Erik Simon's Reviews > Dead Souls

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
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Jan 28, 09

I had long resisted reading this book because Gogol didn't finish it. But Virgil didn't finish the Aeneid, which I think ends perfectly, and Bolano didn't finish 2666, which is plenty complete for me, so I figured I'd give this thing a whirl. Besides, there's a translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and their translations are sublime, so it was all the more reason to read it.

My instincts were pretty right. For what is there, it is marvelous, but I sure miss what Gogol didn't have time to get to. It's a funny book, peculiar, disturbing, wonderfully satiric, and I love the long sort of mock homages to Russia, but boy I wish he would have gotten a chance to finish the adventures of Chichikov. I would love to know where this thing was headed, but then maybe Gogol didn't know, which is why he never finished. Volume I of the book is perfect. Volume II, which is the part interrupted by Gogol's death, is plodding and less sure of itself, as if Gogol didn't know where to go with this wonderful machine he got started.

Lastly, I'd like to tip my cap again to Pevear and Volokhonsky. What these two have done for Russian literature cannot be praised enough. No one has any reason to read any translation of any Russian work other than theirs, and if there is a Russian work that they haven't yet translated, just wait to read it until they do. I'm hoping they get to Turgenev.
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Ruth (new) - rated it 1 star

Ruth Gogol didn't finish it?

Neither did I.

message 2: by Kirk (new)

Kirk You know, Erik, I taught this book about six years ago and for the life of me can't remember what it was about. Great title, though.

message 3: by Max (new)

Max Maxwell Chaucer didn't finish the Canterbury Tales, either!

Emily Actually, Gogol did finish Dead Souls. The Russian audience of the time found it to shed a negative light on themselves and Gogol in turn decided to write a Dead Souls 2 to appease them. He died mid writing and one of his last actions was to throw the unfinished manuscript into a fire.

Abigail Emily is correct. The first volume was considered finished by Gogol. The reason the story was left rather open ended was because it was a description of the state of Russia at the time, and Gogol did not know what was yet to happen to his country. He was upset at the uproar the novel caused, and in an attempt to smooth things over he tried writing a moralistic ending part, but his heart wasn't in it and he eventually burned it.
Certainly the parts that were left were never meant for publication by the author.

Erik Simon Well that is all fascinating and something I did not know. Now I feel compelled to go back and read just the first part to see if I feel satisfied with that ending.

Jesse yeah the first part was a completed entity and from what i've read, gogol had planned a sort of dantesque russian commedia with three parts ("dead souls" part 1 being the "hell" of shallow greedy, provincial russians, and part 2 being a purgatory, where chichigov goes through a transformation). in alot of ways i wish part 2 would be included as part of "dead souls" and by that i wish part 1 would be considered as a stand alone work of art with part 2 being included as bonus material or an appendix. the way they publish it now, it seems as if the novel just sadly stops and it takes some extra digging to find out why.

i wholly concur on the pevear translations and those are the only ones i read from russian (except nabokov but he didn't translate a whole lot). anyway, it was kinda tragic that he burned his part 2 before his death but i think part one is a perfect work of art and maybe gogol felt what he had would just make part one less in a sort of literary osmosis (which sadly kinda happened because of the way they publish part 1 and 2 as part of the same novel). well, glad you liked it and hope all is well erik!

Erik Simon Brother Jesse: Good God, man, it has been too long. We're both waaaaaaaaaay too busy. On another deadline, but I'm going to catch up with you this week.

Jesse yeah man i look foward to hearing from you!

Jeremy P/V have done a lot to popularize Russian classics, and THAT is a sublime thing. Their translations, though, are far from sublimity, and to say that no one should read anything translated from Russian unless it's by them is, forgive me, ludicrous. It's also unhelpful.

No translation of Dead Souls holds a candle to Bernard Guilbert Guerney's, revised by Susanne Fusso, from Yale University Press, ISBN 0300060998. Gogol is madcap and filled with wordplay and oddity. If you compare the Guerney page for page with the P/V, you'll see that the latter have a tin ear and that the former has vitality and jubilation.

I urge you to spread your discoveries in Russian lit beyond the P/V hype, which I was caught up in for many years. It makes sense, as no other translators have ever been given such celebrity with so little critical acclaim. I will stand by Oprah picking their Anna Karenina because, in my opinion, it does surpass all others. But that selection of Oprah's got the ball rolling on a weird cult of P/V worship that makes no sense. No one translator can even do justice to one author's whole oeuvre, let alone several. Turgenev should not sound like Dostoevsky should not sound like Tolstoy should (for the love of god) not sound like Chekhov. Yet P/V make them all sound identical.

Constance Garnett and the Maude's, translators working a century and more ago, are still more reliable on the whole. Compare ANY Chekhov piece by Garnett to P/V and the latter is wooden and often just bad. Same goes for Dostoevsky. I suffered through the awkward P/V Crime & Punishment only to find that the classic Garnett version is superior. Finally, P/V's War and Peace (as well as their Tolstoy stories and novellas) is just bad writing. Anthony Briggs's just works in a way that makes P/V seem unedited. I won't get into how bad their Bulgakov is, just read the Vintage publication, done by a translator team whose names escape me just now.

