Gogol’s great Russian classic is the Pickwick Papers of Russian Literature. It takes a sharp but humorous look at life in all its strata, but especially the devious complexities in Russia with its landowners and serfs. We are introduced to Tchitchikov, a businessman who, in order to trick the tax authorities, buys up dead ‘souls’ or serfs whose names still appear on the government census. Despite being a dealer in phantom crimes and paper ghosts, he is the most beguiling of Gogol’s characters. Gogol’s obsession with attempting to display ‘the untold riches of the Russian soul’ eventually led him to madness, religious mania and death. Dismissed by him as merely ‘a pale introduction to the great epic poem which is taking shape in my mind’, Dead Souls is the culmination of Gogol’s genius.
Translator: Constance Garnett