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2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

On My Book Table… 4 – decisions, decisions!

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Since I last reported on the state of my Book Table, it has been through several changes as there have been bookish comings and goings as well as raging indecision about what to read next. This of course is particularly bad at what is a busy time of year, but as I’m now off work for the festive season, it seemed a good time to tidy up a little and take stock. So here is the current state of the Table itself:

As you can probably tell, there are a number of heavyweight books on there (and I don’t mean in size necessarily, but in content). Shall we take a closer look?

This stack is mainly review books – some lovely British Library Editions, glorious Russians from Pushkin Press, an intriguing title from Michael Walmer and an author new to me from NYRB. Then there’s “Jam Today”, a book I was very excited to track down recently. All of these would be ideal next reads.

This is what I mean by heavyweight… Essays, short fiction, Montaigne, Proust, Pessoa, philosophy. I’d like to read them all at once, which is not helpful. Especially as I feel as if I could quite easily have a month of reading nothing but Fitzcarraldo books!

And finally, Barthes… Three physical books (there is a digital one too) and the Binet book about Barthes which has been on the Table for months. I am nearing the end of “Mythologies”, but unsure whether I should read another Barthes straight off or let the first settle a bit…

Of course, there are the birthday arrivals which came into the house recently and haven’t made it to the Book Table yet (and they’ll no doubt be joined by some Christmas arrivals at some point soon). A further complication exists in the form of the Book Token my work presented me with on my birthday which is itching to be spent. An embarrassment of riches, but I do find that the more choices I have, the harder the decision becomes! What would *you* read next??? 😀

It begins and ends with a letter… #gogol #thegovernmentinspector @almaclassics

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The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol
Translated by Roger Cockrell

When I was pondering on the wonderful books I’d read for the 1930 Club recently, I commented that the blog was suffering from a bit of RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency). Luckily it’s a condition which is easily treated, particularly when you have as many Russian books lurking in the stacks as I do! However, a recent arrival at the Ramblings, in the form of a sparkling new translation of Gogol’s play “The Government Inspector”, turned out to be the perfect cure… 😀

This lovely new copy is from Alma Classics, who also publish editions of his great novel “Dead Souls” and two lovely volumes which feature some of his shorter works. “The Government Inspector” is a comic work (as is so much of Gogol’s work) and holds an important place in the history of Russian drama. It’s been newly translated by Roger Cockrell (who rendered so beautifully their edition of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, which I reviewed here); and it certainly was a joy to read.

The play is set in a small provincial town, and opens with the local officials in uproar; a corrupt collection of Mayor, Judge, Inspector of Schools, Charities Commissioner, and so on. The Postmaster has intercepted a letter, warning that a Government Inspector is going to make a visit to the town, incognito, to check up on the officials; and as the town is filthy and neglected, dependent on bribery and generally chaotic, all hell is set to let loose. The uproar gets worse when it’s discovered that a man from St. Petersburg has been lodging at the local inn, one Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov. It’s instantly made clear to the audience that he’s a charlatan, out to blag what he can from the locals and then move on. However, the officials decide that he must be the visiting Inspector, and that mistaken identity leads to a hilarious comedy of errors.

Traitors in a provincial town! It’s hardly a border town, is it? You could gallop for three years in any direction and still be miles away from any other country.

Khlestakov is accompanied by a slovenly manservant, Osip; and both are happy to play along with the local officials and their fawning behaviour, even though they don’t know why it’s happening. So they’re well-fed, bribed with ‘loans’ and Khlestakov even starts to make up to both the Mayor’s wife *and* his daughter. The officials are in a state of fear and trembling, the townspeople are wondering if this important man from St. Petersburg can deal with the corrupt officials for them, and the Mayor’s daughter spies a potential husband. Will the truth out; will Khlestakov get out of the town in time; and what does the future hold for the people of the little town?

