organization) becomes his main theme and command a command couched in the tones of a prophet ordering men to discard all earthly riches. But, despite the tone, Gogol was ordering landowners to do exactly the opposite (although it did sound like some great sacrifice that he was demanding from his bleak hilltop, in the name of God): leave the great town where you are frittering away your precarious income and return to the lands that God gave you for the express purpose that you might grow as rich as the black earth itself, with robust and cheerful peasants gratefully toiling under your fatherly supervision. "The landowners' business is divine" this was the gist of Gogol's sermon.
One cannot help noting how eager, how overeager he was not only to have those sulky landowners and disgruntled officials return to their provincial offices, to their lands and crops, but also to have them give him a minute account of their impressions. One almost might suppose that there was something else at the back of Gogol's mind, that Pandora's box mind, something more important to him than the ethical and economic conditions of life in rural Russia; namely a pathetic attempt to obtain "authentic" first-hand material for his book; because he was in the worst plight that a writer can be in: he had lost the gift of imagining facts and believed that facts may exist by themselves.
The trouble is that bare facts do not exist in a state of nature, for they are never really quite bare: the white trace of a wrist watch, a curled piece of sticking plaster on a bruised heel, these cannot be discarded by the most ardent nudist. A mere string of figures will disclose the identity of the stringer as neatly as tame ciphers yielded their treasure to Poe. The crudest curriculum vitae crows and flaps its wings in a style peculiar to the undersigner. I doubt whether you can even give your telephone number without giving something of yourself. But Gogol in spite of all the things he said about wishing to know mankind because he loved mankind, was really not much interested in the personality of the giver. He wanted his facts absolutely bare and at the same time he demanded not mere strings of figures but a complete set of minute observations. When some of his more indulgent friends yielded reluctantly to his requests and then warmed up to the business and sent him accounts of provincial and rural affairs they would get from him a howl of disappointment and dismay instead of thanks; for his correspondents were not Gogols. They had been ordered by him to describe things just describe them. They did so with a vengeance. Gogol was balked of his material because his friends were not writers whereas he could not address himself to those friends of his who were writers, because then the facts supplied would be anything but bare. The whole business is indeed one of the best illustrations of the utter stupidity of such terms as "bare facts" and "realism." Gogol a "realist"! There are text books that say so. And very possibly Gogol himself in his pathetic and futile efforts to get the bits that would form the mosaic of his book from his readers themselves, surmised that he was acting in a thoroughly rational way. It is so simple, he kept on peevishly repeating to various ladies and gentlemen, just sit down for an hour every day and jot down all you see and hear. He might as well have told them to mail him the moon no matter in what quarter. And never mind if a star or two and a streak of mist get mixed up with it in your hastily tied blue paper parcel. And if a horn gets broken, I will replace it.
His biographers have been rather puzzled by the irritation he showed at not getting what he wanted. They were puzzled by the singular fact that a writer of genius was surprised at other people not being able to write as well as he did. In reality what made Gogol so cross was that the subtle method he had devised of getting material, which he could no longer create himself, did not work. The growing conscience of his impotence became a kind of disease which he concealed from himself and from others. He welcomed interruptions and obstacles ("obstacles are our wings" as he put it) because they could be held responsible for the delay. The whole philosophy of his later years with such basic notions as "the darker your heavens the more radiant tomorrow's blessing will be" was prompted by the constant feeling that this morrow would never come.
On the other hand, he would fly into a terrific passion if anybody suggested that the coming of the blessing might be hastened I am not a hack, not a journeyman, not a journalist he could write. And while he did all he could to make himself and others believe that he was going to produce a book of the utmost importance to Russia (and "Russia" was now synonymous with "humanity" in his very Russian mind) he refused to tolerate rumors which he engendered himself by his mystical innuendoes. The period of his life following upon the first part of Dead Souls may be entitled "Great Expectations" from the reader's point of view at least. Some were expecting a still more definite and vigorous indictment of corruption and social injustice, others were looking forward to a rollicking yarn with a good laugh on every page. While Gogol was shivering in one of those stone cold rooms that you find only in the extreme South of Europe, and was assuring his friends that henceforth his life was sacred, that his bodily form must be handled with care and loved and nursed as the cracked earthen jar containing that wine of wisdom, (i.e., the second part of Dead Souls), the glad news was spread at home that Gogol was completing a book dealing with the adventures of a Russian general in Rome the funniest book he had ever written. The tragical part of the business was that as a matter of fact the best thing in the remnants of the second volume that have reached us happens to be the passages relating to that farcical automaton, General Betrishchev.
