Reading Nikolai Gogol in 2017

I celebrated Nikolai Gogol’s birthday on March 31st by picking up a volume of Dead Souls. The last time I read it in its entirety was during my school days, and many scenes were so vivid in my memory that picking up the novel again felt less like re-discovering than wandering through a familiar landscape. Gogol, the Ukrainian and Russian dramatist, playwright and novelist, is unrivaled for his sharp satire and colorful language, but what struck me this time is how relevant his observations were to our present day affairs. Today everyone is re-reading Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’d like to make a case for adding Dead Souls to the list.

Let’s start with one of my favorite quotes in the book. “Absolute nonsense happens in the world. Sometimes there is no plausibility at all.” Yes, a similar thought in different formulations has been coursing through my head a lot lately. Or, “You can’t imagine how stupid the whole world has grown nowadays. The things these scribblers write!” What would be Gogol’s take on our world of “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and “fake news”?

What Gogol exposed in his writing was poshlost. It’s one of those words that hide a mass of concepts behind its two syllables such as  self-satisfied vulgarity, pettiness, aggressive self-importance and depressing banality. Nabokov defined poshlost as “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.” He also added “vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature”* to the list of things that are encompassed by poshlost. Finding contemporary examples of poshlost is easy

Dead Souls follows the adventures of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov on a macabre mission to acquire dead “souls,” as serfs were referred to in the 19th century Russian empire. Landowners paid tax on each “soul” they owned, but since the government census took place only sporadically, they were often taxed on serfs who had since died. Chichikov has in mind a shady scheme that would allow him to take out a loan based on the size of his estate, serfs included, so he travels around the provinces convincing landowners to sell him the titles of deceased serfs. Chichikov is the definition of poshlost, vulgar, lying, self-satisfied in his pettiness and narrow-mindedness. People he encounters likewise present different aspects of moral degradation and absurdity.

The dead souls in Gogol’s story are not only the deceased serfs, but also the characters who trample on honesty, honor and other moral principles. The novel is a caricature, with some of the finest drawn characters in the world of literature, from Chichikov himself to Korobochka, a widow who hoards every bit of scrap and twine that “might be useful some day”, in a house full of decay and rot. “The human feelings, which had never been very deep in him, grew shallower every hour, and every day something more dropped away from the decrepit wreck,” writes Gogol about another character who calls to my mind quite a number of contemporary politicians. Some parts of the novel make me laugh out loud. Others enchant with their baroque depictions of nature.

The true power of Dead Souls, however, lies in its progressive message that exposes how political corruption, arbitrary rule of law, shameless lies and greed can undermine society and render it full of poshlost. It’s a theme that I notice in much of Gogol’s work, including The Government Inspector–“The more debris there is the more it will show the governor’s activity.” Dead Souls, however, is a masterful portrait of all that’s corrupted and withered, and the novel rings as true today as it did in 1842 when it first appeared. “Gogol is necessary along with the light,” said Flannery O’Connor. I can’t agree more.

On Translations: Gogol was wildly inventive, often forming neologisms on the basis of Ukrainian forms and simply having lots of fun with the language. A delight for those who speak Russian, but a hurdle for a translator. I’ve compared several English publications, and the best by far is Donald Rayfield’s released by New York Review Books in 2008 and 2012. It captures well the whimsy of Gogol’s prose.

Images: Chichikov, illustration from Dead Souls. Nikolai Gogol by F. Moller, 1840. Via wiki-images, some rights reserved.

For a further definition of poshlost by Nabokov, please take a look at his 1967 interview in the Paris Review.



  • Liz: On my reading list it goes! April 3, 2017 at 9:35am Reply

  • Timothy: Thank you for your note on translations. What’s your take on Pevear and Volkonsky? April 3, 2017 at 9:41am Reply

    • Timothy: Sorry, it’s Volokhonsky! April 3, 2017 at 9:42am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m ambivalent about P&V, because they tend to render the text too literally, and in many cases the results are bland. But I’ve used some of their translations in my articles, so I won’t disparage them too much. April 3, 2017 at 2:19pm Reply

      • Victoria: But to be fair, they are better with Tolstoy than with Gogol and Bulgakov.

        A friend also suggested that another good translation is by George Reavey. It includes an essay by Nabokov as an intro. April 3, 2017 at 2:21pm Reply

        • Timothy: Thanks. I wish I could read Russian, but I’m probably too old to learn it now. April 4, 2017 at 5:10am Reply

          • Victoria: It’s never too late! I had a neighbor who learned Chinese in her late 70s enough to read and speak. April 4, 2017 at 8:03am Reply

        • Carla: Do you have another recommendation for a Tolstoy translation or should I look for their work? April 4, 2017 at 8:25pm Reply

          • Victoria: Comparing passages from both, I’d say Garnett. It can be archaic in parts, but it doesn’t sound bland. April 5, 2017 at 3:04am Reply

            • Carla: Thank you April 5, 2017 at 7:56am Reply

            • Lydia: I read a very critical review of P&V a while back and felt at a loss after that to choose Russian translation classics. I was wondering if it would be worth going back to Garnett, so I’m glad to see your suggestion.

