I read Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol recently, and found it quite agreeable, as the narrator would say. The story features an enigmatic land owner named Chichikov, who, at the beginning of the story is a stranger in town who everyone finds intriguing. He travels around to all the landowners in the area, and attempts to buy their ‘dead souls’ from them. These are the dead peasants who have not yet been updated in the census as being dead, and thus the landowners will still have to pay taxes on them. Chichikov wants to buy, or take possession of the dead souls in some way, for an unknown reason.
The first part of the novel is various landowners being difficult in various ways, and not wanting to sell him the dead souls. It’s funny because, the dead souls do them no good, and in fact will cost them money, but when someone comes along and wants to buy them, they immediately become suspicious and greedy, and try to get more and more money for this thing that they should just be happy to get rid of. It made them all seem like really pathetic, desperate people, since they already have loads of money and yet are drooling over the prospect of a few more rubles.
The idea, too, of it being ‘souls’ they are bartering over added to the flavor. None of the characters really considered the peasants as anything more than objects to be bought and sold. Even the the idea of trading dead souls, which at first seemed to them odd and unnatural, became okay if they could make some money off it.
In the end, even Chichikov, who has been the most ‘agreeable’ character in the story, is seen to be a slime ball who only cares about how he can make money. He is caught trying to forge a dead old woman’s will so he can get her inheritance, but is able to bribe/call in favors from his friends in order to get out of it.
This story was unfinished, and at several points it will cut off with ‘several pages are missing’ or ‘here, a page is torn out.’ And the end of the novel just cuts off mid sentence. However, the idea is mostly intact, and I didn’t find this to detract from the book as a whole too much.
An interesting read, and recommended for fans of Russian literature.