Dec. 4, 2005

To Debbie's friend,
whose name assuredly begins with a capital jay,
and is very likely succeeded by a lowercase e,
though beyond that is any man's guess

Heretoforthwith, I am writing on a matter of previous consultation, being a comparison of the works of Nicky Gogol and Freddy Dostoevsky. I will focus mainly on Gogol's Dead Souls and Dostoevsky's The Idiot. For while Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov (accent on the "Kar," minor stress on the "ma") still sit on my shelf, they are no longer within my ken. Nor have I read more Gogol as of yet.

I will assume that you have not read these works and provide a brief synopsis, for 3) it is very unlikely that any American reader has read either of these authors, let alone both, 1) you yourself told me you haven't, and 2) this way I can just make up what I like. Moreover, one of the goals of this letter is for you to be able to pretend you have read books you haven't, which seems to be your forte. (You shouldn't take offence at this, but rather be flattered--for the only real benefit of books is to talk about them with other people and pretend you're well read, and this way you avoid the grunt work. It's really the most logical and intelligent approach to reading if you ask me.)

Perhaps I should preface with a few remarks. First, while reading The Idiot I did not know I would be comparing it with Gogol, whereas with the Gogol I did. (As you may recall, it was Freddy's many references to Gogol which prompted me to read Gogol.) Additionally, it has been some time now since I finished Dostoevsky. This may skew things a bit. Second, I am no literary critic, and this comparison is more of a vague impressionistic portrait of my thoughts on reading the two than any in-depth literary analysis. This isn't really based on highbrow theories of critique, assiduous research, probing analysis, or even what's actually written in the books, so you probably shouldn't try to impress anyone at Russian cocktail parties with anything in here. On the other hand, what's obvious is often what's most profound, but this kind of attitude won't win you brownie points with the intellectuals--or really society at large even. Third, and this goes along with the second, I think what you originally requested was a comparison of Dostoevsky and Gogol the writers, not specific works. So I don't plan any sort of systematic treatment of the texts. In fact, I have no idea what will come out of my pen. It'll be a surprise for both of us. Perhaps one could liken this to the breaking of a pinata--or, better yet, a high school report.

Nicky lived from 1809 until 1852, and Dead Souls was published in 1842. Freddy on the other hand, was born in a different year, and died in a different one too. If I were to guess, I'd say 1817-1889. Perhaps the Idiot was published in 1871-1872 as a serial. It's in four parts, Dead Souls in three, but the Nicky died writing the third after he had destroyed the second. How does that make any sense? Why would he work on the third after he considered the second a failure? Well, he was nuts. I mean psycho--like seriously warped--I mean completely mental--maybe he didn't go around clucking like a chicken all day, but you certainly would not want him over for a tea party. Freddy was bonkers too, though not quite as off his rocker as Nick. I think they were both manic-depressive (you've read Crime & Punishment, right? you should've figured out about Freddy). I remember Freddy had big gambling problems and was married twice, but I can't think of too much else right now. I think lots of Russian writers were deeply troubled. Tolstoy was. I don't know about Pushkin. I guess that's really all my data. But really, who else was there? Chekov, I suppose. Turgenev--but I think he might have been an anti-Russian, though I might be confusing him with someone else. I do want to read his Fathers & Sons though.

Did I mention Nick & Freddy were Russian? Consequently, they wrote their books in a whole nother language--I mean, it wasn't even English--they've got completely different letters and everything--it's mind-boggling! (I'm not trying to be facetious--I was actually really amazed when I thought about it. Amazement is a wonder, but once again this wonder fails to impress at cocktail parties.) Perhaps now's a good time to put in that I quite like the translation I read of the Idiot by Alan Myers from the Oxford World's Classics series. The notes were quite helpful. On the other hand, I read the Dover Thrift Edition of Dead Souls, which is a reprint of the Everyman's Library translation in 1846. Here I felt more notes would've been helpful because most 19th century Russian references are lost on me, along with anyone else who dares call themself American. The contrast in translation (both in translators and date of translation--Myers' translation is from 1992) makes it quite hard to compare the use of language. Dead Souls was a lot slower reading for me, which I think is due in part to the translation, but probably largely due to the original content.

