Nadav Spiegelman

Dead Souls

Nikolay Gogol and Robert A. Maguire
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Redemption is, of course, a spiritual action, but for Gogol it is realized through art, and through a very specific way of creating art. As early as Part I, Chapter 7, the narrator looks to the Romantics to define a true writer as one who does not undertake easy, crowd-pleasing subjects, but dares to ‘summon forth… all the dreadful, appalling morass of trifles that mires our lives’, and from this ‘ignoble’ picture fashions a ‘pearl of creation’. This is the best single statement of Gogol’s artistic credo.
‘If you want,’ Kostanzhoglo chimed in, sternly and curtly, still quite out of sorts, ‘to get rich quickly, then you will never get rich; but if you want to get rich without respect to time, then you’ll get rich quickly.’
One might compare the inner state of his soul to a demolished building, which has been demolished in order to build a new one; but the new building has not yet been started, because a definite plan has not arrived from the architect, and the workers are left in a quandary.
Chichikov’s horses also found their new quarters to their liking. The shaft-horse, and Assessor, and the dappled horse found their stay at Tentetnikov’s anything but dull, the oats excellent, and the layout of the stable exceptionally comfortable. Each had his own stall, and though it was partitioned off, the other horses could be seen over the partitions, so that if any one of them, even the furthest away, was suddenly taken with the urge to neigh, a rejoinder would immediately be delivered in kind.
‘No, Your Excellency, not trifling things… He is writing something sensible… a history, Your Excellency.’ ‘A history? A history of what?’ ‘A history…’ Here Chichikov stopped, and whether because a general was sitting before him, or because he simply wanted to lend greater weight to the topic, he added: ‘A history of generals, Your Excellency.’ ‘What do you mean, generals? What generals?’ ‘Generals in general, Your Excellency, in their generality. That is, strictly speaking, generals of the fatherland.’
They dragged themselves out on to the balcony with effort, great effort, and with effort settled themselves in armchairs. The host, as soon as he sat down in what seemed like a four-seater, proceeded to fall asleep then and there. His corpulent self, now transformed into a blacksmith’s bellows, began to emit, through his open mouth and nostrils, sounds the likes of which rarely occur even to a modern composer: a drum, and a flute, and a sort of broken drone, like the yapping of a dog.
The chamber was of a certain kind, for the hostelry was also of a certain kind, that is, precisely the way all hostelries are in provincial capitals, where for two roubles a day travellers receive a quiet room with cockroaches peeping out like prunes from every corner, and with a door, invariably blocked by a chest of drawers, leading to the adjoining accommodations, where a neighbour is settled in, taciturn and quiet, yet highly inquisitive, interested in knowing all the particulars about a new arrival.
There was something solid about the gentleman’s manner, and he blew his nose extremely loudly. There’s no telling how he did it, only his nose sounded like a trumpet. This distinction, though to all appearances entirely innocent, nonetheless earned him much respect on the part of the inn-servant, so much so that every time he heard this sound, he gave his hair a toss, drew himself up more deferentially and, inclining his head from on high, asked whether the gentleman required anything.
Chichikov kept bowing in response, a bit sideways, yet not unpleasantly so.
Once a game was over they fell to arguing loudly, as is usually the case. Our newly arrived guest also argued, but somehow in a very artful way, so that everyone saw that he was arguing, yet arguing pleasantly. He never said ‘You led,’ but rather ‘You were pleased to lead,’ ‘I had the honour of covering your deuce,’ and the like.
His smile was alluring, his hair blond, and his eyes light blue. In the first moment of conversation with him, you could not help but say, ‘What a pleasant and kind-hearted man!’ The second moment you would say nothing, and the third you would say, ‘The Devil only knows what sort of man he is!’ and you would move as far away from him as you could; if you didn’t move away, you would experience a feeling of deadly boredom.
The old woman began to rummage about, and brought a plate, a napkin that was so starched that it buckled like dried bark, then a knife with a blade as thin as a penknife and a yellowed bone handle, a two-tined fork and a salt cellar, which simply could not be stood upright on the table.
He was breathing heavily, and when he went to place his hand on his heart, he felt it fluttering like a quail in a cage.
When Chichikov glanced at Sobakevich out of the corner of his eye, he was struck on this occasion by his strong resemblance to a medium-size bear.3 To complete the resemblance, his tailcoat was exactly the colour of a bear’s coat, the sleeves were long, the pantaloons were long, and when he walked he let his feet fall here, there and everywhere, and was constantly treading on other people’s feet.
The table, the armchairs, the straight-backed chairs – all had a profoundly cumbersome and unsettling quality to them. In a word, each object, each chair seemed to be saying: ‘And I’m Sobakevich too!’ or ‘And I too am very much like Sobakevich!’
It must also be said that the ladies living in the town that will remain nameless, like many St Petersburg ladies, were distinguished by uncommon circumspection and propriety in the words and expressions they used. They never said, ‘I blew my nose,’ ‘I sweated,’ ‘I spat,’ but said instead ‘I relieved my nose,’ ‘I managed by means of my handkerchief.’
It must be said that the clerks of the Chamber were especially distinguished for their unsightliness and uncomeli-ness. Some had faces like badly baked bread: a cheek puffed up on one side, a chin twisted on the other, an upper lip swollen in a blister that had actually burst – in a word, utterly unlovely to behold. They all talked rather harshly, in the kind of voice that suggested they were plotting to knock someone down.