A poll tax of souls - Nikolai Gogol

Dead Souls is, was, one of my entries for Humiliation, the game David Lodge invented about confessing great books you've never read. I had a mental image of it, compounded from criticism I'd read of other Russian works. I imagined it as a gloomy, socially critical, profound book about Russianness, expansive as the steppes. I have just read it because I am excited by Penguin's powerful new Russian translations, and because of a lively email correspondence I have been having with two Russians. It was nothing like I had imagined. Moreover, it was one of those masterpieces that change the way you see other books, forever.

It could be described as a linguistic phantasmagoria - full of people and things with a hallucinatory reality that rushes into the surreal. Nabokov, in a great, dogmatic essay on it, saw the book as a phenomenon of a peculiar "life-generating syntax", in which Gogol's sentences called up a world which could be capriciously developed or abandoned. Gogol called Dead Souls a "poem", and in some ways the English work it is nearest to is The Canterbury Tales, where rhyme and rhythm add to, even create, the satisfactory unexpectedness of the detail of people and things.

Gogol also resembles Dickens in the way in which everything he started to imagine transformed itself and began to wriggle with life. This is hard to assess in translation, but Robert Maguire has made a text which corresponds to Nabokov's excitement - from the moment when we meet Chichikov, "not overly fat, not overly thin" entering his room in a hostelry, "with cockroaches peeping out like prunes from every corner". He is accompanied by his servant Petruska, who brought in with his greatcoat "a special odour all his own that had also been imparted to the next thing he brought in, a sack containing the sundries of a manservant's toilet". I admire the way in which Maguire has kept his own brilliantly variegated vocabulary away from 20th-century phrases, without ever looking parodic or antiquarian.

The title, Dead Souls, must be one of the most evocative titles ever. It is to do on a superficial level (and superficies matter in this text) with the possibility in Tsarist Russia of owning "souls", which is how the ownership of serfs is described. Landowners were taxed on their payroll of serfs, which included those who had died between tax-assessments.

Chichikov has formed the ingenious plan of buying the dead souls of various landowners in order to use his list of fictive slaves to buy real land to "resettle" them and to become a landowner himself. Chichikov himself is also of course, a dead soul, a man self-designed to be unremarkable, agreeable and acceptable, a smiling confidence-trickster whose plots, as Nabokov points out, are neither very clever nor very coherent. Gogol wrote an ironic apostrophe to the unpraised writer who observes "the dreadful appalling mass of trifles that mires our lives, all that lies deep inside the cold, fragmented quotidian characters with which our earthly, at times bitter and tedious path swarms..." "Equally wondrous", he claims, "are the lenses that survey suns, and those that convey the movements of imperceptible insects."

An example of Gogol's method might be the casual creation of an indefinite table-guest: "...It was hard to say definitely who she was, a married lady or a spinster, a relative, the housekeeper or a woman simply living in the house - something without a cap, about 30, and wearing a multicoloured shawl. There are people that exist on this earth not as objects in themselves, but as extraneous specks or tiny spots on objects. They sit in the same place, they hold their heads in the same way and you are almost ready to take them for a piece of furniture..."

But, he adds slyly, you should hear them in the maids' room or the pantry.

Chichikov consists of his plumpness, his nice clothes, his britzska, his plans. He has a travelling box and a snuff box. He has his own Gogol-like reflections on human absurdity - at a ball, which he thinks of as an un-Russian thing, he imagines "an adult, a full-grown man suddenly leaps out all in black, plucked like a bird and wrapped up tight like a little devil, and then starts pumping his legs up and down." Chichikov wonders what a writer would make of this phenomenon. "Even in a book it would be just as senseless as in real life. What exactly is it? Moral? Immoral? The devil only knows what it is. You'd spit in disgust and then just close the book."

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