Let me now say a few words about the storylines. The Idiot is about Prince Myshkin, who had debilitating epilepsy in his youth and was sent to the Swiss for medical help. He was essentially a non-functioning member of society until his treatment in Switzerland (I might guess he was around 20 then, but not with enough certainty to put it into writing--apart from the fact that I just did, of course). And then, mostly he interacted with children and his doctor. While young and inexperienced, he is very intelligent, believes strongly in the goodness of others, trusting and sincere in his actions, passionate in his ideals, and overwhelmingly compassionate. In short, he has all the qualities which society seems to admire in principle, but disdains in practice. I believe this is Freddy's view also, and the real reason why the society refers to him as an "idiot," despite them using that term in reference to his illness.

(Freddy was an epileptic too and blamed what he felt was unproductiveness on his illness. I think he felt unjustly treated by the heavens--he said something to the effect of "Had I the untroubled health of Tolstoy or Turgenev, I would have mopped the floor with them. Russians would be using War and Peace for toilet paper and Anna Karenina for fireplaces.")

At the beginning of the book, when the Prince is about 25 or 26 and now mostly cured, he is taking a train back to St. Petersburg. Then, and I quote, "and a bunch of stuff happens." (Perhaps if you were to look at a copy of The Idiot, it is unlikely that your translation goes as such, as most translations I find are far too sesquipedalian, but I assure you that this is the authentic text.)

Dead Souls is some sense an opposite story to the Idiot. The hero, Chichikov, is a middle-aged man who has all the qualities society admires in practice, but on the inside comprises qualities which society distains in principle. He is very clean and well mannered, highly respected and well liked on his behavior, but ultimately a flim-flam man. In Part I, he enters a provincial town, meets all the right people, says all the right things, and then starts clandestinely racketeering for dead souls. That is, he tries to aquire for cheap serfs who have died since the last census. The landowners must still pay tax on these dead souls until the next census, so they are often happy to get rid of them though Chichi won't say why he wants them.

I must say that I like Dostoevsky immensely more than Gogol. I find Dostoevsky much more inspiring. For me, and I believe for Freddy, the Prince is who I aspire to be. Dostoevsky has many characters and much intrigue going on--I find it much more engaging and spiritual than Gogol's work. This is not to say that Gogol's work doesn't have meaning in it, though it happens to be primarily a comedy. He does chide his readers to look deeper than the surface, not so much about other people, but really about themselves--which is what any good novel should do, and certainly more profound than "don't judge a book by its cover." When I say this, I mean he explicitly writes these sorts of words directly to his readers using Chichikov for comparison. Both he and Freddy write as narrators/authors who are often present, not absent, with their readers. I don't remember if Tolstoy does this too, but they try to be personal, and I like that. But my original point was that the relations among Dostoevsky's characters are much more developed and faster moving, while in Dead Souls, we're mostly just following Chichi going about his scheme. And another thing, despite Dead Souls being a 'comic masterpiece,' I actually found The Idiot more amusing. Dead Souls is certainly absurd. For one instance, the Postman claims that Chichi is an infamous wounded captain who had lost an arm and a leg in 1812. He goes on to relate the story and argue the point for four or five pages when the Chief of Police finally interjects to remind the Postman that said captain had only one arm and one leg (a fact mentioned four pages earlier), whereas Chichi... dot, dot, dot. After which the Postman weakly tried to argue that the current state of technology in wooden legs was quite advanced.