The first thing to say about “The Government Inspector” is that of course it is very, very funny. As the misunderstandings build up one on top of the other, the action degenerates into frantic farce where the townspeople vie for favours from the spurious Inspector and denounce each other left right and centre. There is a wonderful running joke in the existence of two indistinguishable local landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, who both have the same name and patronymic – Pyotr Ivanovich! As I read the play I was visualising how it would look onstage, and thinking that it would probably reduce the audience to hysterics.

… sometimes having an idea can do more harm than having no ideas at all.

However, there’s a little more to this play than just farce, as Gogol very cleverly and successfully mixes broad slapstick humour with satirical comment on the state of the Civil Service in Russia, and the corruption amongst officials. Russia was controlled by its strict bureaucratic hierarchy, but the dishonesty of the system and its officials was well known. By using the small town setting, Gogol probably hoped to get away with hiding his critique in the action; had he directed his commentary at the higher ranks in the cities it probably wouldn’t have been so easy.

God help anyone who goes into education! You’re always liable to be criticised. Everyone is always interfering, wanting to show they’re as clever as you are.

It also occurred to me that this play really sets the template for Russian satire to come: with the provincial setting and the focus on small town corruption, he was definitely a forerunner of Saltykov-Shchedrin (and I believe the latter has been referred to as the artistic ‘heir’ of Gogol). However, Gogol also foreshadows his own later work, as it’s quite possible to see Khlestakov as an early version of the protagonist of “Dead Souls”, Chichikov – almost a Chichikov in miniature! Both men are fly-by-night chancers, rushing from town to town trying to scam what they can from what they regard as simple provincial people. Of course, Chichikov is much more sophisticated, with complex plans to cheat the rural landowners; but it’s hard not to see the seeds of his character in Khlestakov, an early version without the plans and the cunning.

I think I’ve read “The Government Inspector” once before – and we’re talking *decades* ago here – so reading it in this wonderful new translation was such a treat. I found myself laughing like a drain throughout, whilst marvelling at the ability of human beings to deceive themselves. The play comes with useful notes which are just at the right level; not too many, and just what you need to enjoy reading it. Interestingly, Cockrell discusses briefly one of the many complex decisions translators have to make when working, and that was the rendering of the names in English. In the original, the names have a comic meaning (e.g. the name of the Mayor could be translated literally as Windbag). Should the translator render the names in comic form or simply transliterate? Cockrell sensibly (to my mind) transliterates – so the Mayor is Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky – but gives a key at the start of the notes which lets the reader know what the humorous version would be. I prefer this myself – and it’s something I’ve come across with my reading of various translations of “The Master and Margarita”; Ivan Bezdomny is sometimes rendered as Ivan Homeless, which is what his last name (a pseudonym) means. I prefer the Russian with a note somewhere as in the Gogol; I got a bit heated when reading “War and Peace” and coming across Prince Andrei given as Prince Andrew, as I want my Russians to sound Russian!!

Anyway – at least the RRD on the Ramblings has been remedied, and in a wonderful way. “The Government Inspector” was a treat from start to finish, and I’m now kind of thinking of it as a prequel to “Dead Souls”! Even if you don’t normally read plays, I’d recommend this one; it’s entertaining, hilarious and with a fascinating subtext. What more could you want? 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!

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After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀

 

The “lost book” authors

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Reading a book about books is a dangerous exercise for any bibliophile, but “In Search of Lost Books” creates its own issues as it’s about books that don’t actually exist any more – or which may indeed have never existed. However, that book *did* send me off down the trail of wanting to dig out the volumes I own by the authors featured in it, and it turned out that I have a surprising amount of works by these particular writers – which may be why the book spoke to me so strongly. So, as someone who’s never averse to pictures of other people’s books, I thought I would share a few of mine here.

However, gathering all of these together *wasn’t* an easy exercise, as my ‘library’ seems to have become more randomly scattered around the house recently. I haven’t been able to locate everything I think I own, and I found that, as I suspected, any shelf-rummaging exercise throws up a huge number of queries, problems and exclamations – along the lines of:

Why is Joan Didion double-shelved behind Aldous Huxley?
Did I *really* buy all those books in the “Writers from the Other Europe” series and read hardly any of them?
Where *is* my copy of “A Moveable Feast”?
Oooooh, look – I have a book called “The Faber book of Utopias”!! I wonder if I ever read it…?
Why have I got two copies of “Under the Volcano”?
Where *is* my copy of “Ulysses”?
Isn’t it a shame that there isn’t anything else available by Bruno Schulz.
Hurrah! There’s my lovely Allan Ramsay book which I haven’t been able to find for ages.
Why have I got so many copies of “Anna Karenina”?
WHY HAVE I GOT SO MANY BOOKS????

