Monday, June 9, 2008

Nikolai Gogol on how to read - some word or other inevitably emerged

"He was by temperament taciturn rather than talkative; he even had a noble impulse toward enlightenment - i.e., the reading of books, the contents of which presented no difficulty to him whatsoever; it was all one to him if the book dealt with the adventures of an enamored hero or whether it was simply a dictionary or a prayer book - he read everything with the same attentiveness; if a handbook on chemistry were to be thrust under his nose he wouldn't have spurned it either. It wasn't what he read that pleased him, but more the reading itself or, to put it better, the very process of reading - lo and behold, some word or other inevitably emerged out of the welter of letters, even though, at times, the Devil alone knew what the word might mean."

Dead Souls, tr. Guerney, Chapter 2, p. 14 of the Yale University Press edition.

Speaking of page 14:

"In his study there was always some book lying about, with a bookmark on page 14, which he had been steadily reading for two years by now." (Ch. 2, p. 20)

Why are novelists so suspicious of reading? The theme goes back to the beginning, to Don Quixote. However you're reading their precious book, they never think you're doing it right.

Let's spend this week reading and writing about Dead Souls, Greatest Novel of the First Half of the 19th Century.


  1. I'll be tuning in religiously to read these posts. I won't be able to get around to "Dead Souls" myself until later this summer, but it'll build the anticipation, I think.

    I may have mentioned here before that Gogol is high on my "must read" list based on his -- oh, I hesitate to say it without firsthand knowledge -- stylistic, maybe? -- connection to Denis Johnson.

    Johnson himself made the connection. Exactly what he said escapes me, and I want to read Gogol to see if I can figure out what Johnson got from him.

  2. flaubert said, don't read for entertainment, like kids, don't read for educating yourself, like the ambitious, read for living.
    it seems to suit petruska perfeclty.

  3. “I think the worst phenomenon, the most upsetting thing nowadays,” Jonathan Franzen said in conversation with James Wood at Harvard, “is the feeling that there’s no one out there responding intelligently to the text.”

    Mr Franzen, please get over yourself.

    This remark was reported by Wyatt Mason at his Sentences blog, May 23rd. Mason's blog is relatively new and always good reading.

  4. j.d., Gogol himself, in certain moods, would agree that your attention to him should be religious. He was a notoriously bad interpreter of his own work. As for the D. Johnson connection, I believe it.

    I thought Petrushka's reading would strike a chord with some people - is it ridiculous, or is it part of the way we all read? Or both? Is his reading neurotic, or refreshingly neurosis-free?

    Oh, that Franzen interview had some funny stuff. His generosity was remarkable - he thought about funding a prize for young writers, but then didn't. I'm also generous in that way. I should put up Wyatt Mason's blog here. Some othere people's, too. *cough* Historical/ Present.

  5. Great question - novelists both need and are afraid of their readers. That tension must be powerful. No wonder so many novels insert "reading" or other books into their pages, but often with ambivalence.

    I need to reread Dead Souls - this week will be fun as I follow your posts.

  6. I haven't read Dead Souls yet, but hope your posts whet my appetite. After reading about The Overcoat, I bought his collected tales and am looking forward to starting them next week.

  7. Thank you both. I ought to be able to communicate my enthusiasm. We'll see what else.

  8. I read the unbelievable Guerney translation a few years ago, though until I came upon your posts, I forgot it belongs on my list of favorite books.! I'll try to also add my favorite selections to my blog. While I was reading it, acquaintances kept cringing at the title, as in "oh, you're reading the depressing Russians" and I had a hard time convincing them it's one of the funniest books ever.

  9. The title has been nothing but trouble. Religious censors, misguided critics (including, possibly, me), assorted sticks in the mud, all misinterpreting it. But it's also very rich, suggesting many different things.