I particularly liked the point when two women are contemplating what diabolic plans Chichi had for buying so many dead souls (the town does find out at the end of Part I). The one who brought the news was very suspicious, though thoroughly uncertain of his schemes. The other however--who didn't even know about the dead souls before--told the first with utmost certainty what the dead soul scheme was:

["They are an intervention to conceal something else. The man's real object is, is--to abduct the Governor's daughter."
So startling and unexpected was this conclusion that the guest sat reduced to a state of pale, petrified, genuine amazement.]

(Such a conclusion was, of course, completely out of the blue.) Much of Gogol's humor is in absurdisms coupled with clever turns of phrase such as this, though most of it (possibly owing to the translation) is less funny. If you found Gulliver's Travels funny, probably Dead Souls would be a riot for you. I, however, don't believe I laughed once through Gulliver's Travels. (However I do feel a deep sense of gratitude to Swift for the verse

[As when we a gun discharge,
Although the bore be ne'er so large,
Before the flame from muzzle burst,
Just at the breech it flashes first;
So from my lord his passion broke,
He farted first, and then he spoke.

Ah, there never are enough good fart poems. I can only think of one other. From classic verse, I mean, not what is loosely referred to on the Internet as poetry.) It's the sort of humor that's amusing in meditation but not on the page. I mean that, for Gulliver's Travels & Dead Souls, the content is amusing but the presentation is more subtle than many a modern author, or reader, could handle. It's not that Dead Souls fails to be funny (as I hope I've convinced you with the examples), but for me the story and the humor moved rather slowly. It's certainly no Importance of Being Earnest. Anyway, The Idiot wins in the humor category also. How could you lose with a line like "Did you get my hedgehog?" There's no possible context in which a line like that isn't funny. Hedgehogs are funny. It's a scientific fact. In this instance, there was great tension between the Prince and the General's family, on account of one of the General's daughters. Then Freddy writes

[Everyone realized that the resolution of all their perplexities was at hand.
'Did you get my hedgehog?' she asked firmly, almost crossly.]

Why aren't you laughing? It's funny, I tell you. Though it could do with about 500 pages of build up. That's the real kicker. After 500 pages of Russian literature, you're ready to laugh at anything. Trust me.

Put briefly, Dostoevsky's characters are much more animated, and so their interactions come across as more humorous when funny, more intense when excited, more joyous when happy, more painful when saddened, and more moving when heartfelt. That's one thing I learned. (Another is don't say "Soy excitado(a)" when you're in Mexico. Apparently exictado means horny. Who knew? Apparently everyone in Mexico except for me, that's who.) One thing Freddy believes in is the passion of the Russian soul, which borders on insanity--sometimes on this side, sometimes the other. He seems to love it, as do his heroes, and it isn't absent in The Idiot either.

Now you basically know the story of Dead Souls, at least Part I. There is a partial version of Part II in the volume also, which I've only read a bit of and don't really desire to finish (if Nicky didn't want to finish it either, why should I? right?). But till now, you may have noticed, I've been rather elusive on the story of The Idiot. This is partly because it is such a great book and I don't want to ruin it. I should say something more, however. Basically the book is about the Prince's relations with society. The first part focuses on events surrounding a woman Natasya, who's beauty is unsurpassed, but she is scandalous, fickle and deeply troubled. The scandalous bit, perhaps as well as her birth, puts her in the low end of society. Nevertheless, nearly everyone falls over for her and is vying for her affection. There are two prime suitors, Rogozhin and Ganya, both friends of the Prince, but of course no friends of each other. Rogozhin is madly in love with her, with madly being the key word, and in the Prince's words "likely to marry her one day and kill her the next." The other suitor, Ganya, seems to completely detest her. Not great options for the lady, right? Nor does she seem to care a lick for either of them. Nevertheless, they all play this endless charade, or at least they play for 171 pages. One thing about Dostoevsky is that each character seems to break out in a three-page societal/policital rant from time to time. Not that I mind so much, but other readers may not be interested in these aspects. Well, skip them if you want, though you will miss some good bits. One thing that Freddy and Nicky both seem to do is upbraid the upper class. They view the Westernization of Russia as a bad thing (I wonder if many prominent Asian and other non-Western writers are doing this now--do you know?). Nicky writes mainly of Western materialism, e.g., of getting the best French soaps and such, while Freddy seems to focus more on intellectualism. The emphasis with both of these is that the simple, honest Russian is better than a nouveau Russian materialist or intellectual because he is honest and caring with his fellow man.