And so on…

The serious difficulty in laying hands on a specific book shows how things have got out of hand with my ‘library’ and I can see I’ll need to take some serious action soon, maybe over the summer holidays, to just try and get things into a sensible order where I can locate titles with ease – and possibly even catalogue them sensibly. However, for now, here are some photographs of lovely, lovely books!

So – in no particular order – here is a selection of my books by and about Sylvia Plath. Yes, there are a lot…

I actually did a longer post a while back with more pictures. The pile has expanded since then, as I now have the enormously huge volume 1 of her letters too…

In contrast, we have Bruno Schulz. All that survives of his work is these shorter fictions, here all collected in one volume and I’ve reviewed and loved them.  As I grumbled above, it’s such a shame that nothing else of his written work survives.

schulz

Then we have Malcolm Lowry. I think my Lowry reading is all pre-blog, but I recall being entranced by “Under the Volcano”. His other work is good, though nothing lives up to his major novel.

Ah, Papa Hemingway. Source of much frustration in rummaging through the stacks, as I *know* I have a copy of “A Moveable Feast” because I’ve read and reviewed it and wouldn’t have got rid of it. It wasn’t with these two, wasn’t with my Gertrude Steins and wasn’t with my Fitzgeralds. Who knows where it is in the house – probably with the copy of “Fiesta” I suspect I still have (there were two in the house at one point….)

Let’s get serious now, with the Russians – or at least Gogol, who often *isn’t* serious! I have quite a pile of Gogols, surprising perhaps as there isn’t a lot available in English. This one is probably the prettiest.

I am ashamed that there is P/V translation in this pile, but it was 10p from the library discards and I think it has stories I couldn’t get anywhere else – well, non-Russian speaking beggars can’t be choosers. And yes – I’m afraid there are three copies of “Dead Souls”.

Last but not least Walter Benjamin. I’ve only read a little of his work (“Unpacking My Library” definitely) and I want to read more but never get round to it. I’d rather like his Arcades Project but I think I should read these before getting any more.

So there you have it – a little book p*rn to liven your day up. Although works by these authors have gone missing at least in most cases we have a reasonable amount of surviving work with which to console ourselves – and let’s face it, a good book can solve most ills… 😉

Manuscripts *do* burn…

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In Search of Lost Books : The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten
Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

There are some books you just *know* are going to be for you. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s passed by the Ramblings that I am obsessive about books – to quote Morrissey, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” – and so books about books are going to be a particular favourite. This little volume, however, has a different slant from many of them in that it deals with the missing – books lost, books destroyed, books that may never have existed…

Giorgio van Straten has an impressive pedigree, taking in such disciplines as novelist, librettist, playwright, editor, translator, critic and manager of arts organisations. His works have won numerous awards, though it seems that few of them have been translated into English; which is a great shame, based on the quality of this slim but important book.

Van Straten focuses his range quite tightly and the authors/books/works lost covered are:

“The Avenue” – Romano Bilenchi
“Memoirs” – Lord Byron
Various early works – Ernest Hemingway
“The Messiah” – Bruno Schulz
“Dead Souls” (later volumes) – Nikolai Gogol
“In Ballast to the White Sea” – Malcolm Lowry
A black suitcase full of who knows what – Walter Benjamin
“Double Exposure” – Sylvia Plath

…which is a pretty heavyweight list! Intriguingly, he opens the book with the one author new to me (Romano Bilenchi), with whom he has a personal connection; because Bilenchi’s missing book was one that van Straten had actually read before it was destroyed by the author’s widow. He goes on to guide us through stories which may be familiar – Gogol burning the second part of “Dead Souls”; Hemingway and Benjamin losing suitcases containing manuscripts; Sylvia Plath’s second novel which mysteriously and unaccountably disappeared – and yet brings a freshness and a new angle to the narrative. There are a variety of reasons for the works being lost; authorial decision, posthumous publisher/spouse decision to protect the still living, pure accident; but the loss of all of these works is a real tragedy.