Rome and Russia formed a combination of a deeper kind in Gogol's unreal world. Rome was to him a place where he had spells of physical fitness that the North denied him. The flowers of Italy (of which flowers he said: "I respect flowers that have grown by themselves on a grave") filled him with a fierce desire to be changed into a Nose: to lack everything else such as eyes, arms, legs, and to be nothing but one huge Nose, "with nostrils the size of two goodly pails so that I might inhale all possible vernal perfumes." He was especially nose-conscious when living in Italy. There was also that special Italian sky "all silvery and shot with a satiny gloss but disclosing the deepest tone of blue when viewed through the arches of the Coliseum. " Seeking a kind of relaxation from his own distorted and dreadful and devilish image of the world he pathetically endeavored to cling to the normality of a second rate painter's conception of Rome as an essentially "picturesque" place:
I like the donkeys too the donkeys that amble or jog at full speed with half closed eyes and picturesquely carry upon their back strong stately Italian women whose white caps remain brightly visible as they recede; or when these donkeys drag along, in a less picturesque way, with difficulty and many a stumble, some lank stiff Englishman who sports a greenish brown waterproof mackintosh [literal translation] and screws up his legs so as to avoid scraping the ground ; or when a bloused painter rides by complete with Vandyke beard and wooden paintbox etc.
He could not keep up this kind of style for long and the conventional novel about the adventures of an Italian gentleman that at onetime he contemplated writing happily remained limited to a few lurid generalizations "Everything in her from her shoulders to her antique breathing leg and to the last toe of her foot is the crown of creation" no, enough of that, or the hemmings and hawings of a wistful provincial clerk musing his misery away in the depths of Gogolian Russia will get hopelessly mixed up with classical eloquence.
Then there was Ivanov in Rome, the great Russian painter. For more than twenty years he worked at his picture "The Appearance of the Messiah to the People." His destiny was in many respects similar to that of Gogol with the difference that at last Ivanov did finish his masterpiece: the story is told that when it was finally exhibited (in 1858) he calmly sat there putting a few final touches to it this after twenty years of work! quite unconcerned by the crowd in the exhibition hall. Both Ivanov and Gogol lived in permanent poverty because neither could tear himself away from his life work in order to earn a living; both were constantly pestered by impatient people rebuking them for their slowness; both were highstrung, ill-tempered, uneducated, and ridiculously clumsy in all worldly matters. In his capital description of Ivanov's work Gogol stresses this relationship, and one cannot help feeling that when he spoke of the chief figure in the picture ("And He, in heavenly peace and divine remoteness, is already nearing with quick firm steps" . . .), Ivanov's picture got somehow mixed in his thoughts with the religious element of his own still unwritten book which he saw steadily approaching from the silvery Italian heights.
