This novel takes place in the early nineteenth century in Russia, and will give you some insight into a time and place you’re probably not overly familiar with. I had no idea that there was a time and place in the world where you weren’t considered middle-class until you owned a few hundred people. I loved the description of the land, like if a man says he lives just four or five versts outside of the city, you know he really means thirty. I liked that he describes the mattress as being “as flat as a pancake, and as greasy”, and the beautiful girl he sees in a carraige has a face that reminds him of an egg that a farmwife has raised to the light to see through.
It starts out with a man named Chichikoff, who has engaged in the curious business of buying the titles of dead serfs who are still marked as alive on the census. Despite the fact that’s the title of the novel, it’s really just an excuse for Chichikoff to wander around and meet characters that, while amusing to modern readers, were probably hysterically funny to his contemporaries.
That was my favorite part of this novel. The characters are really over-the-top in a way that even Kinky Friedman has a hard time replicating. Chichikoff himself is a hero, but he’s also kind of a scoundrel. He’s charming and perfectly adapted to fitting in and making himself agreeable in society, but he’s not above the same palm-greasing and fraud that the rest of his contemporaries did. We have all these hilarious stereotypes, except that since they’re the stereotypes known to nineteenth-century Russian landed gentry, they’re fresh and new to me. There’s the chronic liar with a rabid fondness for dogs, the stalwart retired general, the man who’s obsessive about rules and regulations (who therefore can’t get anything done) the ladies who gossip incessantly, the listless and disaffected youth, the landowner obsessed with productivity, and various and sundry other characters. Knowing some of what happened in Russia after this novel was written added to my appreciation.
I won’t get into the characters’ names, for the simple reason that I can’t remember any of them. They all have three long names, which are used interchangably,and after I while I despaired of remembering which person they were talking about. That was one of the bad parts of the book.
The other bad part is the lack of a solid plot. Chichikoff gets a job as a clerk, and then he loses it, and he tries to make back his money through another scheme. I guess that’s the basic summary, but it takes a lot of twists and turns that weren’t satisfactorily resolved. He falls in love, and we expect he will either marry her or be crushed by grief when he can’t have her, but that storyline just kind of dies. Then he meets a disaffected youth with a complicated backstory, and we think “ah ha, here’s where the plot kicks in!” Things go well for a while, but he leaves reluctantly to run some errands, and ends up never coming back. The mystery of the dead souls, rather than being the focus of the story, is kind of tossed out halfway through. A couple of things happen in the end with this old wise man and the prince moralizing about people who waste money when they could be honest and serving God. I imagine readers at that time more or less demanded a moral, but to my modern view, it was like ending a delicious meal with a cake of soap.
The lack of a good plot keeps this from being a classic novel I recommend, but the amusing characters and the first-hand view of 19th century Russia were worth the ride.
I read this as an ebook and my version was great in that it had illustrations, but horrible in that it had end notes. I would have loved to read the end notes, but once I clicked on one, and it took me ten minutes to find my place again. Get a paper copy if you can.