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Dead Souls, Part III

Earlier this afternoon, I finished reading my first Russian novel. Hurrah! I made it! Granted, it was hardly more than a novella, but I still feel proud of my accomplishment. It was a near thing. I started reading The Prestige Monday night and I've had a hard time putting that one down. (More on The Prestige later.)

So, now that I've read Dead Souls, I presumable know what it's about, right? Well, I have to say that there really wasn't much plot. Protagonist enters town, charms inhabitants, buys or is gifted with the ownership rights to deceased serfs, things go pear-shaped, and the protagonist leaves town while the narrator waxes rhapsodical about Russia. And according to the Wikipedia article on this book, it's an unfinished novel--so who knows how long this sucker was going to go on.

I really think that this book is more a study of characters and a gentle satire. Gogol seems have a lot more fun creating odd characters for the purpose of poling fun at the Russian aristocracy than he does telling a story. What I learned from Gogol's perspective of that group was that many of them were extremely social creatures who were inordinately fond of gossip, not especially intelligent or possessed of much common sense, and were really quite fickle. Like I said before, no one comes off well in this book, not even the protagonist.

The Wikipedia article cited above, and the notes in the edition of Dead Souls that I had, also mention that this isn't a traditional novel. It's really more of a poem that's written in prose. And I could really see this by the end of the book when the narrator appears to totally lose control and starts describing the Russian country side as Chichikov, the "hero," flees town. The narrator goes on, at length, about his strange relationship with Russia. It's full of poor people, there's not much to recommend it (according to the narrator), and yet he loves the country. It's got its hooks into him and is not letting go. Maybe that's what this whole story is about. The world is full of imperfect, often mean, poor, or silly people, and yet, we enjoy being in it. (Though, it was a bit of a struggle, that last chapter and a half.)

What I really enjoyed about the book was the funny little comments that peppered the story, the little lines that made me smirk or chuckle as I read them. It was almost like reading Wilde, though the funnies didn't come as often, and Gogol has a sharper and weirder sense of humor.


Dead Souls, Part II

Wierdly, the longer I continue my work towards my MLS, the more I realize that most concepts they we think are new to this century are actually not so new. The Ptolemies, understanding that knowledge is power, held a monopoly on scholarship at the Library of Alexandria. Alexander Pope felt the frustrations of being a successful author by being hounded by his fans and budding writers who wanted his opinions. Laurence Sterne wrote a postmodernist novel that was published in parts between 1759 and 1769.

And, apparently, Nikolai Gogol was doing stunning work breaking the "fourth wall." Other writers of the period did this, by directly addressing the reader, but in every chapter of Dead Souls, Gogol directly addresses the reader and/or draws the reader's attention to the fact that he, the narrator, is actively composing the novel. Here's an example from page 154 of 1996 Yale edition:
The ladies of the town of N--- were...no, I simply can't do it, I really do feel a certain timidity. The most remarkable thing about the ladies of the town of N--- was...Why, it's actually odd, my quill absolutely refuses to rise, just as if it were loaded with lead or something.
It almost feels like you're in the room with him as he writes this novel. And this book was published in 1842, long before postmodernism got going or plays got experimental. And you certainly don't see this kind of writing, the "Dear reader" writing, much anymore. (It's kind of strange that I like this kind of playing around with literature, and I don't much care for Mark Danielewski's experiments. (See previous post.))

I've encountered a lot of narrators, and only a few of them stand out in my mind as attempting to draw the reader into the story as much. The other that sticks out is the narrator of Gulliver's Travels, a snarky narrator who like to point out Gulliver's cluelessness or his Eurocentrism.

Dubious New Books

Mark Z. Danielewski and Thomas Pynchon have new books out. I don't know how I feel about these authors. I've never read Pynchon, but I understand that his books are spectacularly dense. I read the review in Time magazine, and it looks like this new book is no exception. I did attempt to read Danielewski's House of Leaves, and only made it about halfway through before I gave up.

While I appreciate that Danielewski took the suggestions and ideas of his readers into account, books like these make me wonder if it matters that you're a brilliant writer if most people can't understand your work and the ones that do understand it only understand it after long study.

It's kind of a classic, unsolvable struggle, the way I see it. On the one hand, writers should write the books they want to write. But on the other hand, you have to please the readers.


Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol, Part I

I'm starting to think that Dead Souls is the first Russian novel that I've read all the way through. I am approaching the half way point, and I'm still enjoying myself. I picked up Dead Souls for a couple of reasons. First, since I bailed out on Nanowrimo, I felt like I ought to do something literary this month. Second, I've heard parts of the story, and I want to know the rest of it.

I have to say, though, I really like the way Gogol writes. He's sort of a cross between Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding, I think. On the one hand, he's pretty misanthropic. None of the characters comes off very well, and they all seem to have serious flaws. You wouldn't want to deal with any of them. But on the other hand, the descriptions and situations in this book are pretty funny. In that way, Gogol's a bit like Fielding--but the comedy isn't as broad. Gogol has a lot of really funny turns of phrase, especially in the character descriptions. I didn't expect to laugh so much at something that was written more than 150 years ago by a Russian. Not that I have anything agaisnt Russians, it's just that they tend to depress the hell out of me.

My only concern about the book is the translation. The translators, don't get me wrong, have done a really good job. I understand what's going on, but I can see some use of slang that I think is modern. I don't know any Russian, and I don't know enough about Russian culture to know what the slang would have sounded like at the time. What I'm worried about is if the translator's voice is drowning out Gogol. Which is unfortunate, because I do like how the man writes. I have read other translated works were I don't pick up on the fact that it's translated, like The Shadow of the Wind. I didn't "hear" any narrators I shouldn't have. That might be kind of difficult to understand. With the translation of Dead Souls that I'm reading, there are times when I don't think it's Gogol that's writing. But with Shadow, it sounded like Ruiz-Zafรณn all the way through. And, given that this book was published 1842, some of the translation makes the characters sound anachronistic--there are modern turns of phrase that stick out in a bad way.

I am trying to finish a chapter a day. So I should be done with this book by mid-week next week. More Dead Souls later, then.

I don't feel so bad about reading Terry Pratchett anymore

...thanks to this post.


Snake Agent, by Liz Williams

Over the last week, I've been reading (very slowly) Snake Agent by Liz Williams. (And the slowness is really only due to my business this month, otherwise, I think I would have zipped through this book already and be at the point of regretting that its over and that I now have to go and track down the rest of the series). So far, my thought is "Why haven't I heard of this author before now?" She's wonderful. This is one of the most imaginative books I've read in a long time.

Like John Burdett's books, Liz Williams book basically takes a genre that developed in the West and put it in Asia. In this book, the genre is contemporary fantasy--with some horror, science fiction, and mystery thrown in. And, like Burdett's Jitpleecheep, I get a totally different perspective on these kinds of stories because of the narrator.

In Snake Agent, Inspector Chan is a detective who handles supernatural cases. So far so good, but then we learn that he has a demon for a wife, he's on the outs with his patron goddess, Kuan Yin, and Hell is up to something more sinister than usual. And, he's got a demon hunter from Beijing after his wife. I am totally hooked. I'm not done with this yet, but there are so many loose plot threads that I am very interested to see how this all turns out.

What I think I like best about this book is how much detail Williams put into the worlds the characters inhabit. I don't know what kind of research the author put into this, and if it accurately shows an Asian idea of Hell and the afterlife. But I am fascinated by how this version of Hell differs from the Western version of it. I know that other authors have probably played with the idea that Hell is a bureaucracy, but Williams really runs with it.

The only problem I have with this book is that, for the longest time I couldn't figure out if it was the first book in the series. I hate picking up a book in the middle of a series, for various reasons. As far as I could tell, this was the first book, but the characters kept referring to events that might have happened in a previous book. Rrr. It took me about half of the book to decide that this really is the first volume. But apart from that, I am really enjoying this. It's fast-paced; the plot is complicated and wonderfully involving.

So now, it looks like I'm going to have to find the rest of the series.


I belong in a library

...because I am constantly amused by classification systems. Seriously. How can you not enjoy something that can put something written by Robert Boyle on the same shelf as a biography of John Dee? (Library of Congress Classification does this at one of my libraries.) I've also seen books about death shelved right above books about fast food (Dewey Decimal Classification) and, in one very small library, Danielle Steel right next to John Steinbeck (alphabetical).

If someday you're in a library and you hear someone chuckling in the stacks, it might be me laughing at the weird juxtapositions of books on the shelves.