Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dead Souls - crayfish, straw-stemmed cheroots, and that kind of pumpkin

So what’s in Dead Souls that one could not have found elsewhere in 1842? There’s this simile, for example:

“Without the little wench it would have been difficult to accomplish even this, inasmuch as the roads crept off in every direction, like a catch of crayfish when you dump them out of a sack...” (Ch. 3, p. 55)

Everything is like an animal in Dead Souls. Geese, bats, bears, ants, and flies, flies, flies.* Or almost everything – not this fellow:

“The corner shop – or to put it better, it’s windows – was occupied by a vendor of hot mead, with a samovar of ruddy copper and a face as ruddy as his samovar, so that from afar one might think that there were two samovars standing in the window, if only one of them were not sporting a beard as black as pitch.” (Ch. 1, p. 2)

Or this happy couple:

“And quite often as they sat on the divan, suddenly, for no known reason on earth, he abandoning his pipe and she whatever she may have been working on (if it happened to be in her hands at the time, of course), they would impress so languishing and prolonged a kiss upon each other’s lips that one could, while it lasted, smoke a straw-stemmed cheroot to the end.” (Ch. 2, p. 21)**

One could, eh? One more:

“After a brief after-dinner snooze he ordered water and a washbasin to be brought and for an exceedingly long time scrubbed both his cheeks with soap, making them bulge out with his tongue...” (Ch. 1, p. 8)

That’s it, right there, the literal tongue in cheek. Last week I went on a bit about the attention to detail of Walter Scott, and his possible effect on Dickens, Balzac, and others, including Gogol. These writers were bringing the physical world into prose fiction in an unprecedented way. But nobody was looking as carefully at the world around him as Gogol. No one else had seen the bulging cheeks, or at least thought they were worth putting on paper.

Now we’re used to this sort of quotidian precision, here in the year 151 AMB (Anno Madame Bovary). But this novel, full of sneezing, snoring, nose-blowing, and digestion, is a first step on the path to Leopold Bloom on the toilet in Ulysses.***

But are we used to this:

“As Chichikov drove up to the front entrance he noticed two faces that had peered almost simultaneously through the window – one feminine in a house cap, narrow and elongated like a cucumber, and a masculine one, round, broad, like those Moldavian pumpkins called gorliankas, out of which they make, in Russia, balalaikas, the pride and joy of some frolicsome, twenty-year-old country lad, a fellow who knows how to wink and is a dandy and who not only winks at but whistles after the snowy-breasted and snowy-necked maidens who gather around to listen to his soft-stringed strumming.” (Ch. 5, p. 89)

Oh, I see, that kind of pumpkin, the kind that – wait, what is going on here? Who is that winking fellow? Tomorrow, a crack at this.

* Since the people are animals, it’s no surprise when, in Chapter 4, Gogol tells us what some horses are thinking.

** Nota Bene has identified this admirable passage as his favorite. The fussy parenthetical insert is hilarious.

*** I'm not saying there are no precedents. Rabelais, Swift, maybe Sterne. Right. But how about this, describing Russian provincial ladies: "Never did they say: 'I blew my nose; I sweated; I spat'; instead they said: 'I relieved my nose; I had to use my handkerchief.'" (Ch. 8, p. 155) Gogol knows this is new. Gogol nose - this is new.

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