Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dead Souls -- Book Review

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Rating: 3 out of 5
When I was younger (and I realize that this makes me sound way more decrepit than I actually am), I went through something of a Russophile period.  (Yes, it's a real word, according to the Internet at least -- it means a person with a love of all things Russian.)  I made attempts to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, collected books about Russia, and just thoroughly immersed myself in it.  I grew out of it, as most of us grow out of our younger passions.  However, even though the only Russian literature I ever managed to actually get through was The Brothers Karamazov and a few short stories of Tolstoy's, I maintained an affection for the genre (if it can be called that) that persists to this day.

I tell you all this by way of saying that I was truly excited when I learned that The Classics Circuit was going to be hosting a blog tour of Russian imperial literature, called "White Nights on the Neva."  It seemed a perfect way for me to revisit my Russophile days of yore. For my review I chose an author whom I had heard of constantly -- Gogol -- and I chose one of his most famous books: Dead Souls.

Just a little biography that I found helpful: Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (one thing that made me a Russophile was the names!) lived from 1809 to 1852.  Dead Souls was published in 1842 when he was 33.  He had been publishing for 11 years at that point, so he was something of a matured author when this book came out.

Unfortunately, I have to say that I was not particularly impressed with the book (at least on a first reading), even though I really wanted to like it.

My problems with Gogol started with the prologue to the book. In the prologue, he worries that he has not gotten his characterizations right, or maybe he has misrepresented what the decor of Russian manor houses is really like. So he takes great pains to beseech readers with special knowledge to help him with "fact checking" in subsequent editions of the book.  This was off-putting to me, since it's not something that authors normally do.  But then it occurred to me that Gogol is generally regarded as a humorist/satirist, and that he was probably carrying this to such an extreme purely for the comedic effect.  However, it didn't feel like he was doing that (or else he was being extremely subtle and I was being extremely dense) so that started me off on the wrong foot with him. However, I am really not one of these readers that expects the author to do ALL the heavy lifting, so I trudged on.

The problem was, it didn't really get any better the more I got into the story itself. This is an early 19th-century novel, so I realize it's not going to read like James Patterson (and I say that as no real fan of James Patterson) but it's harder to relate to this novel compared to Dickens, for example.  The premise is intriguing to say the least: Chichikov, the main character, arrives in a town and begins visiting all the wealthy landowers, for two purposes: 1) to impress them and make vital business connections; and 2) to begin his scheme of acquiring the "dead souls" of the title.  These are serfs that have been accounted for on a landowner's census and other records, but they have died.  The landowner is still essentially paying taxes on them, however, so Chichikov's scheme is to buy them and take them off the landowners' hands.  His hope is to amass enough of these dead souls to gain some influence and power thereby, and be able to use them as collateral for buying his own estate.  It doesn't end well, of course, and Chichikov is, as the old-timers say, "run out of town on a rail."  The novel is incomplete and essentially ends at this point -- the most common explanation seems to be that Gogol thought better of his satire in his later years and tore up part of the manuscript.  Other sources simply state that the manuscript was never completed.

Even though I could not really get into this book, it was easy to see that there were actually layers there, and that I was (by necessity) reading the book too superficially to really appreciate or understand it.  Gogol apparently wrote this as a type of allegorical satire, and there are lots of clues that jump out at the reader from the very start.  Chichikov appears to be a kind of Everyman, in one way, and that is reflected in Gogol's initial description of him:

In the britchka was seated such a gentleman -- a man who, though not handsome, was not ill-favoured, not over-fat, and not over-thin.  Also, though not over-elderly, he was not over-young.

Later on, when Chichikov is trying to impress the various officials and landowners as he embarks on his scheme of wriggling into their good graces, the same motif pops up again:

So dazed was Chichikov that scarcely did he realize that the Governor was taking him by the arm and presenting him to his (the Governor's) lady.  Yet the newly-arrived guest kept his head sufficiently to contrive to murmur some such compliment as might fittingly come from a middle-aged individual of a rank neither excessively high nor excessively low.

Each official and landowner that Chichikov visits has his or her own idiosyncrasies, and it's clear that Gogol enjoys lampooning these people as well.  There is some genuine humor here -- it's just buried rather deeply at times.