The letters he wrote to his friends while working on Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends did not include these passages (if they had, Gogol would not have been Gogol), but they much resemble them both in matter and tone. He thought some of them so inspired from above that he requested their being read "daily during the week of Fast" ; it is doubtful however whether any of his correspondents were sufficiently meek to do this to summon the members of their household and self-consciously clear their throats rather like the Mayor about to read the all-important letter in act one of The Government Inspector . The language of these epistles is almost a parody of sanctimonious intonation but there are some beautiful interruptions, as when, for instance, Gogol uses some very strong and worldly language in regard to a printing house which had swindled him. The pious actions which he plans out for his friends come to coincide with more or less bothersome commissions. He developed a most extraordinary system of laying penance on "sinners" by making them slave for him running errands, buying and packing the books he needed, copying out critical reviews, haggling with printers, etc. In compensation he would send a copy of, say, The Imitation of Jesus Christ with detailed instructions telling how to use it and quite similar instructions occur in passages concerning hydrotherapy and digestive troubles "Two glasses of cold water before breakfast" is the tip he gives a fellow sufferer. "Set aside all your affairs and busy yourself with my own" this is the general trend which of course would have been quite logical had his correspondents been disciples firmly believing that "he who helps Gogol helps God." But the real people who got these letters from Rome, Dresden or Baden-Baden decided that Gogol was either going mad or that he was deliberately playing the fool. Perhaps he was not too scrupulous in using his divine rights. He put his comfortable situation as God's representative to very personal ends as, for instance, when giving a piece of his mind to persons who had offended him in the past. When the critic Pogodin's wife died and the man was frantic with grief, this is what Gogol wrote him: "Jesus Christ will help you to become a gentleman, which you are neither by education or inclination she is speaking through me." a letter absolutely unique in the correspondence of compassion. Aksakov was one of the few people who decided at last to let Gogol know his reaction to certain admonishments. "Dear Friend," he wrote, "I never doubt the sincerity of your beliefs or your good will in respect to your friends; but I frankly confess being annoyed by the form your beliefs take. Even more they frighten me. I am 53 years old. I read Thomas a Kempis before you were born. I am as far from condemning the beliefs of others as I am from accepting them whereas you come and tell me as if I were a schoolboy and without having the vaguest notion of what my own ideas are to read the Imitation and moreover, to do so at certain fixed hours after my morning coffee, a chapter a day, like a lesson This is both ridiculous and aggravating. ..."
But Gogol persisted in his newly found genre. He maintained that whatever he said or did was inspired by the same spirit that would presently disclose its mysterious essence in the second and third volumes of Dead Souls. He also maintained that the volume of Selected Passages was meant as a test, as a means of putting the reader into a suitable frame of mind for the reception of the sequel to Dead Souls. One is forced to assume that he utterly failed to realize the exact nature of the stepping stone he was so kindly providing.
The main body of the Passages consists of Gogol's advice to Russian landowners, provincial officials and, generally, Christians. County squires are regarded as the agents of God, hard working agents holding shares in paradise and getting more or less substantial commissions in earthly currency. "Gather all your mouzhiks and tell them that you make them labor because this is what God intended them to do not at all because you need money for your pleasures; and at this point take out a banknote and in visual proof of your words burn it before their eyes. ..."The image is pleasing; the squire standing on his porch and demonstrating a crisp, delicately tinted banknote with the deliberate gestures of a professional magician; a Bible is prepared on an innocent-looking table; a boy holds a lighted candle; the audience of bearded peasants gapes in respectful suspense; there is a murmur of awe as the banknote turns into a butterfly of fire; the conjuror lightly and briskly rubs his hands just the inside of the fingers; then after some patter he opens the Bible and lo, Phoenix-like, the treasure is there.
The censor rather generously left out this passage in the first edition as implying a certain disrespect for the Government by the wanton destruction of state money much in the same way as the worthies in The Government Inspector condemned the breaking of state property (namely chairs) at the hands of violent professors of ancient history. One is tempted to continue this simile and say that in a sense Gogol in those Selected Passages seemed to be impersonating one of his own delightfully grotesque characters. No schools, no books, just you and the village priest this is the educational system he suggests to the squire. "The peasant must not even know that there exist other books besides the Bible." "Take the village priest with you everywhere .... Make him your estate manager." Samples of robust curses to be employed whenever a lazy serf is to be pricked to the quick are supplied in another astounding passage. There are also some grand bursts of irrelevant rhetoric and a vicious thrust at the unlucky Pogodin. We find such things as "every man has become a rotten rag" or "compatriots, I am frightened" the "compatriots" ("saw-are-tea-chesstven-nikee") pronounced with the intonation of "comrades" or "brethren" only more so.
