June 2012

Evan McMurry

fiction

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Donald Rayfield

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, the urtext of the grand Russian novel, is an anomaly in the history of the form it helped define. At once a satire of Russian rural life and tribune of the restless nation, a castigation of nascent capitalism and a pedantic religious tract, Dead Souls has been banned as seditious and celebrated as the grandfather of socialist realism, published as nonfiction and as an adventure novel, called the Russian Odyssey, the Russian Don Quixote, and, by the author himself, the Russian Divine Comedy. At times it reads like a close cousin of the nineteenth century European novel; at other times it is aromatic of Russian folklore; and in its most ambitious moments it anticipates the kaleidoscopic modernism of Kafka. Many consider it a failure; others rank it as one of the best novels ever written.

Such is the wonder of Gogol. The strange Ukrainian schoolteacher, a late prodigy of Pushkin's, was prematurely alive to the catalytic properties of language, its ability not to only describe but to create and change. Gleefully refusing the fixity of meaning, Gogol followed out every word's endless and often contradictory ramifications until his sentences and paragraphs looped layers over themselves, daring multiple interpretations only to frustrate them. This makes him the most rewarding of writers. It also makes the task of translating him supremely challenging: how to render in a text once-removed the meaning that slipped the original?

Donald Rayfield's new translation for the New York Review of Books is the fourth attempt at this task in recent years, following Robert Maguire's for Penguin, Christopher English's for Oxford World Classics, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's for Pantheon. Pevear and Volokhonsky are the superstars of current Russian translation, known for their freewheeling, exuberant performances; Rayfield notes in his frugal introduction that every new translation does violence to the one before it, and Rayfield's violence is to shave the filigrees of Pevear and Volokhonsky's ornate style, giving us a cleaner, more accessible, and somewhat unremarkable edition of Gogol's only novel.

Dead Souls begins just as its protagonist Chichikov arrives to the town of N--, where he immediately sets to buying up the local landowners' dead souls -- serfs who have perished between censuses, still alive as far as the government is concerned and thus posthumously retaining their worth. Since landowners have to pay taxes on all registered souls, Chichikov figures they'll happily offload their dead souls to him for a pittance. Several hundred souls is the price of admission to the Russian gentry, and the mysterious Chichikov reckons he's found a way to amass them without actually possessing the wealth they should represent.

Nothing, of course, goes according to plan. Much of Dead Souls' joy comes in the extended comic scenes in which the aristocracy of N-- try to puzzle out Chichikov's scheme, as each landowner suspects they're being scammed, even as they try to bilk Chichikov out of his every penny for the souls that are worthless to them. The calcified codes of Russian hospitality mean Chichikov is welcomed and celebrated before anybody knows who he is, and the corrosive habits of gossip and conjecture soon lead the townspeople to imagine him a villain out to kidnap the governor's daughter and other romantic nonsense. The bumpkins are too subsumed in hackneyed plots and old world customs to see what Chichikov, in every way a harbinger of the fast-approaching capitalism, is really up to: acquisition, which the narrator fingers as the root of all evil. At least the serfs of the Russian countryside still have souls; just a couple decades after Dead Souls, Karl Marx would warn that it is something quite like a soul that laborers across Europe are giving up as their time is acquired for wages, turning men into the writs of sale Gogol's protagonist collects. Chichikov is the beginning of this end.

Yet Gogol grows more and more intrigued with this creation of his. Chichikov possesses the chameleonic charms that have paid con men's way throughout history, is characteristically fixated with appearances and hygiene, and in his middle-class snobbishness inflicts on his servants the very condescension he continually fears will rain down on himself. But in a nice twist, Gogol has him consistently fail at his grift. Chichikov can schmooze his way into any landowner's living room, but when the time comes to propose the purchase of dead souls, his words fail him; it's amazing Chichikov ends up with anything after the number of times he bungles himself out of a deal. His inability to execute the very plan upon which his upward mobility depends generates unexpected sympathy for the man, who is revealed as an orphan adrift in a world in which title and money rule all, and whose self-sabotage starts to seem, after a while, like an unconscious moral objection to himself.

All this unfurls through agile, circuitous metaphors, sarcastic apostrophes to shocked or disappointed readers, digressions on Russian muzhiks and manners and mores that slyly contradict themselves, hallucinatory symbolism, comic set pieces, authorial musings, and the famous ode to Russia at the end of part one -- "Russia, where are you hurtling to?" -- that still resounds through the country's literature 170 years later: "These are the things one thinks about after a night with the crack pipe," mused the protagonist of Gary Shteyngart's "Shylock on the Neva," just ten years ago, "'Russia, Russia, where are you flying to?' and all that Gogolian nonsense."

Donald Rayfield has taught the book for four decades, most recently as a professor of Russian at Queen Mary, University of London, and his confident translation bounces along like a britzka on a city street. He captures Gogol's eager pacing, nails his sudden dives and leaps in registers, and sidesteps Russian anachronisms without losing the onion domes and samovars. If Dead Souls has ever been an easy read, it's in Rayfield's translation.