              My two biggest complaints with modern translations (of French as well) that I’ve read are awkward phrasing that doesn’t flow at all, and anachronistic language intended to appeal to a young, hip audience. Both flaws are really jarring and distracting.

              I had a copy of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black I ended up discarding because of too many modern colloquialisms. (The edition also used a weirdly modern-sexy cover image that would have been better matched to a chick-lit novel.) April 8, 2017 at 1:40pm Reply

  • kekasmais: Oh boy, I’d been gunning for a long overdue re-read of The Brothers Karamazov, but now I feel I ought to finally pay Gogol his dues. Timely and enchanting article as always, Victoria. April 3, 2017 at 10:02am Reply

    • Victoria: The Brothers Karamazov will also be a great read/re-read. I’ve spent years hating Dostoevsky only to read The Notes from the Underground last year and discover that he also speaks well to these times. April 3, 2017 at 2:22pm Reply

  • Marsi: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” 😏 April 3, 2017 at 10:15am Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t it true! Or in the words of the prince from Lampedusa’s The Leopard, “All this shouldn’t last; but it will, always; the human ‘always’ of course, a century, two centuries … and after that it will be different, but worse.” Gogol, on the other hand, seeks a way out of this “different but worse.” April 3, 2017 at 2:25pm Reply

      • Lydia: A way out of “a way out of this “different but worse” is a much needed vision right now. April 8, 2017 at 1:54pm Reply

    • Carla: So true. Most great literature will remind you of this April 4, 2017 at 8:25pm Reply

  • Nancy A.: Love Gogol! As Marsi aptly noted — the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or is this a case of history repeating itself. April 3, 2017 at 10:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, we stumble over the same hurdles. April 3, 2017 at 2:26pm Reply

  • Jillie: How relevant his writing is to today. I hadn’t realised just what a perceptive author he was and am very glad that you have brought him to our notice.

    I think that if he were to come back now he would be so sad to see that we have learnt nothing and that those in power are still corrupt! April 3, 2017 at 11:31am Reply

    • Victoria: He wasn’t understood in his own time either, and that one of the several reasons for his early death. Sadly, he burned the second volume of Dead Souls, so just what exactly he intended as a call for reform is not certain.

      Gogol, I like to think, would’ve appreciated this kind of forum. He was notoriously obsessed with his nose, and he was quite a gourmet, cooking meals for his friends. His favorite dish to make was spaghetti with plenty of butter and parmesan cheese. And hot chocolate, for which he had a special pot and serving cups. April 3, 2017 at 2:29pm Reply

      • maja: Spaghetti with butter and Parmesan are one of my child’s favourites. 🙂 And chocolate. April 3, 2017 at 3:25pm Reply

        • Victoria: Who can resist the call of spaghetti with Parmesan and hot chocolate? April 4, 2017 at 1:23am Reply

  • Neva: What an interesting post Victoria! I started out planning which Gogol’s work to read next and ended with confirming my admiration for Nabokov after reading the interview.
    At school we read Gogol’s The Government Inspector and The Overcoat. I had to look up the English translation of the titles because I’ve read it in Croatian. I suppose the translations were good enough but I can’t tell.
    I liked the kind of humor which arises from the absurdities of life. It has a tragic component which makes it deeper. It touches you more than superficial, laughing-out-loud, jokes. In certain regimes people need to pretend to accept the absurdities in order to survive and that’s tragic.
    On the other hand, there are people who accept the absurdities in order to get profit or some other benefit and that is the realm of poshlost, I think. There is a lot of poshlost around nowadays and it’s hard to distance oneself from it because it is aggressive and tempting – being a part of the glorious, forever young, healthy living and certain-books-reading…and so on -crowd. Gogol, Nabokov, Kafka and some other authors were certainly prophets of a kind and that’s the reason their books will hopefully be re-read and re-published. April 4, 2017 at 4:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I think that Nabokov’s definition is interesting, because it shows that Gogol’s poshlost is not just the lack of knowledge or refinement, but rather an aggressive stance on ignorance, on denying facts that one knows to be true. But it has many layers, of course, which is why it’s so hard to translate. Gogol, however, was the first author to give it such vivid characteristics in his characters. I read Dead Souls and think, well, it’s hysterical the way he describes Chichikov or another character, and then a moment later you realize that it’s actually quite frightening. April 4, 2017 at 8:16am Reply

