One of the enduring mysteries of literary history is the appearance in 19th-century Russia, that vast and barbarous country, of the greatest writers of fiction in all of literature. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky are supreme among the novelists of all nations, with Ivan Turgenev not far behind. Then there is Anton Chekhov, master of the short story, and Ivan Goncharov, author of "Oblomov" and "A Common Story." Among the Russians, the purest artist is Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), author of the play "The Inspector General," some unforgettable stories, and a single novel, "Dead Souls," which, even though unfinished, is nonetheless a masterpiece.
Gogol is the comic genius among Russian writers, always playful but never shallow. He had a magnificent eye for the bizarre, for the madcap, above all for what was extraordinary in the ordinary. In his story "The Nose," he wrote about a barber who wakes one morning to discover a nose stuffed into his morning loaf of bread. The nose turns out to belong to one of his customers, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. How the nose got into the barber's bread and how one morning it reappeared on the face of its owner is never explained. Plots are not Gogol's strong point. Nor was he much interested in ideas, at least not directly.
"Dead Souls" is about Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, who travels the provincial countryside buying up dead serfs from small landowners. These serfs remain on the landowners' books until the next census and, even though dead, are still taxable. Chichikov offers to relieve the landowners of their tax burden. His plan is to install these dead serfs on the tax rolls of a far-away estate, on which he will then be able to get a generous government mortgage and come away with a small fortune.
The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was Gogol's friend and supporter, and the man who gave him the idea for "Dead Souls." Gogol refers to the book not as a novel but as a poem. "Dead Souls" is a poem about Russia, its provincial backwaters, its secondary characters (clerks, minor officials, small landowners), its heartbreaking squalor. "Russia! Russia!" Gogol exclaims midway through the book, ". . . Everything in you is open, desolate and level; your squat towns barely protrude in the midst of the plains like dots, like counters; there is nothing to tempt or enchant the onlooker's gaze. But what is this inscrutable, mysterious force that draws me to you?"
What gives "Dead Souls" its poetic quality is its author's exuberant passion for the details—one might even say the irrelevant details—of provincial Russian life. In his brief, brilliant study "Nikolai Gogol," Vladimir Nabokov accounts for Gogol's artistry through this and what he calls Gogol's "four dimensional" prose, a sinuous style that captures characters in their inner being. Gogol's scenes light up their surroundings, his characters flame into life, his tragicomic vision touches the reader's heart.
I write "tragicomic," for Gogol was far from the mere humorist he is sometimes advertised as being. "I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life," he wrote in "Dead Souls," "to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through unknown invisible tears." The book's characters might be thought stock—the miser, the spendthrift, the bearish Russian and the rest—but for their creator's ability to bring them to life with a shimmering individuality.
Chichikov, the character at the heart of Gogol's masterpiece, is a lower-echelon civil servant with a corrupt past who specializes in what Gogol calls "blandiloquence," or elaborately empty compliments. Chichikov was brought up by a father whose last words of advice to his son were to please his superiors, not to be seduced by friendship, and to remember that nothing in life is so important as money—advice, notes Gogol, "that remained deeply engraved in his soul."