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Read & Write with James Whorton, Jr. | Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol
August 9, 2022 @ EST 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm$40.00
For years I avoided Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel Dead Souls because, knowing nothing but the title, I assumed it would be depressing and grim. To Flannery O’Connor, though, Gogol was “necessary along with the light.” Why? Nabokov called him “the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced.” Finally I dipped in and was astonished to find something deeply wacky here. It is a novel full of wonder and observation, open to the jarring, the silly, and the quiet. There are problems. I also learned Gogol was from Ukraine.
Recommended edition: I recommend Bernard Guilbert Guerney’s translation, not because I know anything about translating Russian into English, but because Nabokov recommended it. A more recent translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Note that some editions include a “Part Two” or “Volume Two.” I suggest ignoring that. “Part One” is the complete Dead Souls that Gogol published in 1842. He struggled with a sequel but never finished it, and any version you come across is going to have been pulled together by an editor from Gogol’s incomplete notes. For me, plowing through “Volume Two” is like forcing myself to listen to three hours of outtakes from my least favorite Led Zeppelin album.
James Whorton Jr. is a former Mississippian now living in Rochester, NY. He has published three novels: Approximately Heaven, described by The New York Times as “an alcoholic picaresque adventure of hangovers, hotel rooms, suspicious piles of cash and Johnny Rivers tunes”; Frankland, “a kinder, gentler Confederacy of Dunces,” according to Ron Charles; and Angela Sloan, called a “beautiful, deeply original novel” by Joe Weisberg, writer and creator of “The Americans.” Whorton’s short stories and essays have appeared in The Oxford American, The Southern Review, Mississippi Review, The Washington Post, and Sewanee Review. He teaches at SUNY Brockport.
READER’S GUIDE QUESTIONS
- Who is this narrator, and what are the qualities of his attention? What does he know, and what does he not know? What does he especially care about, and what does he ignore?
- Look at how the chapters are shaped, including how time passes in a chapter, how a chapter ends, and what takes place between chapters.
- Consider several objects from the book. Include Chichikov’s chest. What is Gogol’s way of rendering objects and using them in the book?
- Can you find passages that strike you as particularly Gogolesque in their syntax? What are Gogol’s sentences like? (Let’s take it on faith that the English sentences we are reading do have some real resemblance to the Russian originals.) Nabokov, who in his lectures spent a good amount of time complaining about bad translations, called Guerney’s English version of Dead Souls “an extraordinarily fine piece of work.” Of course, Nabokov also saw “no other way of getting to Gogol” than to read him in Russian; but if reading in translation gets us even part way there, that is not nothing.
- If a person, a reader, were to love this book, what do you think that person might be loving? Where is the source of pleasure, page to page? And is there a sense of things, or a view of life, that emanates from the book?
- Write a quick scene in which an animal, human or nonhuman eats something it should not have eaten. Write it fast! (I am thinking of the sow in Chapter 3, but take this in any direction.)
- Crank out a quick passage in which an omniscient narrator is stumped. In other words, this narrator has access to all the facts but is at a loss to explain them.
- Write a depiction of a person in a room of that person’s home. Use the objects in the room to tell about the person.
- Describe an outlandish, amoral scheme for making big money.
- Think about the place where you live–your homeland or home town, your city or neighborhood. Now think about how people get around there–by car, by bicycle, on foot, by the RTS bus? Think about roads, too, and distances. Now pick one mode of travel and write an appreciation of it. By “appreciation” I mean a passage of writing that conveys a full sense of what it’s like to travel that way, or to be in a place that is traveled through in that way. I am thinking here of the opening and closing pages of Dead Souls, with Chichikov in his carriage pulled by three fast horses: “And what Russian is there who doesn’t love fast driving?” You could also think of Huckleberry Finn on his log raft or Sir Gawain on Gringolet, the knight and his horse both decked out in armor and gold. Or think of Catherine Morland and her humiliating trip home in a rented carriage, in Northanger Abbey. Or think of Mr. Stevens, the heartsick English butler, motoring along in his employer’s Ford in The Remains of the Day. The mode of travel is a way into how people live in a place.
This virtual event with James Whorton, Jr. is streamed via Zoom.