Gogol’s plots can resemble financial crises: Confidence collapses and reality goes bankrupt. You could call the conceits Kafkaesque, if Gogol weren’t the better writer. In his most famous story, a preening St. Petersburg bachelor wakes up one morning without a nose. After days of searching, he finds it in church dressed like a high-ranking official. “There can be no close relationship between us,” it superciliously informs him. “Judging by the buttons on your uniform, you must serve in a different department.”
The perpetual theme is society’s dizzying, almost primordial vacuousness: In the beginning was the platitude, the meaningless title, the counterfeit check. Landowners and clerks succumb to madness and mendacity, recalling an American tradition that includes Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “The Confidence-Man,” Poe’s monomaniacal hoaxes and crackpot cosmology, Twain’s stories “The Mysterious Stranger” and “The Million Pound Bank Note.” Gogol was a contemporary of these writers, but his fiction speaks even more to our growing disenchantment with their ambivalent bequest.
Twilight has fallen on the venerable American trickster, who in our Trumpian afterworld of alternative facts has come to seem more sordid than subversive. Fictional characters are not exempt from the re-evaluation: Take Tom Sawyer, who in Robert Coover’s recent novel “Huck Out West” sours from boyish, winsome cheat to unfeeling frontier lawyer, expropriating the indigenous nations of the Great Plains. Gogol, fabulist of an empire that gave us the phrase “Potemkin village,” feels almost predestined to illuminate this particular moment, the collective hangover of larceny losing its luster.
When Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov drives his carriage into the provincial town of N., he plans to carry out the most macabre heist in literature. He wants to buy dead “souls,” a word that in czarist Russia referred not only to immortal spirits but also to serfs. A grim speculator in human property, Pavel Ivanovich plans to buy and then mortgage peasants whose deaths have not yet been registered by the census. His scheme is the foundation of Gogol’s masterpiece, a comic novel that he conceived as the cornerstone of a national epic.
“Dead Souls” was intended as the “Inferno” in a “Divine Comedy” of the Slavs, clearing the way for a great Russian renaissance by cleansing the national spirit with “lofty ecstatic laughter.” No ordinary hero could embody this historic redemption. Complaining that too many writers gave impossible pictures of inhuman ideals, Gogol wrote that it was “time finally to give the poor virtuous man a rest” and “hitch up a scoundrel.”
Gluttony is to Chichikov as anger is to Achilles: the ethic of his epic. He arrives at the nameless town’s inn with “a roast chicken wrapped in blue paper,” which a servant carries in after him like a bridal train. Cabbage, brains, pickles and puff pastry follow in the dining room, dished out by a timid floor boy who also furnishes a menu of marks: local grandees with large estates and many serfs. The next morning, he rouses his coachman and embarks.
A disaster capitalist avant la lettre, Chichikov circles the province like a hungry buzzard. He scours the papers for news of fire, famine or epidemic — anything that might yield a bumper crop of souls in legal limbo. His spree has an almost gustatory zest; as one gentleman exclaims amid tense negotiations, “Really, for you a human soul is the same as a stewed turnip.”
If the archetypal trickster is an operator, his game a stylish arithmetic of self-multiplication, Chichikov is more like a human zero. Depending on the situation, he can act as flatterer, sober man of business, pious patriot, bon vivant or bully. A man without qualities, he congeals on the first page from a fog of narratorial ambivalence: “In the britzka [carriage] sat a gentleman, not handsome, but also not bad-looking, neither too fat nor too thin; you could not have said he was old, yet neither was he all that young.” Vladimir Nabokov’s book on Gogol describes the character more pithily: He is “a soap bubble blown by the devil.”
The brilliance of Gogol’s humor is the way it seizes not on excess but on emptiness. There are, to be sure, the usual “types” of social satire. Chichikov does business with a frightened widow; a miserly hoarder who picks through his own serfs’ garbage; a violent, egotistic gambling addict; a kissy young couple who read English Romantic poetry while their estate goes to ruin. Wrath, sloth, cowardice and pride all have seats at “Dead Souls”’s picaresque buffet. But animating them is a force that often eludes the caricaturist’s pen: quiet, patient, determined and “decent” greed.