The book provoked a tremendous row. Public opinion in Russia was essentially democratic and, incidentally, deeply admired America. No Tsar could break this backbone (it was snapped only much later by the Soviet regime). There were several schools of civic thought in the middle of the last century; and though the most radical one was to degenerate later into the atrocious dullness of Populism, Marxism, Internationalism and what not (then to spin on and complete its inevitable circle with State Serfdom and Reactionary Nationalism), there can be no doubt whatever that in Gogol's time the "Westerners" formed a cultural power vastly exceeding in scope and quality anything that reactionary fogeys could think up. Thus it would not be quite fair to view the critic Belinski, for instance, as merely a forerunner (which phylogenetically he of course was) of those writers of the 1860s and 1870s who virulently enforced the supremacy of civic values over artistic ones; what they meant by "artistic" is another question: Chernyshevski or Pisarev would solemnly accumulate reasons to prove that writing textbooks for the people was more important than painting "marble pillars and nymphs" which they thought was "pure art." Incidentally this outdated method of bringing all esthetic possibilities to the level of one's own little conceptions and capacites in the water color line when criticizing "art for art" from a national, political or generally philistine point of view, is very amusing in the argumentation of some modern American critics. Whatever his naive shortcomings as an appraiser of artistic values, Belinski had as a citizen and as a thinker that wonderful instinct for truth and freedom which only party politics can destroy and party politics were still in their infancy. At the time his cup still contained a pure liquid; with the help of Dobrolyubov and Pisarev and Mikhaylovski it was doomed to turn into a breeding fluid for most sinister germs. On the other hand Gogol was obviously stuck in the mud and had mistaken the oily glaze on a filthy puddle for a mystic rainbow of sorts. Belinski's famous letter, ripping up as it does the Selected Passages ("this inflated and sluttish hullaballoo of words and phrases") is a noble document. It contained too a spirited attack on Tsardom so that distribution of copies of the "Belinski letter" soon became punishable by Hard Labor in Siberia. Gogol, it seems, was mainly upset by Belinski's hints at his fawning upon aristocrats for the sake of financial assistance. Belinski, of course, belonged to the "poor and proud" school; Gogol as a Christian condemned "pride."
In spite of the torrents of abuse, complaints and sarcasm that flooded his book from most quarters, Gogol kept a rather brave countenance. Although admitting that the book had been written "in a morbid and constrained state of mind" and that "inexperience in the art of such writing had, with the Devil's help, transformed the humility I actually felt into an arrogant display of self-sufficiency" (or, as he puts it elsewhere, "I let myself go like a regular Khlestakov"), he maintained with the solemnity of a staunch martyr that his book was necessary, and this for three reasons: it had made people show him what he was; it had shown him and themselves what they were; and it had cleansed the general atmosphere as efficiently as a thunderstorm. This was about equal to sayingthat he had done what he had intended to do: prepare public opinion for the reception of the second part of Dead Souls.
During his long years abroad and hectic visits to Russia Gogol kept jotting down on scraps of paper (in his carriage, at some inn, in a friend's house, anywhere) odds and ends relating to the supreme masterpiece. At times he would have quite a series of chapters which he would read to his most intimate friends in great secret; at others he would have nothing; sometimes a friend would be copying pages and pages of it and sometimes Gogol insisted that not a word had been penned yet everything was in his brain. Apparently there were several minor holocausts preceding the main one just before his death.
At a certain point of his tragic efforts he did something which, in view of his physical frailty, was rather in the nature of a feat: he journeyed to Jerusalem with the object of obtaining what he needed for the writing of his book divine advice, strength and creative fancy much in the same fashion as a sterile woman might beg the Virgin for a child in the painted darkness of a medieval church. For several years, however, he kept postponing this pilgrimage: his spirit, he said, was not ready; God did not wish it yet; "mark the obstacles he puts in my way"; a certain state of mind (vaguely resembling the Catholic "grace") had to come into being so as to ensure a maximum probability of success in his (absolutely pagan) enterprise; moreover, he needed a reliable traveling companion who would not be a bore; would be silent or talkative at moments exactly synchronizing with the pilgrim's prismatic mood; and who, when required, would tuck in the traveling rug with a soothing hand. When at last in January, 1848, he launched upon his hazardous enterprise, there was just as little reason for its not turning into a dismal flop as there ever had been.
A sweet old lady, Nadezhda Nikolayevna Sheremetev, one of Gogol's truest and dullest correspondents, with whom he had exchanged many a prayer for the welfare of his soul saw him to the town barrier beyond Moscow. Gogol's papers were probably in perfect order but somehow or other he disliked the idea of their being examined, and the holy pilgrimage began with one of those morbid mystifications which he was wont to practice on policemen. Unfortunately, it involved the old lady too. At the barrier she embraced the pilgrim, broke into tears and made the sign of the cross over Gogol who responded effusively. At this moment papers were asked for: an official wanted to know who exactly was leaving. "This little old lady," cried Gogol, and rolled away in his carriage, leaving Madame Sheremetev in a very awkward position.
