Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita” and “Pale Fire,” has quite a few things to say regarding Nikolai Gogol and his “Dead Souls,” including an extensive attempt to define the Russian concept of “poshlust” in explaining much of the themes that run through “Dead Souls.” How does looking at “Dead Souls” through Nabokov’s eyes change our appreciation and understanding of Gogol’s work? Should it?
Transcript of episode, with discussion questions at the end:
Vladimir Nabokov’s Criticism of Dead Souls: the Poshlust of Chichikov and the landowners and Gogol’s groundbreaking style
In 1944 the brilliant, multilingual Russian-born author and professor Vladimir Nabokov published a short landmark criticism on the works and life of Nikolai Gogol. He dedicates about a third of the book to discussing Dead Souls and in his criticism, he presents some very compelling and insightful ideas regarding Gogol’s novel. This segment of our podcast will focus on Nabokov’s reading of Dead Souls.
In beginning his analysis, Nabokov rejects two common readings of Dead Souls. Firstly, he argues that Dead Souls is not a detailed realistic picture of provincial Russia. Gogol argues that to look for “an authentic Russian background” in Dead Souls is as useless as an endeavor as to figure out Denmark from reading Hamlet. Gogol’s characters and settings, Nabokov argues, merely “happen to be Russian” and undergo a “thorough permutation and reconstruction in the laboratory of Gogol’s peculiar genius.” Secondly, Nabokov argues that Dead Souls should not be read as a moral or reformist text, despite Gogol’s intentions, for reasons that will be explained later in this segment. Rejecting these two notions, Nabokov presents two major reasons why he believes Dead Souls to be a work of genius: firstly, for its masterful evocation of the Russian concept of poshlust, and secondly, for Gogol’s groundbreaking originality of style.
Nabokov spends a great deal of his section on Dead Souls trying to define the untranslatable Russian word poshlust in English. Falling short with such quasi-synonyms as “cheap, sham, common, smutty, high falutin’, [and] in bad taste” Nabokov then decides to define poshlust through an anecdote once told by Gogol, that we will now paraphrase:
When in Germany, Gogol encountered a German wooer attempting to court a woman from beneath her balcony. While she sat there enjoying the view and knitting, this man, day after day, would take off his clothes, plunge into the lake and embrace a couple of swans that he had prepared for that very purpose.
Both Gogol and Nabokov are at a loss to determine what exactly those swans were supposed to symbolize, but the courter’s belief that his actions were “poetically antique and mythological” represent poshlust in its “ideal form.” Other breeding grounds of poshlust include advertisements, in which perfect families are presented with freckled children and smiling grandmothers, literature, and propaganda. For Nabokov, poshlust suggests “that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser” and the concept is not, simply, the “obviously trashy, but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive” Throughout Dead Souls, Nabokov argues that Gogol brilliantly presents and parodies this very Russian concept, most notably in the characters of Chichikov, Manilov, and Sobakevich.
Chichikov’s actions throughout this novel exude poshlust. His driving motive is to obtain an estate on paper that does not even exist in reality, and surely this belief that happiness can be purchased, even through the buying of non-existent beings, is exactly what Nabokov was talking about. His entire aura “is continued and symbolized by his snuffbox and his traveling case.” His traveling case (the Russian word being feminine and suggesting a marriage between Chichikov and the valise) represents his dirty business dealings with all of those around him. Nabokov is keen to point out that Korobochka, whose name means, “little box,” is the only major female character in the novel, thus strengthening the suggesting of Chichikov’s union with his financial strongbox. Chichikov generously offers his snuffbox, filled with vile tobacco and decorated with a couple of violets, to everyone he encounters and this box and its offering alike ooze poshlust. Completely mediocre, inoffensive, and both mentally and physically round and pleasant, Chichikov is an incarnation of fakeness- his entire raison d’être seems to be his desire to please others so that he can advance his own material possession. Even Chichikov’s name, which translators Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky say is “echoic of bird’s chirping and scissors snipping” connotes his pleasant exterior but simultaneously scheming mind.