Georgio van Straten writes elegantly and it’s quite clear he has a strong belief in the innate power of books and the written word. He acknowledges that part of the appeal of his investigation into the missing books is the thrill of the chase, the hope of discovering that one of these fragile works has survived. There is a recurring thread of fire running through the narrative, and van Straten is painfully aware of the vulnerability of books:

… those vessels freighted with words, which we launch onto the waters, in the hope that someone will notice them and receive them into their own harbour, can disappear into infinite space like spacecraft at the edge of the universe, receding from us at increasing velocity.

For a slim book, this one digs deep and is not afraid to tackle more serious moral issues; for example, the discussion of Byron’s scandalous memoirs is measured, weighing the need to publish and be damned against the need to protect those still living (and also Byron’s own reputation, as to admit to homosexuality in those days was unheard of). The book was burned but van Straten argues that it simply could have been locked away for posterity.

The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.

Again with Sylvia Plath, much of the chapter considers the destruction of her last journals and the mysterious disappearance of her second novel. The discussion of the ethics of picking over the detail of her life is particularly pithy:

It frequently happens that when someone commits suicide, their death becomes the point of departure for reading their entire life. But this entails the risk of superimposing over the fact of an actual person – the one who has lived, thought, written – a mask that squeezes the richness of their humanity and artistry into the form of an icon, into something two-dimensional.

Plath has, of course, attained such mythical stature that it’s almost impossible to see the real woman any more. This aspect resonated strongly with me, particularly as I was reading about the current plans to auction off Plath’s effects, which I can’t help thinking would be better off preserved in an archive somewhere.

I confess that I get a bit emotional about book burning and lost books, and at times found the stories of what happened to these works excruciating (especially when, as in some of the cases, the loss was avoidable and the simple expedient of a photocopy or a carbon copy could have saved things). But the stories of the authors themselves was also particularly moving; reading about Bruno Schulz and his life and fate is always an emotional experience; and likewise Walter Benjamin; both authors ultimately met their fate because of the Nazis.

Van Straten uses a quote from Proust to illustrate the tantalising effect the thought of these lost works have on us:

One can feel an attraction towards a particular person. But to release that fount of sorry, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be – and this is, perhaps, more than a person, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxious to embrace – the risk of an impossibility.

That reaching for the impossible is something which attracts us human; we are questing beings, never satisfied with accepting the status quo. With these missing books, there is always the hope that one or more of them may still be within our grasp, may turn up somewhere. Certainly, there have been cases of supposedly lost works turning up – Georges Perec’s first novel, recently published and translated as “Portrait of a Man”, is a good case in point, and it’s finds like these which keep us hoping. Van Straten’s wonderful book is a fascinating tale of human creativity, the agonies of the artistic temperament and the battle between literature and reputation – as well as a lovely little elegy for some titles that may or may not be lost forever.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Adrift in Provincial Rus

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Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Translated by Robert A. Maguire

(There’s probably enough discussion of the plot details here to warrant a SPOILER ALERT!)

Sometimes, no matter what you’re currently reading, or what you feel you should read, a book calls to you and you really can’t resist. That’s what happened to me recently, for no apparent reason, with Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. I first read it back in the 1980s during my first phase of heavy Russian reading and absolutely loved it. It’s a book I’ve often thought of re-reading and the itch got me so I picked it up. Back in the day, it was the Penguin Modern Classics Magarshack translations I went for (there wasn’t much choice about then, and I wasn’t thinking so deeply about versions); it was a good read, but I thought I would try the more recent Robert Maguire version, also from Penguin, which seems to be much lauded.

dead souls

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was something of a complex character. Of Ukrainian and Polish descent, he nevertheless wrote in Russian and expressed a deep attachment to the country. He regarded Pushkin as a mentor (he knew the great author briefly) and wrote plays, novels and short stories. “Dead Souls” is often regarded as his masterpiece and it seems to be ingrained into Russian culture. Described in the subtitle as “a poem”, it relates the adventures of one Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, and indeed at one point the title was “The Wanderings of Chichikov” which the censor deemed as less offensive than the title by which we now know it.

