The Collected Stories (The Russians) ★★☆☆☆

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Title: The Collected Stories
Series: (The Russians)
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Translator: Unknown
Rating: 2 of 5 Stars
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 575
Words: 166K

If peasants getting drunk and doing stupid things amuses you, if the devil being outfoxed by said peasants sounds interesting and if constantly worrying about your class status is something you do, then these short stories are probably for you.

They were not for me. Thankfully, this was the last of Gogol. There are some plays left, but I’m not going to bother.


Dead Souls ★★☆☆☆

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Title: Dead Souls
Series: (The Russians)
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Translator: CJ Hogarth
Rating: 2 of 5 Stars
Genre: Classic
Pages: 570
Words: 155K


From Wikipedia

Book One

The story follows the exploits of Chichikov, a middle-aged gentleman of middling social class and means. Chichikov arrives in a small town and turns on the charm to woo key local officials and landowners. He reveals little about his past, or his purpose, as he sets about carrying out his bizarre and mysterious plan to acquire “dead souls.”

The government would tax the landowners based on how many serfs (or “souls”) the landowner owned, determined by the census. Censuses in this period were infrequent, so landowners would often be paying taxes on serfs that were no longer living, thus the “dead souls.” It is these dead souls, existing on paper only, that Chichikov seeks to purchase from the landlords in the villages he visits; he merely tells the prospective sellers that he has a use for them, and that the sellers would be better off anyway, since selling them would relieve the present owners of a needless tax burden.

Although the townspeople Chichikov comes across are gross caricatures, they are not flat stereotypes by any means. Instead, each is neurotically individual, combining the official failings that Gogol typically satirizes (greed, corruption, paranoia) with a curious set of personal quirks.

Setting off for the surrounding estates, Chichikov at first assumes that the ignorant provincials will be more than eager to give their dead souls up in exchange for a token payment. The task of collecting the rights to dead people proves difficult, however, due to the persistent greed, suspicion, and general distrust of the landowners. He still manages to acquire some 400 souls, swears the sellers to secrecy, and returns to the town to have the transactions recorded legally.

Back in the town, Chichikov continues to be treated like a prince amongst the petty officials, and a celebration is thrown in honour of his purchases. Very suddenly, however, rumours flare up that the serfs he bought are all dead, and that he was planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter. In the confusion that ensues, the backwardness of the irrational, gossip-hungry townspeople is most delicately conveyed. Absurd suggestions come to light, such as the possibility that Chichikov is Napoleon in disguise or the notorious vigilante ‘Captain Kopeikin’. The now disgraced traveller is immediately ostracized from the company he had been enjoying and has no choice but to flee the town.

Chichikov is revealed by the author to be a former mid-level government official fired for corruption and narrowly avoiding jail. His macabre mission to acquire “dead souls” is actually just another one of his “get rich quick” schemes. Once he acquires enough dead souls, he will take out an enormous loan against them and pocket the money.

Book Two

In the novel’s second part, Chichikov flees to another part of Russia and attempts to continue his venture. He tries to help the idle landowner Tentetnikov gain favor with General Betrishchev so that Tentetnikov may marry the general’s daughter, Ulinka. To do this, Chichikov agrees to visit many of Betrishchev’s relatives, beginning with Colonel Koshkaryov. From there Chichikov begins again to go from estate to estate, encountering eccentric and absurd characters all along the way. Eventually he purchases an estate from the destitute Khlobuyev but is arrested when he attempts to forge the will of Khlobuyev’s rich aunt. He is pardoned thanks to the intervention of the kindly Mourazov but is forced to flee the village. The novel ends mid-sentence with the prince who arranged Chichikov’s arrest giving a grand speech that rails against corruption in the Russian government.

My Thoughts:

Book One was amusing and was almost a 4star read. Book Two wasn’t the complete text and from what I understand, was never fully finished. It was fragmented and disjointed and Gogol let his characters speechify for pages and pages.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Taras Bulba (The Russians) ★★★☆☆

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Title: Taras Bulba
Series: (The Russians)
Author: Nikolai Golgol
Translater: CJ Hogarth
Rating: 3 of 5 Stars
Genre: Classic
Pages: 170
Words: 46K


From Wikipedia

Taras Bulba’s two sons, Ostap and Andriy, return home from an Orthodox seminary in Kyiv. Ostap is the more adventurous, whereas Andriy has deeply romantic feelings of an introvert. While in Kyiv, he fell in love with a young Polish noble girl, the daughter of the Governor of Kowno, but after a couple of meetings (edging into her house and in church), he stopped seeing her when her family returned home. Taras Bulba gives his sons the opportunity to go to war. They reach the Cossack camp at the Zaporozhian Sich, where there is much merrymaking. Taras attempts to rouse the Cossacks to go into battle. He rallies them to replace the existing Hetman when the Hetman is reluctant to break the peace treaty.