The landowners Chichikov encounters also embody poshlust, most notably Manilov and Sobakevich. Manilov, whose name comes from the Russian verb manit, meaning to allure or attract and also suggest the Russian word for mannerisms, is a hilarious representation of this concept, and his home is filled with poshlust: “the greasy green scum on the pond among the maudlin charms of an “English garden,” the pretentious “pseudo-classical” names of his children, and, for Nabokov the most evocative, the “neat row of hillocks formed by the ashes Manilov used to shake out his pipe…-the only artistic pleasure he knew.” Manilov’s saccharine politeness and over-compensating politeness are just as sickening to the perceptive reader as the brash, arrogant, and destructive attitude of Nozdryov, whose name disgustingly and fittingly suggests nostrils and “all sorts of holes and porosities”
For Nabokov, the poshlust that Sobakevich embodies is the most epic and poetical of any character in the book. His room, ridiculously adorned with “full length lithographic portraits of Greek generals,” and massive furniture, represents quite aptly this burly man, within whom Nabokov sees a poet of epic, romantic proportion. The food that Sobakevich gluttonously devours “is fare fit for some uncouth giant” and the amount of food he primitively engulfs is seen by Nabokov to be Homeric in its immensity. One does not have to stretch the imagination far to see within Sobakevich, (whose name comes from the Russian sobaka, meaning dog, and whose diminutives, such as Mish, mean bear) Polyphemus of Homer’s Odyssey.
While Nabokov certainly focuses for some time on Gogol’s uncanny ability to portray the petty poshlust of everyday characters, he also spends a great deal of his criticism analyzing Gogol’s innovative literary style. The two of Gogol’s many stylistic features on which Nabokov focuses are his ability to generate hypothetical characters and worlds out of similes and metaphors and his unprecedented originality in description.
Nabokov states that Dead Souls is ripe “with that Gogolian gusto and wealth of weird detail which lift the whole thing to the level of a tremendous epic poem” and cites many examples where Gogol is able to generate life through his powerful syntax. The first example Nabokov give, an extended simile describing gentleman at the governor’s ball will be given here in its entirety:
“The black tailcoats flickered and fluttered, separately and in clusters, this way and that, just as flies flutter over dazzling white chunks of sugar on a hot July day when the old housekeeper hacks and divides it into sparkling lumps in front of the open window: all the children look on as they gather about her, watching with curiosity the movements of her rough hands while the airy squadrons of flies that the light air has raised, fly boldly in, complete mistresses of the premises and taking advantage of the old woman’s purblindness and of the sun troubling her eyes, spread all over the dainty morsels, here separately, there in dense clusters.”
In this amazing sentence Gogol is able to create a whole home filled with two generations of characters that vanishes just as soon as it is so vividly and beautifully presented. In a cyclical fashion he starts with the flickering of the tailcoats, separately and in clusters, loses himself in the reverie he has crafted, and returns to the idea of separate and clustered flies. No other writer, save Homer, had ever attempted such comparisons. In his examination of the mundane movements of everyday characters, Gogol has the ability to create entire worlds. Other similar passages that Nabokov cites are the church chorister Gogol creates out of the barking of Korobochka’s dogs, the musician born from Sobakevich’s head, and the lieutenant trying on his boots all night at the end of Chapter 7.
Nabokov compares the way Gogol saw the world in opposition to the way every other writer saw the world to the way a human sees the world in opposition to the way “the faceted eye of an insect” see the world. Instead of using stale, overused descriptive terms inherited from European literature, such as the sky being blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, etc., Gogol was able to innovate literature by bringing in yellows and violets, describing the sky as a “pale green at sunrise” or “the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day”—innovations that “would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called “classical writer.” While descriptive passages such as Gogol’s description of Plyushkin’s garden may seem boring and overlong to the modern reader, at the time of Dead Soul’s publication they were as revolutionary to Russian literature as Manet’s art was to French painting, Nabokov argues.
For Nabokov, Gogol was a fascinatingly original artist and Nabokov’s preference to focus on the artistic merits of Gogol prevents him from accepting Dead Souls as a reformist, moral work with an important message. Nabokov discusses how the dead souls of the serfs are “revived” twice throughout the book: once by Sobakevich who is trying to get Chichikov to pay more for them by bragging about their merits despite the fact that they are already deceased, and again by Chichikov when he is looking over his deeds of purchase and begins to imagine the lives of all the names before him. Nabokov believes that Gogol’s art is good enough in these passages to revive the dead and that “ethical and religious considerations could only destroy the soft, warm, fat creatures of his [Gogol’s] fancy.” Gogol’s vision for parts two and three appeared ludicrous to Nabokov. He argues that in part one “All the characters…[are] equally subhuman, and all living in the bosom of Gogol’s demonocracy, [so that] it does not matter a damn who judges who” and that the attempt to bring in the superhuman judge of the government or society in parts two and three would have spoiled the beautiful art of part one.
Reading Nabokov’s opinions of Dead Souls is interesting and compelling, but he is certainly an extremely arrogant and opinionated man and his ego can definitely get in the way of his ideas. What do you make of his theory that Dead Souls can only truly be appreciated for its literary merit, and not its social commentary? Should what one great writer has to say about another writer even matter?