Overall, I am glad I read this book, just to see what the fuss was about, but the main conclusion that I reached from it was that I need to read it again to get everything out of it that Gogol put into it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Farewell, My Lovely -- Book Review

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Rating: 4 out of 5

Today I am very happy for The Classics Circuit to visit my blog, in the guise of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction tour.

Farewell, My Lovely was published in 1940 by Raymond Chandler, the virtual inventor of the hard-boiled private detective.  It’s the second novel he wrote, and features the iconic detective Philip Marlowe.  Marlowe is not a very nice person sometimes (and one wouldn’t expect him to be, given the kind of people he has to deal with) but he’s honest, and strong, and brave to the point of foolishness.  That’s what we want in a private eye, anyway, right?

This book initially frustrated me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it.  But after I finished it, I realized that this novel is an ideal mystery story.  By that, I mean that it opens innocently enough, with Marlowe running into a hulk of a man named Moose Malloy, who happens to be searching for a former sweetheart named Little Velma.  He just happens to be searching for her in the dive where she used to be a singer, however, and that’s where the problems start.  The current employees and owner of the establishment are none too happy about Moose poking around there.  Moose ends up killing the owner of the bar in a back room, and thus Marlowe gets sucked into the story, even though he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Moose vanishes and Marlowe begins to look for Velma, trying to track down the source of this mystery.  Inevitably, of course, his questions lead to further questions, jewelry heists, gigolos, loose women, marijuana, a psychic who of course is not all he seems to be, more thugs than you can shake a stick at, crooked policemen, and murder.  Even though it was initially frustrating because of the disjointed way things seemed to be developing, I think this story is the best kind of mystery story: the reader encounters a series of events that seem totally unconnected and don’t make very much (or any) sense, and the author manages to keep his audience off balance for a very long time until things start to be pieced together.

Even though Chandler finally pieces the puzzle together in a highly satisfactory way, one doesn’t read him merely for the story itself.  His method of storytelling, along with his turns of phrase and imagery are as equally compelling as the plot itself.  Take these examples, just a few of the MANY I highlighted as I read:

“Uh-huh,” the voice dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed.


“Put it up – or I’ll blow it out of your hand!” I snarled.  My voice sounded like somebody tearing slats off a chicken coop.


It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.


I left her laughing.  The sound was like a hen having hiccups.


The house itself was not so much.  It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building.


A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day.


Mr. Grayle stood up and said he was very glad to have met me and that he would go and lie down for a while.  He didn’t feel very well. He hoped I would excuse him.  He was so polite I wanted to carry him out of the room just to show my appreciation.


He smiled his first smile of the day.  He probably allowed himself four.


Randall and I took our hats off.  In that neighborhood that probably ranked you with Valentino.


The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.

If you like those, there’s way more than that, but I just got tired of highlighting and retyping all of the great passages.

Chandler also waxes poetic from time to time in his novels, and while it sometimes strikes a jarring note, it can be a ray of light in an otherwise dark tale:

Twenty minutes’ sleep.  Just a nice doze.  In that time I had muffed a job and lost eight thousand dollars.  Well, why not?  In twenty minutes you can sink a battleship, down three or four planes, hold a double execution.  You can die, get married, get fired and find a new job, have a tooth pulled, have your tonsils out.  In twenty minutes you can even get up in the morning.  You can get a glass of water at a night club – maybe.

So Chandler is fun to read, definitely, but keep in mind a caveat: this novel was published in 1940, and what was socially acceptable then makes the reader of today cringe at least a little bit (and sometimes a lot).  I won’t go into all of the references that Chandler throws in – and yes, I know that this is not a story about a Sunday School picnic on the fourth of July – but the undercurrent of racism in this story is a sad reminder of where this country once was – and by some accounts, is headed again.  There’s also quite a bit of rough language, but it’s not that much by our modern-day standards (you can hear just as rough language watching prime-time TV these days), although I am sure it was eye-opening and risky in Chandler’s day.

All in all, this was a rewarding read, and whetted my appetite to read more Chandler.