To his mother he sent a special prayer to be read in church by the local priest. In this prayer he begged the Lord to save him from robbers in the East and to spare him seasickness during the crossing. The Lord ignored the second request: between Naples and Malta, on the capricious ship "Capri," Gogol vomited so horribly that "the passengers marveled greatly." The rest of the pilgrimage was singularly dim so that had there not been some official proof of its actual occurrence one might easily suppose that he invented the whole journey as he had formerly invented an excursion to Spain. When for years on end you have been telling people that you are going to do something and when you are sick of not being able to make up your mind, it saves a good deal of trouble to have them believe one fine day that you have done it already and what a relief to be able to drop the matter.
"What can my dreamlike impressions convey to you? I saw the Holy Land through the mist of a dream. " (From a letter to Zhukovski). We have a glimpse of him quarreling in the desert with Bazsili, his traveling companion. Somewhere in Samaria he plucked an asphodel, somewhere in Galilee a poppy (having a vague inclination for botany as Rousseau had). It rained at Nazareth, and he sought shelter, and was stranded there for a couple of hours "hardly realizing that I was in Nazareth as I sat there" (on a bench under which a hen had taken refuge) "just as I would have been sitting at some stage-coach station somewhere in Russia." The sanctuaries he visited failed to fuse with their mystic reality in his soul. In result, the Holy Land did as little for his soul (and his book) as German sanatoriums had done for his body.
During the last ten years of his life, Gogol kept stubbornly brooding over the sequel to Dead Souls. He had lost the magic capacity of creating life out of nothing; his imagination needed some ready material to work upon for he still had the strength of repeating himself; although unable to produce a brand new world as he had done in the first part, he thought he could use the same texture and recombine its designs in another fashion, namely: in conformity with a definite purpose which had been absent from the first part, but which was now supposed not only to provide a new driving force, but also to endow the first part with a retrospective meaning.
Apart from the special character of Gogol's case, the general delusion into which he had lapsed was of course disastrous. A writer is lost when he grows interested in such questions as "what is art?" and "what is an artist's duty?" Gogol decided that the purpose of literary art was to cure ailing souls by producing in them a sense of harmony and peace. The treatment was also to include a strong dose of didactic medicine. He proposed to portray national defects and national virtues in such a manner as to help readers to persever in the latter and rid themselves of the former. At the beginning of his work on the sequel his intention was to make his characters not "wholly virtuous," but "more important" than those of Part One. To use the pretty slang of publishers and reviewers he wished to invest them with more "human appeal." Writing novels were merely a sinful game if the author's "sympathetic attitude" towards some of his characters and a "critical attitude" towards others, was not disclosed with perfect clarity. So clearly, in fact, that even the humblest reader (who likes books in dialogue form with a minimum of "descriptions" because conversations are "life") would know whose side to take. What Gogol promised to give the reader or rather the readers he imagined were facts. He would, he said, represent Russians not by the "petty traits" of individual freaks, not by "smug vulgarities and oddities," not through the sacrilegious medium of a lone artist's private vision, but in such a manner that "the Russian would appear in the fullness of his national nature, in all the rich variety of the inner forces contained in him." In other words the "Dead Souls" would become "live souls."
It is evident that what Gogol (or any other writer having similar unfortunate intentions) is saying here can be reduced to much simpler terms "I have imagined one kind of world in my first part, but now I am going to imagine another kind which will conform better to what I imagine are the concepts of Right and Wrong more or less consciously shared by my imaginary readers." Success in such cases (with popular magazine novelists, etc.) is directly dependent on how closely the author's vision of "readers" corresponds to the traditional, i.e. imaginary, notions that readers have of their own selves, notions carefully bred and sustained by a regular supply of mental chewing gum provided by the corresponding publishers.