This point is carried out in the plots of each. (You may have noticed that the middle of the paragraph seems blank. It isn't, but I wrote in white in case you don't want to know anything about the ending of The Idiot. Highlight it in your browser if you want to read it. (Isn't it cool? It's like electronic invisible ink. Maybe I should give you a secret decoder ring. I'll tell you what, I'll put one inside a Cracker Jack box somewhere in Virginia. See that you get it.) I won't give away details, but the general feeling. Oh, and if you don't want to know anything about the ending, don't read the introduction either. Basically what I write in white here just says the introduction sucks anyway.) The Prince tries to help people earnestly as best he can. Often, he succeeds, but he also fails greatly. I get the impression of Van Gogh or Beethoven in the end--not that he dies tragically, but in the failure of the society to recognize his message and what he is. False rumors circulate, and they often think he is a mental idiot or a charlatan. The end is indeed tragic though--and I didn't really like it. Not so much because of what the end was, but how it ended--it didn't seem to flow very well from the first three parts for me. Freddy tried to defend this somehow, but they say he viewed this work as a failure, and perhaps this is why. The introduction seems to be under the impression that this is because "the novel is about failure," which I heartily disagree with. Who would call Van Gogh or Beethoven a failure? This seems to me to be the mystery of Christ, the mystery of the martyr, strength in weakness, success in apparent failure, life in apparent death. The Prince himself was reputed to have said there is strength in mercy. And Freddy was, of course, one of the great Christian writers. My thoughts on the ending notwithstanding, The Idiot truly is a masterpiece. It is excellent both as an engaging story and as a meditation on life. I highly recommend it if you have the time. It's hard to say because of the time gap, but I might have even liked it better than The Brothers Karamazov, which is one of my favorite novels.

There are lots of little points on which I could continue comparisons, but I think all of us involved would prefer that I not. As I close, I feel a need to defend Dead Souls against my own criticisms. I've heard it called a classic and a masterpiece by men who would know better than I. It seems to be touted for its portrayal of the Russian countryside, and Gogol is hailed by Freddy as the source of modern Russian literature and, I quote, "without him, my work would not be possible." (Though likely Freddy would turn his back on Nicky lickety-split and spit in his eye after a fit if he was competition.) Don't think that I didn't like Dead Souls at all. I certainly liked parts of it. It is simply that I feel 1) I did not get much out of it personally, and 2) the style, which is a very personal thing, didn't really do it for me. For me, the purpose of reading a novel is to help me understand life, and my enjoyment of the novel is based on this and on the prose. Perhaps, had I come to Gogol before Freddy or Leo, I might have learned more; and, were the translation different, I might have enjoyed it more. I still believe Dead Souls is a classic and a masterpiece, and that the failure to appreciate it properly is mine own. Perhaps if you can appreciate Dickens, then you, unlike me, will be able to appreciate Dead Souls to its utmost. Pushkin, who was a friend to Gogol and in fact suggested the plot for Dead Souls based on a true tale, said "Gogol invents nothing; it is the simple truth, the terrible truth."

In conclusion, The Idiot is good--but Dead Souls is good too.

I would, of course, be happy to hear what you think, and especially if you decide to read Dostoevsky or Gogol (and if you have an answer to the Asian writer question). I am, at least via Debbie,

Yours sincerely,
Kimball Martin

P.S. Debbie's great! You probably knew this already. I had my suspicions, but I didn't really know until she came to New York.