They soon have the opportunity to fight the Poles, who rule all Ukraine west of the Dnieper River. The Poles, led by their ultra-Catholic king, are accused of atrocities against Orthodox Christians, in which they are aided by Jews. After killing many of the Jewish merchants at the Sich, the Cossacks set off on a campaign against the Poles. They besiege Dubno Castle where, surrounded by the Cossacks and short of supplies, the inhabitants begin to starve. One night a Tatar woman comes to Andriy and rouses him. He finds her face familiar and then recalls she is the servant of the Polish girl he was in love with. She advises him that all are starving inside the walls. He accompanies her through a secret passage starting in the marsh that goes into the monastery inside the city walls. Andriy brings loaves of bread with him for the starving girl and her mother. He is horrified by what he sees and in a fury of love, forsakes his heritage for the Polish girl.

Meanwhile, several companies of Polish soldiers march into Dubno to relieve the siege, and destroy a regiment of Cossacks. A number of battles ensue. Taras learns of his son’s betrayal from Yankel the Jew, whom he saved earlier in the story. During one of the final battles, he sees Andriy riding in Polish garb from the castle and has his men draw him to the woods, where he takes him off his horse. Taras bitterly scolds his son, telling him “I gave you life, I will take it”, and shoots him dead.

Taras and Ostap continue fighting the Poles. Ostap is captured while his father is knocked out. When Taras regains consciousness he learns that his son was taken prisoner by the Poles. Yankel agrees to take Taras to Warsaw, where Ostap is held captive, hiding Taras in a cartload of bricks. Once in Warsaw, a group of Jews help Yankel dress Taras as a German count. They go into the prison to see Ostap, but Taras unwittingly reveals himself as a Cossack, and only escapes by use of a great bribe. Instead, they attend the execution the following day. During the execution, Ostap does not make a single sound, even while being broken on the wheel, but, disheartened as he nears death, he calls aloud on his father, unaware of his presence. Taras answers him from the crowd, thus giving himself away, but manages to escape.

Taras returns home to find all of his old Cossack friends dead and younger Cossacks in their place. He goes to war again. The new Hetman wishes to make peace with the Poles, which Taras is strongly against, warning that the Poles are treacherous and will not honour their words. Failing to convince the Hetman, Taras takes his regiment away to continue the assault independently. As Taras predicted, once the new Hetman agrees to a truce, the Poles betray him and kill a number of Cossacks. Taras and his men continue to fight and are finally caught in a ruined fortress, where they battle until the last man is defeated.

Taras is nailed and tied to a tree and set aflame. Even in this state, he calls out to his men to continue the fight, claiming that a new Tsar is coming who will rule the earth. The story ends with Cossacks on the Dniester River recalling the great feats of Taras and his unwavering Cossack spirit.

My Thoughts:

I had a couple of thoughts about this story and so you get to be the spectator today as I lay them out, like pearls of great price. So don’t be a swine! 😉

First, this was pure propaganda of the highest order. There is Nationalism and pride of country, but Gogol takes us beyond that and into propaganda territory. The Cossacks are the best, the brightest, the bravest, the most devout, the most fervent, the loyalest, the fiercest, the most honest and just, just THE BEST EVAH! and don’t you forget it. At first it grated but then it just became so ridiculous as the cossacks own behavior put lie to what Gogol was claiming that I simply had to grin.

Second, it was hard to tell if it was Hogarth’s translating, but I really didn’t care for Gogol’s style. I do think it was Gogol himself, or at least this specific story, because I’ve enjoyed most of the other Russian literature I’ve read and I believe a lot of it was translated by Hogarth as well. This was the first book I’ve read by Gogol and I’m not really impressed. I’ve got a Complete Works of Gogol so I’ll be giving him a couple more chances to impress me, but I’ve got that DNF axe ready and it won’t take much for me to let it fall and for heads to roll.

Overall, this was a story of a man who grew up fighting, raised his sons to fight and died fighting. I can’t say it is a good advertisement for the Warrior Lifestyle though. While the Cossacks were presented as The Best Evah, it was only to their own kind. Bulba considers it as a mark of how good Christians the cossacks are that they don’t steal from each other or cheat other cossacks. But when it comes to someone who isn’t a cossack, well, there simply aren’t any rules. It made me wonder how much of what Bulba thought of as “Christian” was from culture and what he’d heard in church instead of actually reading from the Bible. That is why even our pastor says “Don’t take my word for it, go look it up in the Bible”.

With only one more full novel, Dead Souls, then a large body of short stories collected in various editions, I should be able to make my mind up about Gogol relatively easily. It looks like Garnett did the translating for the majority of the short stories so once I get to those it should be easier to tell if it is the translator or the author I don’t care for 😀

Gogol is the last of the Russians that I have on tap, so now I begin the cycle anew. I’m pretty pleased overall with how this is going and while it is a bit more spread out than say my Dickens read, I just can’t read the Russians as intensely as I can Dickens.

Rating: 3 out of 5.