We meet Chichikov as he rolls up in the provincial town of N., with his servant Petrushka and coachman Selifan. A middle-aged, middle-class man, somewhat obsessed with his appearance and his personal hygiene, Pavel Ivanovich soon begins to ingratiate himself with the local landowners, paying them visits, flattering them and becoming something of a local celebrity. However, it gradually becomes clear that Chichikov is on a strange mission – he wants to purchase from all the local landowners their ‘dead souls’. A little explanation is needed here – under the social structure of the time, the landowners owned the serfs body and soul (they were not emancipated until later in the century) and paid taxes on each one. If a serf died between two censuses the landowner still had to pay the taxes. Chichikov’s plan is to buy up these ‘deal souls’ for next to nothing, set himself up as a landowner with many (fake) serfs for a small cost, and establish himself with a position and status and money. By sweet-talking the locals, promising to relieve them of unnecessary taxes, he manages to convince several to sell. However, all does not go quite as planned; the landowners become suspicious, fanciful rumours start to spread about Chichikov’s motivations, and he’s ostracised. Flight seems the only sensible solution – but what will Pavel Ivanovich’s next adventure be?

That’s a brief outline of plot, but it doesn’t give a hint of the wonders of this book. Gogol might have come up with a clever idea and an original plot, but they would have been nothing without the wonderful characterisations and the brilliant writing. And “Dead Souls” is nothing if not a vivid and lively portrait of provincial Russia of the time. The small-mindedness of the characters; the trivial and parochial nature of their gatherings; the lack of occupation which leads to endless silly gossip; all of these facets are captured quite brilliantly.

In general we have somehow not been created for representative bodies. In all our gatherings, from the peasants’ village commune to scholarly committees and every other conceivable kind, a pretty fair degree of chaos reigns, unless one head is present to run everything. It is really difficult to say why this is so: evidently our people are so constituted that the only assemblies that have a chance of success are those organized for the purpose of carousing or dining well, as with clubs and all sorts of pleasure gardens in the German style.

And then there’s the sketches of the various landowners: each represents a different aspect of the Russian character as Gogol saw it, all with flaws and all causing problems in the countryside. There’s Manilov, a sentimentalist; Nozdryov, who comes across as friendly and cheery, but is in fact a bully and a cheat; the widow Korobochka, suspicious and insecure, and cause of much of the rumour; and Plyushkin the miser. None of these characters are really happy, none really capable of running their estates properly and none able to make the lives of their serfs better.

And what I sometimes think, really, or so it seems to me, is that the Russian is a lost individual. He wants to accomplish everything and he can’t do anything. You keep on thinking that beginning tomorrow you’ll start a new life. Beginning tomorrow you’ll go on a diet, but no such thing: by the evening of the same day you’ll have gorged yourself to the point where you can only blink your eyes , and your tongue won’t move; there you sit like an owl, staring at everyone, really. And that’s the way we all are.

But central to everything is the magnificent portrayal of Chichikov: a complex man, clever but flawed, characterised by his love of elegant clothing and creature comforts. He dreams of a beautiful house, a beautiful wife and a family, but seems incapable of having the emotions that are needed for such things. He’s motivated by a need to acquire (and the reason for this is explained late in the story by the narrator). A round man with a round face, I couldn’t help visualising him as looking like the portrait of Gogol himself. And despite the fact that he’s a crook, despite the fact he’s trying to cheat the system, you can’t help but love him (well, I couldn’t). You watch helplessly as he digs himself into an impossible hole, knowing he can’t get out of it, and just wish all would go well for him, even though he’s committing a criminal act. Gogol refers to him as the novel’s hero, and he very much is – because despite his trickery, he exposes the hypocrisies and the faults of the provincial landowners who are certainly no better than him (if not worse!)