But Gogol's position was of course not so simple, first because what he proposed to write was to be on the lines of a religious revelation, and second, because the imaginary reader was supposed not merely to enjoy sundry details of the revelation but to be morally helped, improved or even totally regenerated by the general effect of the book. The main difficulty lay in having to combine the material of the first part, which from a philistine's viewpoint dealt with "oddities" (but which Gogol had to use since he could no longer create a new texture), with the kind of solemn sermon, staggering samples of which he had given in the Selected Passages. Although his first intention was to have his characters not "wholly virtuous" but "important" in the sense of their fully representing a rich mixture of Russian passions, moods and ideals, he gradually discovered that these "important" characters coming from under his pen were being adulterated by the inevitable oddities that they borrowed from their natural medium and from their inner affinity with the nightmare squires of the initial set. Consequently the only way out was to have another alien group of characters which would be quite obviously and quite narrowly "good" because any attempt at rich characterization in their case would be bound to lead to the same weird forms which the not "wholly virtuous" ones kept assuming owing to their unfortunate ancestry.
When in 1847 Father Matthew, a fanatical Russian priest who combined the eloquence of John Chrysostom with the murkiest fads of the Dark Ages, begged Gogol to give up literature altogether and busy himself with devotional duties, such as preparing his soul for the Other World as mapped by Father Matthew and such like Fathers Gogol did his best to make his correspondent see how very good the good characters of Dead Souls would be if only he was allowed by the Church to yield to that urge for writing which God had instilled in him behind Father Matthew's back: "Cannot an author present, in the frame of an attractive story, vivid examples of human beings that are better men than those presented by other writers ? Examples are stronger than argumentations ; before giving such examples all a writer needs is to become a good man himself and lead the kind of life that would please God. I would never have dreamt of writing at all had there not been nowadays such a widespread reading of various novels and short stories, most of which are immoral and sinfully alluring, but which are read because they hold one's interest and are not devoid of talent. I too have talent the knack of making nature and men live in my tales; and since this is so, must I not present in the same attractive fashion righteous and pious people living according to the Divine Law? I want to tell you frankly that this, and not money or fame, is my main incentive for writing."
It would be of course ridiculous to suppose that Gogol spent ten years merely in trying to write something that would please the Church. What he was really trying to do was to write something that would please both Gogol the artist and Gogol the monk. He was obsessed by the thought that great Italian painters had done this again and again: a cool cloister, roses climbing a wall, a gaunt man wearing a skull-cap, the radiant fresh colors of the fresco he is working upon these formed the professional setting which Gogol craved. Transmuted into literature, the completed Dead Souls was to form three connected images: Crime, Punishment, and Redemption. The attainment of this object was absolutely impossible not only because Gogol's unique genius was sure to play havoc with any conventional scheme if given a free hand, but because he had forced the main role, that of the sinner, upon a person if Chichikovcan be called a person who was most ridiculously unfit for that part and who moreover moved in a world where such things as saving one's soul simply did not happen. A sympathetically pictured priest in the midst of the Gogolian characters of the first volume would have been as utterly impossible as a gauloiserie in Pascal or a quotation from Thoreau in Stalin's latest speech.
In the few chapters of the second part that have been preserved, Gogol's magic glasses become blurred. Chichikov though remaining (with a vengeance) in the center of the field somehow departs from the focal plane. There are several splendid passages in these chapters, but they are mere echoes of the first part. And when the "good" characters appear the thrifty landowner, the saintly merchant, the God-like Prince, one has the impression of perfect strangers crowding in to take possession of a draughty house where familiar things stand in dismal disorder. As I have already mentioned, Chichikov's swindles are but the phantoms and parodies of crime, so that no "real" retribution is possible without a distortion of the whole idea. The "good people" are false because they do not belong to Gogol's world and thus every contact between them and Chichikov is jarring and depressing. If Gogol did write the redemption part with a "good priest" (of a slightly Catholic type) saving Chichikov's soul in the depths of Siberia (there exist some scraps of information that Gogol studied Pallas' Siberian Flora in order to get the right background), and if Chichikov was fated to end his days as an emaciated monk in a remote monastery, then no wonder that the artist, in a last blinding flash of artistic truth, burnt the end of Dead Souls.
Father Matthew could be satisfied that Gogol shortly before dying had renounced literature; but the brief blaze that might be deemed a proof and symbol of this renunciation happened to be exactly the opposite thing: as he crouched and sobbed in front of that stove ("Where?" queries my publisher. In Moscow.), an artist was destroying the labor of long years because he finally realized that the completed book was untrue to his genius; so Chichikov, instead of piously petering out in a wooden chapel among ascetic fir trees on the shore of a legendary lake, was restored to his native element; the little blue flames of a humble hell.