Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dead Souls and life within a metaphor - he may just have dropped in on Schiller for a chat

At the risk of incoherence, I am going to discuss, with interruptions, a long passage from Dead Souls. It worked for Nabokov. Ha ha! The number of writers whose last words were “It worked for Nabokov” – oh well, let’s try it.

We’re exactly halfway through the novel, at the end of Chapter 6. Our hero Chichikov is returning to town from his excursion to the countryside. This is all one paragraph.

“It was already dusk when they drove up to town. Light and shadow had become thoroughly intermingled and, it seemed, all objects had also become intermingled among themselves. The striped tollgate had taken on some indeterminate hue; the mustachios of the soldier on duty seemed to be up on his forehead and considerably above his eyes, and as for his nose, why, he seemed to have none at all.”

[This is what I was getting at yesterday. Gogol is really looking at the world, and here describes the sort of light effect we might see in a Turner painting. As for the missing nose, see Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose”, and also the drawing of him to the right, in About Me. He was obsessed with noses.]

“The thunderous rattling of the carriage and its bouncing made the occupant notice that it had reached a cobbled way. The street lamps had not been lit yet; only here and there were lights beginning to appear in the windows of the houses, while in the lanes and blind alleys scenes and conversations were taking place inseparable from this time of day in all towns where there are many soldiers, cabbies, workmen, and beings of a peculiar species who look like ladies, wearing red shawls and shoes without stockings and who dart like bats over the street crossings at nightfall.”

[Gogol commonly begins his descriptions with this disclaimer – this is what you see in “all towns” of a certain type. But he immediately starts picking out details – the red shawls, the darting, like bats.]

“Chichikov did not notice them, nor did he notice even the exceedingly slim petty officials with little canes who, probably after taking a stroll beyond the town, were now returning to their homes. At rare intervals there would come floating to Chichikov’s ears such exclamations, apparently feminine, as ‘You lie, you drunkard, I never let him take no such liberties as that with me!’ or: ‘Don’t you be fighting, you ignoramus, but come along to the station house and I’ll show you what’s what!’ In brief, such words as”

[Ah ha, we’re beginning a simile, which for some reason is describing the exclamations Chichikov barely hears.]

“such words as will suddenly scald, like [simile # 2] so much boiling water, some youth of twenty [who is this?] as, lost in reveries, he is on his way home from the theater, his head filled with visions of a Spanish street, night, a wondrous feminine image with a guitar and ringlets. What doesn’t he have in that head of his and what dreams do not come to him?”

[Already, it is easy to forget that the Spanish street and the “image” with the guitar are just theater-inspired fantasies in the mind of a character who exists entirely within the metaphor, which was supposed to tell us what some overheard phrases were like.]

“He is soaring in the clouds, and he may just have dropped in on Schiller [!] for a chat [so the metaphorical man has been to the metaphorical theater to see a metaphorical Don Carlos], when suddenly, like thunder, the fatal words [back to the words] peal out over his head, and he perceives that he has come back to earth once more, but actually to Haymarket Square, and right by a tavern, at that; and once more life has begun strutting its stuff before him in its workaday fashion.”

At this point Chichikov himself, thundering along, also dreaming, although probably not about Schiller, arrives at his own inn, so we leave the simile.

This is the characteristic of Dead Souls, the metaphors that not only describe the “real” world of the novel, but intrude on it, or exist alongside it. The “fictional” young man in a post-theater reverie, or the twenty-year-old fellow with a guitar in yesterday’s pumpkin-head metaphor, has just as much existence as many of the “actual” characters.

Gogol spins out these metaphor-inhabiting characters a dozen times or more, although not always at this length. It’s a virtuoso performance, with only a hint of precedent in his own work, and less in anyone else’s. I don’t think there’s much in the way of successors either. Dead Souls is a unique book.

Does this device mean anything? I’ll take a shot at that tomorrow. This was plenty long.


  1. I think you're right. I can't remember having seen this technique anywhere else.

    It reminds me, though, of something a great short story writer named Rick Bass often does to add the illusion of fullness to his short stories. He will slip into the conditional mood (we would do this; we would do that), which is best for summary, but he does it with such detail that you believe a single instance is being dramatized. When you get to the end of the section and realize that it really was all a summary of past events and that many different instances were being described, not just one, the story suddenly takes on a much bigger feel. In this way, he makes short stories feel like novels.

  2. You've identified the primary effect - it's a way to fill out the world of the novel or story. I should look for the Bass stories.

    You've also reminded me, somehow, that these metaphors are strange versions of the "epic simile", which dates back to the beginning. Here's an entirely random example from the Iliad, Book 11, tr. Lattimore:

    They left these to lie there, since they had ended their fighting \ then went into the ranks and wrought havoc, as when two wild boars \ hurl themselves in their pride upon the hounds who pursue them.

  3. Virtuoso performance indeed - the layering here is so satisfying. I love the way it makes the reader pay attention.
    "does this device mean anything?" a very good question, can't wait to see your thoughts.

  4. I was thinking of Homer as well. JDs comment on Rick Bass is useful. Japanese novelists do this too but with a more specific intertextuality (referencing and alluding to other authors and other works of literature). As you mention, this technique works well to add more "story" to the story.
    It's interesting to me because contemporary narration can't get away with this so blatantly - ultimately the filled out simile tells us more about the narrator than the character. If I read the excerpt correctly this isn't Chichikov dreaming about some other young man - its simply the narrator filling out an image, an operation which exists outside Chichikov. Fascinating!

  5. Oh, man. This is going to kill me--I'm right in the middle of studying Elizabethan drama while revising what I've written about Herodotus and Thucydides. I don't have time to go back and look at Rick Bass again--but what you've said about epic simile makes me want to revisit him.

    It's interesting, because the effect of Bass's best work is very much epic, that of a kind of modern myth. Just as Odysseus or Achilles or Diomedes or the Trojan War are larger than life, so are Bass's characters and events. But what I can say here doesn't really do him justice--he's so imaginative and quirky.

    If you decide to read Rick Bass, and I hope that you do, read his short story collections "The Watch" and "In the Loyal Mountains" first.

  6. verbivore, you're right that this device almost has to be associated with the first-person. It draws attention to the narrator. In Dead Souls the narrator is the author, or the "author". Hardly a straightforward device.

    So here, right, the narrator is describing something external to Chichikov, who isn't even paying attention.

    Also: what kind of story could use this sort of metaphor? What kind of imagination could come up with it?

    j.d., thanks for the specific recommendations. On The List.

  7. Not to resurrect a long-dead thread or anything, but too bad you did Dead Souls before my WE discovery.

    Also: what kind of story could use this sort of metaphor? What kind of imagination could come up with it?

    Leaving aside the second question, as I am somewhat dumbly fascinated by Gogol's imagination, I think this kind of metaphor serves perfectly when "Gogol" the narrator has someone like Chichikov to deal with as a protagonist. We know these aren't Chichikov's daydreams; we know his are far more mundane. Chichikov's mind is certainly not on the scolded youth, much less on Schiller. How much better to hear "Gogol's" imaginings than to close in on Chichikov with still more thoughts of dead souls and suckling pigs...I seem to remember an inordinate consumption of suckling pigs.

  8. Nicole, every post is still alive to me. They are like my children. I love them all equally, and pat the heads of each and every one before putting them to bed every night.

    You were saying? Oh, that's right - yes, you're spot on. Chichikov is a sort of empty barrel, not a man of rich imagination. This marvellous Gogolian world dances around him, and he doesn't know it's there.

    You're right about the suckling pigs, alhtough this time it's the bear-like Sobekevich eating an entire sturgeon that remains in my head.