But Gogol was never meant to be airport fare, and it's too easy, by contrasting his language to the translations that have come before him, to tell what Rayfield has sacrificed for readability. Flip, for instance, to the opening of chapter five, which begins just as Chichikov is hurrying from the scoundrel Nozdriov's estate. Below are three versions, the first, for contrast's sake, D. J. Hogarth's 1842 public domain translation, the second Pevear and Volokhonsky's 1997 translation, and the last Rayfield's:

Hogarth: "Certainly Chichikov was a thorough coward, for, although the britchka pursued its headlong course until Nozdrev's establishment had disappeared behind hillocks and hedgerows, our hero continued to glance nervously behind him, as though every moment expecting to see a stern chase begin. His breath came with difficulty, and when he tried his heart with his hands he could feel it fluttering like a quail caught in a net. 'What a sweat the fellow has thrown me into!'"

Pevear and Volokhonsky: "Our hero, however, had turned quite properly chicken. Though the britzka was racing along like wildfire, and Nozdryov's estate had long since rushed from sight, covered by fields, slopes, and hummocks, he still kept looking back in fear, as if he expected at any moment to be swooped upon by the pursuit. He had difficulty catching his breath, and when he tried putting his hand to his heart, he felt it fluttering like a quail in a cage. 'Eh, what a hot time he gave me!'"

Rayfield: "Despite his escape, our hero was thoroughly cowed. Although his barouche was hurtling along at breakneck speed and Nozdriov's village had long ago vanished from sight, leaving only fields, sloping hills, and hillocks to be seen, Chichikov still kept fearfully glancing back over his shoulder as if expecting any minute to see a posse in pursuit of him. He was having trouble breathing, and when he tentatively placed his hand on his heart, he could feel it beating about like a quail in a cage. 'God, what torment he put me through!'"

Rayfield's lack of buoyancy is noticeable here. Pevear and Volokhonsky best him with almost every verb: "rushed" is more expressive than "vanished," "covered" more efficient and visual than "leaving... to be seen," "swooped upon" more kinetic than "see... in pursuit," and "fluttering" more acute than "beating." "Thoroughly cowed" rings odd -- it was the passage that first prompted me to compare Rayfield's translation against my beaten up copy of Pevear and Volokhonsky -- whereas "quite properly chicken" has the combination of high diction ("quite properly") and slang ("chicken") that Gogol mixed so mischievously. Rayfield's "posse" sounds out of place, too wild west; Pevear and Volokhonsky's "pursuit" is better. Chichokov "felt" his heart in Pevear and Volokhonsky's graph; he "could feel" it in Rayfield, a needlessly indirect rendering. Only in the word "tentatively" does Rayfield get the better of Pevear and Volokhonsky, who translate Chichikov as having "tried putting his hand to his heart," which makes no sense -- what stopped him from succeeding?

The first person to attempt a reinterpretation of Dead Souls was Gogol himself. The author grew more and more religious as he worked on the book -- Gogol was often frightened by his own fiction, which uncovered darker forces than those he intended -- and he continually revised Dead Souls to nudge Chichikov more toward a Christian redemption. What survives of part two is in fact quite dogmatic: Chichikov enjoys the easy benefaction of a rich patron, lands in the midst of a scandal for which he is imprisoned, and spends whole stretches of the extant manuscript pleading for absolution. He is, in these passages, the homunculus for Dostoevsky's tortured antiheroes; he's also something a bore.

Rayfield excellently coalesces these later chapters, showing them the attention they may never have seen before. Through Pevear and Volokhonsky, Chichikov tells an anecdote that ends with the quip, "You must love us black, anyone can love us white." It delights the General, but it doesn't do much for the reader until Rayfield translates it, "Love us when we're nasty, since anyone would love us when we're nice." Not as felicitous, perhaps, or maybe not as true to the original expression, but the English-speaking reader doesn't get snagged by the line, either. As part two deteriorates -- Gogol clearly left behind a rough draft, with the plot peripeteias still on the surface and the metaphors clumsy and obtrusive -- Rayfield's user-friendly translation becomes something of a handrail for the reader, finding what narrative continuity it can and giving us the greatest sense yet of where the author was taking his novel.

Wherever that was, Dead Souls never got there. Gogol, under the influence of a priest in his last days, burned much of part two, and died a couple weeks later from a self-imposed religious fast. On the last page, Chichikov is being lectured by a pious prince, whose monologue reads like a religious parody of the Russian dedication that ended part one: "We all see this now, darkly," the prince says to Chichikov, "and we barely..." And there the manuscript ends.

We barely what? Gogol never told us. Instead, the sentence, which effectively became Gogol's dying words, left Chichikov suspended between his fates, his meaning uncertain, for us to argue over in new interpretations forever more. Sure enough, Pevear and Volokhonsky translate "barely" as "hardly." For all that I generally prefer in their more active, muscular translation, Rayfield has the final word.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Donald Rayfield
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590173763
432 pages