Bryan Caplan  

Why You've Got to Read Gogol's Dead Souls

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I like to catch up on the classics on vacation. Tyler recommended Gogol's Dead Souls. I normally despise blogs with big block quotes, but for the best passage so far in this very very good work, I'll make an exception:

Of course, there had been a time when he [the miser Pliushkin] had simply been a careful manager, when he had been a married family man, and when his neighbours had been in the habit of coming to dine with him, and listening to him, and taking lessons from him in wise economy. Everything then went on briskly: grain-mills and fulling-mills were in operation, cloth-mills were running, carpenter’s shops and spinning-rooms were at work; the searching glance of the master penetrated everywhere and into everything; and carefully, but assiduously, like an industrious spider, did he run about attending to domestic matters. In those times his courteous and talkative wife was renowned for her hospitality; two charming daughters, both fair and as fresh as roses, came to greet the guests: the son, a fine, vivacious little boy, ran out and kissed everybody. All the windows in the house were open then: there was a French tutor, who was a great sportsman, and who was always bringing home partridges or ducks for dinner. And there was also a governess for the little girls. But the good housewife died. Pliushkin became restless, and, like all widowers, suspicious and saving. He did not place full confidence in his eldest daughter, Alexandra Stepanovna, and he was right; for Alexandra Stepanovna soon eloped with a staff-captain, belonging to God knows what regiment of cavalry, and she married him in haste in some village church, although she knew that her father did not like officers on account of a strange, prejudiced belief of long standing, that they were all gamblers and spendthrifts. Her father sent his curse after her, and then the house grew more desolate, its owner became more and more miserly. The French tutor was dismissed, because the time had arrived for the son to enter the civil service; the governess was sent about her business, because it appeared that she was not free from guilt in the matter of Alexandra Stepanovna’s elopement; the son, on being despatched to the chief town of the government, in order to learn official routine, according to his father’s wish, enlisted in a regiment instead, and wrote to his father immediately afterwards, asking for some money. Very naturally, he received in reply what the common people call a shish. Finally, the last daughter, who had remained at home with the father, died, and the old man found himself the sole guardian, protector, and owner of his wealth.

His lonely life then made him yet more miserly, and as though for the express purpose of confirming him in his opinion of military men, his son ruined himself at cards: he sent him a hearty paternal curse, and never troubled himself afterwards to inquire whether he still existed in the world or not. More windows were shut up every year in the house, until at last only two remained to admit any light, one of which, as the reader has already seen, was pasted up with blue paper. As time went on he paid less and less attention to domestic management, busying himself more about the scraps of paper and feathers which he collected in his room; he became more and more crusty with the people who came to buy the products of his estate; the dealers grew disgusted with him, and finally abandoned him altogether, saying that he was a devil, and not a man; his hay and grain rotted; his ricks and stores of all sorts turned into manure, pure and simple, so that cabbages might have been grown upon them; the flour in his vaults turned to stone, and had to be chopped up: it was terrible to touch the linen, the cloth, and other materials of domestic manufacture; they turned to dust under the hand. He himself had already forgotten what he possessed of any given article. He only remembered the sideboard which contained his decanters of brandy, upon which he had made a mark, in order that no one might thievishly drink the liquor.

My God, it's almost as well-written as Dexter (the show, not the novel)!


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
bt writes:

You are right Bryan, it is a great passage. Glad you made an exception.

Yeah, what writes:

Here's an important note about Russian literature in translation, offered as a public service.

Never, ever, EVER read an English translation done by Constance Garnett. Her Russian was horrible, her translations are sloppy and misleading (and yet they inexplicably persist...everywhere.)

Dave writes:

Are you for him or against him?

Tim Worstall writes:

When I first went to Russia in the early 90s I asked around for any books that would help me understand the place. I was told this one and The Government Inspector. They capture the spirit even a century later.

John Fast writes:

What's your opinion of Darkly Dreaming Dexter?

Scott Scheule writes:

I have to big to differ with asg, assuming he's talking about the Dexter novels. I can only attest to the first, and it's mediocre at best.

Show's great though, but yes, The Wire is better.

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