Again, their Anna K is gorgeous. I totally understand being loyal to a translator, since we're trusting them to lead us through strange terrain, terrain we'll likely never directly know ourselves. Naturally we trust someone who's done us well. But in most cases - especially Gogol - a reader is missing out enormously by not venturing to trust other, better writer-translators. Again, my hat's off to P/V for leading a sort of Russian lit renaissance among English speakers. But we shouldn't just blindly devote ourselves without really sampling what else is out there. Some reviewer attested to being bored by Dead Souls. The P/V edition is indeed boring. The Guerney/Fusso is not. That's because the original is not.

Sorry to rant. Just gets my hackles up to see Gogol butchered and see the butchery praised. I DO agree with you on one point: the P/V is indeed handsome. Vintage knows how to package paperbacks. The Guerney looks like crappity crap.

Jeremy And now I see the 'handsome' compliment was made by another reviewer. Whoops. What I DO agree with you about is how, despite being unfinished, the Aeneid ends awesomely. Last line's a sword-stab! How can you go wrong?

Jesse your rant is not totally invalid, its just that arguing about translators is like arguing politics, in that rarely will you convince someone that the translator they like is really stilted and wooden (generally people like the first one they read), and then of course there's the issue of not being able to read the source language, thus should we judge translation on accuracy, or on its own literary merit in the new language. nabokov got into a little mud slinging over all of this when he dared to do a literal translation of eugene onegin, which i loved and thought was a great approach to translating, despite being a bit impractical.

i have also compared p/v's translation of dead souls with nabokov's (he only did the first page or so, based on guernsey's translation i believe) and to be honest it wasn't that different to me: things like town/hamlet, cabriolet/drozhky. different to be sure, but not to the level you stated. but i have not read the whole guernsey translation of dead souls so maybe later on this difference is more pronounced; and my agreement on p/v as universally good translators is based on the war and peace you disliked (which i thought brilliant, balanced, and well, tolstoyan) dead souls, doctor zhivago (which i think their translations of the poems at the end, while losing some accuracy, are the most readable, and match the tone of the novel much better), and the death of ivan illych, which i loved. i felt the style of each author was thoroughly maintained, although p/v do have a certain translating style that can be gleaned through different writers. the one book of theirs i didn't like was master and margharita. but what i didn't like about that novel was larger structural things, and the fact that the devil was comedic, and thus lost the evil impetus that may have been felt with a more sinister, for lack of a better word, lucifer. oh, and also satire looses steam the longer it lasts and the book was too long for me, and the palestine sections a bit to random and thematically disjointed from the moscow sections.

alas, your point is well taken and p/v do get a blanket acceptance, but i think you may be a bit harsh in regards to your thoughts about their style as translators. to me wooden is a more apt descriptor for good ol' constance, but again this is why translation arguements rarely lead anywhere, it feels so subjective.


message 13: by Erik (new) - rated it 4 stars

Erik Simon I have enjoyed both of your comments, Jeremy and Jesse. Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I reopened KARAMAZOV, a book I've not read in twenty years, and this time, the same P/V translation I loved twenty years ago seemed so cumbersome. But I'm more and more convinced that that's just the case with Dostoevsky: I get the feeling that he didn't go back in and revise as much as Tolstoy, that his stuff came out in this massive genius deluge and that, no matter who translates, the reading experience is not going to be smooth.

Too, the thing about translations: It seems to me that the most important element of fiction is voice. Certainly all the other stuff of craft matters--plot, character, pacing, story, etc., but long after I've put a book away, it's the voice of it that sticks with me more indelibly than anything else. Voice cannot be translated without adulterating it by adding another layer of voice; I just don't see any other way around that, despite Auden's line that the difference between poetry and prose is that prose can be translated. When I think about P/V, I do think their KARENINA was sublime as well as the book of Tolstoy's short stories they translated; and I quite liked the five long novels of Chekhov they did as well as their DEAD SOULS. I will go investigate the Briggs WAR AND PEACE you recommend, for the P/V one does not feel nearly as smooth as their KARENINA. But I'm with Jesse on Garnett: translations of sequoia.

message 14: by Nino (last edited Dec 17, 2013 12:28AM) (new)

Nino Robert Musil "The Man Without Qualities", another unfinished book.

message 15: by Erik (new) - rated it 4 stars

Erik Simon And thank God for that. I feel the same way about Musil's book as my Chaucer instructor in college felt about Spenser's "The Fairie Queen." "In His infinite mercy," my instructor said, "God saw fit to take Spenser from us before he finished that book."

message 16: by Nino (last edited Dec 17, 2013 01:45PM) (new)

Nino You mean you can't stop wondering where in the infinity vol. II would end if God in His infinite mercy didn't saw fit to do so?

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