  • JJ: Since we,re talking of revelant books, I just finished Huxley’s Brave New World and found it thought provoking. April 4, 2017 at 5:13am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s definitely another one to add to the list. April 4, 2017 at 8:03am Reply

  • Austenfan: Fortunately there happen to be 2 good recent and relatively recent Dutch translations of this masterpiece, that I’ve never read, but hope to do so in the near future.Now to decide which translation to choose ….. April 4, 2017 at 8:15am Reply

    • Victoria: The Dutch translation school, especially from the Slavic languages, is supposed to be renowned. So, you’re lucky. April 4, 2017 at 8:19am Reply

      • Austenfan: I know I am, and not just with respect to translations from Slavic languages. April 4, 2017 at 10:35am Reply

        • Victoria: Ironically, because English is the universal language at the moment, English language publishers translate a negligible amount of the foreign language literature. There are also the politics of funding involved, at least in the US. I know that we spoke about it before, but it’s really a shame. Even in case of a genius like Gogol, some of his works aren’t translated. Or the translations are out of print. April 4, 2017 at 10:41am Reply

          • Austenfan: I’m assuming that they thing the public is not interested?
            Interestingly I started doing English-Dutch translation training last autumn, and quickly realised how thorough French grammar books are. Perhaps not as easy to use, but very good.

            I’ve since discovered, moron that I am, that I already own a copy of Lost Souls in the one translation that is not recommended. 🙂 April 4, 2017 at 2:45pm Reply

            • Victoria: A lot has to do with the fact that few US editors are multilingual and they find hard to evaluate a book in the original and translation. Also, not all editors, have connections overseas to know what’s new and interesting. The argument against translations used by many US funding institutions is that they shouldn’t “waste money” on foreign authors and instead support the American ones. And then, of course, the brutal fact that it’s hard to launch in the US, and it’s becoming harder and more expensive. Few want to take risks.

              In the UK, I’ve read, the sales of the foreign literature in translation are actually quite high. April 4, 2017 at 3:24pm Reply

              • Carla: There are few Elena Ferrantes April 4, 2017 at 8:28pm Reply

                • Carla: I mean few translations that sell well in the US. I usually try to read other languages besides English translated to French, i.e., Karen Blixen’s Ferme Africaine recently but I read the first Ferrante in English April 4, 2017 at 8:30pm Reply

                  • Carla: Oh but I think Tolstoy may have to be in English! And I admit I gave up on Balzac in French – other than the slim Eugenie Grandet – and read him in English. Will have to be ditto for Proust I’m afraid unless I can find a large print in French. French is not my native language. while I love literature heavy hitters I’m afraid Gogol has not captured my imagination although I enjoyed your highlights April 4, 2017 at 8:33pm Reply

                    • Victoria: I do recommend seeking out a good translation of Gogol. He’s one of the most difficult authors to render properly. April 5, 2017 at 3:13am

                  • Victoria: Yes, there are actually quite a few. Knausgaard, whom I mentioned to Austenfan, is another big selling author. April 5, 2017 at 3:06am Reply

            • Victoria: Oh, and the French markets is almost 30% of translated works.

              French grammar books are the best! And I love those handy books for boosting one’s vocabulary that exists at several different levels. Students here in Belgium use them at schools and universities, and I also found them helpful for expanding my vocab. April 4, 2017 at 3:27pm Reply

              • Austenfan: I’m nuts about those little Robert books about grammar, verbs, finding the right word. I’ve got 5 in all. Also the contrasting grammar French Dutch that I have is excellent.
                I’m actually not surprised about there being a difference between UK selling figures and US. One of my favourite literary discussion programs on TV5 often has English-speaking guests and they just employ an interpreter for the occasion. It works a treat.

                I’ve just ordered another translation of Gogol. By a translator who has written an interesting little book on the theory of translation. April 4, 2017 at 3:44pm Reply

                • Victoria: “Trouvez le bon mot” is my favorite. And unlike many grammar books, these are affordable. I must’ve paid only 4-5 euros for mine.