Chichikov does have one definitive feature: He is “an acquirer.” The most cherished item in his possession is a writing box where he keeps the ledger of his spectral peasants. Opening it in what is perhaps his only moment of passion, he rhapsodically daydreams about their lives and deaths, revealing a narrative impulse that also colors his back story. Chichikov was once an official in the customs department, so thorough that his superiors considered him “a devil, not a man: He found things in wheels, shafts, horses’ ears and all sorts of other places where no author would even dream of going, and where no one but customs officials are allowed to go.”
Or at least no author but Gogol. He cleverly implies that his own sensibility — playful, minutely observant, ticklishly alert to life’s “terrible, stupendous mire of trivia” — is exactly what’s needed to detect a swindler like Chichikov. His macabre enterprise, so dependent on the landowners’ self-interested incuriosity, disintegrates under Gogol’s exuberant scrutiny. His metaphors evolve so ceaselessly as to beget miniature scenes: If the face of a passer-by resembles a Moldavian gourd, then before the sentence is out, that gourd has been cut and strung into a balalaika, played by a “snappy 20-year-old lad” for an audience of “whitenecked lasses.” Or, at a party of provincial bigwigs, men in black tie bustle about “as flies dart about a gleaming white sugar loaf in the hot summertime of July.” Humor, like a fly’s multifaceted eye, grants second sight.
The townspeople, in contrast, are blinded by melodrama. When they discover Chichikov’s doings, they cannot believe the pettiness of his motivation, and decide there must be some more profound reason for his activities. They speculate that he might be a kidnapper after the governor’s daughter, or even the escaped Napoleon in disguise — anything but an inconspicuous crook with nothing but money in mind. Like the millions of Americans who prefer lurid conspiracy theories to the boring details of corruption and greed, they fail to imagine his lack of imagination; or, as Gogol admonishes his readers, “You would prefer not to see human poverty revealed!”
I’ve started seeing Chichikov everywhere. He is named in the Panama and Paradise Papers; he sponsored the Republican tax legislation and visited Puerto Rico to impose austerity and award government contracts to the profiteering electricians of Whitefish, Mont. When Ben Carson spent $31,000 on an office dining set while slashing funds for public housing, there was Chichikov, who also planned the Fyre music festival and signed Jared Kushner’s security clearance.
Chichikov is not only in government: The squeaking wheels of his carriage are audible wherever corrupt nonentities pawn human lives for petty comforts. Picturing him as he races along in his britzka, devilishly counting the souls on his unreal estate, I can’t help imagining the racist Wells Fargo loan officers who pushed subprime mortgages on black homeowners in Baltimore. Alluding to the bank’s logo, they told reporters that selling “ghetto loans” was like riding “the stagecoach from hell.”
Yet more Chichikovian is April Parks, a Nevada court guardian (and superficially respectable citizen) who colluded with a network of doctors and judges to enserf more than 100 elderly people. As The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv reported, Parks had these seniors declared incompetent, assumed guardianship, warehoused them in low-grade nursing facilities and liquidated their estates against family members’ objections. The crowning spoil of her spree was a Pontiac convertible with the license plate “CRTGRDN.”
“Can Satire Save the Republic?” The Atlantic asked on its cover last May. Gogol wondered if humor could save the Russian soul. He died before publishing his “Divine Comedy”’s “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso,” soured into a religious zealot who renounced fiction and burned his unfinished work. But the products of his grotesque imagination, which fixed on anything smelly, phony, hollow, haphazard, askance or asymmetrical, remain testaments to humor’s revelatory power. Laughter is a form of vigilance, and the evil it repels doesn’t always descend, shouting, on a golden escalator. Sometimes it is a gentleman visitor, neither too fat nor too thin, hungry for a stewed turnip and an innocent name.