Image from the Daily Telegraph

Image from the Daily Telegraph

“Dead Souls” is very, very funny in places (I remember laughing out loud during my first reading) but it also has tragic elements. The account of Chichikov’s upbringing explains much; the lives of the serfs are drudgery and bondage; and the Russian Civil Service is crippling in its rigid caste system. Gogol wrote the book when he was living in Rome and the passion of an exile infuses his prose. He often spirals off into passages praising his native land, which oddly enough sit well enough alongside the more humorous observations of its denizens. There is a constant sense of movement in the book, with Chichikov unable to rest in one place for very long, and his carriage rushes through Russia, taking him on his adventures while the landscape flashes past.

What a strange, and alluring, and uplifting, and wonderful something lies lodged in the word ‘road’! And how wonderous it is in itself, this road: a clear day, autumn leaves, cold air… wrapped snug in your travelling coat, hat pulled down over your ears, you will press yourself into a corner as tightly, as cosily as you can! For the last time a shivery chill has run through your limbs, before being replaced by a pleasant warmth. The horses dash on… how seductively drowsiness steals over you and your eyes close fast, and now through your sleep you hear: “Not white the snows”, and the snorting of the horses and the rattling of the wheels, and by now you are snoring…

On this second reading of Gogol’s masterwork, I picked up on a number of themes I probably missed the first time round. There is the humorous use of names (helpfully explained in the notes); constant references to noses (and let’s not forget the author’s great short story, “The Nose”); Chichikov’s obsessions with eau de cologne and a “tail-coat of whortleberry red shot through with a lighter weave”. One of the elements I loved was the way the author/narrator constantly broke off to address the reader; and the wonderful dialogue between two unnamed ladies of the town, known only as Lady Pleasant in All Respects and the Merely Pleasant Lady is not only very, very funny, but surprisingly modern.

The arrival of the visitor woke the little dogs who were sleeping in the sun: shaggy Adele, who was constantly getting entangled in her own coat, and the darling little Potpourri with his delicate and slender legs. Both dogs were barking, and carried the ringlets of their curled-up tails into the hall, where the visitor was divesting herself of her cloak, whereupon she proved to be wearing a dress of fashionable design and colour, with the long tails of some animal round her neck. The scent of jasmine wafted through the entire room. No sooner had the Lady Pleasant in All Respects learned of the arrival of the Merely Pleasant Lady than she ran out into the hall. The ladies clasped each other’s hands, kissed and screamed the way institute girls scream when they meet soon after their graduation, before their mammas have had occasion to explain to them that the father of one is poorer and of lower rank than the other’s.

Gogol, of course, famously burned part 2 of “Dead Souls” and what’s published here is part 1 plus some surviving fragments of part 2. The author underwent troubling changes later in life, dealing with ill-health and personal religious conflicts. He intended to take Chichikov on a very different journey from that of the first book, in something of an attempt to save Russia from itself, and it has to be said that our hero is a much weaker and less prominent character in the remaining chapters of part 2. It’s frustrating as a reader not to have the whole story, and I know some have thought it best to ignore the fragments and just read part 1, which certainly stands on its own as a wonderful work of art. An argument could be made for simply leaving Chichikov at the end of part 1, riding off into the vastness of Russia to fulfil his destiny, as this is a particularly strong and moving ending. For myself, I’m glad I’ve read the fragments, but I think that it is part 1 that is the work of genius.

nikolai-vasilievich-gogol

Reading “Dead Souls” now, with so much more experience of Russian literature, it’s impossible not to see Gogol’s influence on so many later writers. Dostoevsky, of course, is an obvious example, but there are also elements in Bulgakov, and the constant references to the Devil (which also turn up in “The Master and Margarita”) just show how much of a vital force and important link between the past and modern writers Gogol was. His life was a difficult one, cut short too early, and I wish he’d lived longer to write more of this calibre. But at least we still have the short stories and “Dead Souls” and I can see that this is a book I’ll return to again.

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