                  I don’t know the selling figures for the US market, but I think the lack of translation is driven less by the low demand than by the internal dynamics of the publishing world. After all, some of the best sellers of the past few years have been translations, Ferrante, Knausgaard, etc. The argument that foreign literature is not worth bothering with, because it’s “foreign,” though, is senseless. April 5, 2017 at 2:51am Reply

                  • Austenfan: And I’m sure as a fan of Belgium you’ll be pleased to know that the gold standard for French grammar (La Grévisse) was written by 2 Belgians. April 5, 2017 at 4:23am Reply

                    • Victoria: I don’t have it, but I’ve used exercises from it. I might sit for my proficiency test this year, so it might be useful. And because I’m a geek, the idea of a 2000 page grammar book sounds great. 🙂 April 5, 2017 at 4:46am

                    • Cornelia Blimber: 2000 pages will cost you about € 300! (Grévisse: ” Le Bon Usage”).
                      You can have it cheaper: ”Précis de Grammaire Française”, also by Grévisse. Very good, it was our grammar when I studied French before going to the Classics. April 5, 2017 at 5:10am

                    • Victoria: Yes, Le Bon Usage. It costs 62€. April 5, 2017 at 6:28am

                    • Austenfan: Le Bon Usage is excellent. I use it for reference purposes. But I’ve got other grammars to memorise from. April 5, 2017 at 8:48am

  • OperaFan: I thought his name sounded familiar. His “The Nose” was set to a wild, roller coaster ride of an opera by Shostakovich. What a nutty story.
    I too, will need to add him to my list of authors to explore. April 4, 2017 at 8:18am Reply

    • Victoria: A friend invited me to the theater for my birthday, and that’s how I discovered this opera. Such fun, and yes, the story is Gogol at his best. April 4, 2017 at 8:22am Reply

  • Kate: Marvellous illuminating article, Victoria, thank you. I read Dead Souls some years ago but am due a re-read, I think, especially in the light of these insights.

    I also love The Leopard! What a wonderful novel. April 4, 2017 at 1:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also love the film, the Leopard. It has such a splendid cast–Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. Nomatter how many times I’ve seen it, it still moves me. April 4, 2017 at 3:00pm Reply

      • Kate: Yes it is. I was lucky enough to see it in the cinema a few years ago. Those wonderful Sicilian landscapes! April 4, 2017 at 6:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: The Cinematek in Brussels showed it a couple of years ago, and it was such a treat to see it on a big screen. April 5, 2017 at 2:53am Reply

      • Austenfan: Have you ever watched the other Visconti Delon film Rocco and his brothers? Not as grand, but very moving, and quite an uncharacteristic role for Delon. April 5, 2017 at 4:29am Reply

        • Victoria: The Cinematek had a retrospective on Visconti, so I finally saw Rocco and his Brothers. April 5, 2017 at 4:41am Reply

          • Austenfan: Did you enjoy it? April 5, 2017 at 2:17pm Reply

            • Victoria: Oh, yes! The cinematography, story, acting were excellent. April 5, 2017 at 5:36pm Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: You made me curious: in my time Le Bon Usage was very expensive. So we had Précis de Grammaire Française (314 p. incl. Index) by Grévisse.
    If Le Bon Usage costs nowadays € 62, I am interested, being a grammar-lover.
    According to my bookshop, Le Bon Usage, the extended version of Précis, (666 p.) costs € 295, 95. April 5, 2017 at 6:57am Reply

    • Victoria: Check also via the used book sellers. Textbooks rarely are discounted dramatically, but you might find better prices. But the price you got sounds very high. Just to be sure, this is the book I meant:
      This bookstore offers it for 89euros. April 5, 2017 at 7:33am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Wow, that’s a nice offer!! That must be the one, Précis has only 314 pages (right under my nose now). bookshop Athenaeum lists Le Bon Usage for € 295, 95. What a difference! thank you for letting me know. April 5, 2017 at 7:47am Reply

        • Austenfan: I got mine for around € 80,- at the Fnac. And it’s the big one. 300 euro’s sounds outrageous. April 5, 2017 at 8:42am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: It is indeed. But that’s the price at Athenaeum’s Bookshop in Amsterdam

            Speaking of grammars, may be I should buy an English one, my English being not the best.
            Not at Athenaeum’s for sure. April 5, 2017 at 9:50am Reply

            • Austenfan: I simply don’t understand that price. The price given by the publisher is 89€ but the ISBN number is different from the one listed on the Atheneum site. I think there might be some mistake. The number listed on the De Boeck site is ISBN: 9782807300699. April 5, 2017 at 2:51pm Reply

              • Cornelia Blimber: Thank you for researching!
                I buy all my books at Athenaeum’s, and they always have correct prices. I will ask them when I am in the store again, because this is really strange. April 5, 2017 at 3:07pm Reply

                • Austenfan: I’m very familiar with the shop, and it’s a gem, so that’s why I think there is some misunderstanding.
                  If you would like a good basic English Grammar, Core Grammar for higher education by Piet van der Voort is quite good. April 5, 2017 at 3:51pm Reply

                  • Cornelia Blimber: Yes, it is a gem, the only shop where you can find Greek and Latin texts, and lots of books on ancient culture.
                    I need an English grammar, and will follow your recommandation. April 5, 2017 at 4:07pm Reply

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