- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005


By Nikolai Gogol

Everyman’s Library, $20, 443 pages


By Leo Tolstoy

Modern Library, $17.95, 161 pages


By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Everyman’s Library, $17, 126 pages


By Anton Chekhov

Everyman’s Library, $23, 544 pages


The great 19th-century Russian writers are colossi; continents we never tire of visiting: vast repositories of story and symbol, impassioned national consciousness and enduring universal significance. Several very welcome recent publications offer this generation’s versions of some of the lesser known or more uncharacteristic work of four of Russia’s classic authors.

Though Nikolai Gogol’s unruly masterpiece “Dead Souls” (1842-43) is deservedly one of his most esteemed works, it’s nevertheless a departure, in two crucial respects. Gogol (1809-52) was primarily a spinner of yarns, as this novel’s resolutely episodic structure clearly shows. And he was a comic surrealist (see his brilliantly bizarre stories “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and the masterly vampire tale “Viy”), who wrote himself into a corner by conceiving his only full-length novel as a fable of redemption, inspired by and modeled on Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

For, in addition to being a gathering of interrelated stories, “Dead Souls” is really two “novels.” Its ebullient first volume comprises an epic (which is actually more Cervantean than Dantean) of venality and foolishness, which unspools from the plot devised by its protagonist, the greedy civil servant Chichikov: to increase the mortgage loan value of his nonexistent “estate” by purchasing the names of deceased peasants (that is, “souls”) from the landowners to whom they had been indentured.

The plan takes Chichikov across Russia and into varying degrees of collusion and conflict with such toughminded adversaries as flirtatious matron Korobochka, avaricious and pugnacious miser Nozdryov, and — one of Gogol’s happiest inventions — crude nouveau riche Sobakevich, who demands high prices for his nonexistent peasants, citing their (likewise nonexistent) excellent qualities.

Celebrated translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (whose sprightly version of this novel first appeared in 1993) evidently understand that there’s more of the Three Stooges than of Dante in Gogol’s rich comedy — but can’t do much with the glum “Book Two,” which is simultaneously contrived, sentimental, and tedious. Chichikov is one of literature’s most entertaining rogues, and his path to salvation is much less engaging than are his agreeably egregious misadventures.

The Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) who wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” is only intermittently visible in “The Cossacks,” an early (1863) masterpiece based on its author’s own experiences at Sevastopol during the Crimean War.

In Peter Constantine’s lively new translation, it’s a vigorous “bucolic fable” (in the words of Cynthia Ozick’s elegant “Introduction”), about a young army officer (Olenin) from Moscow who falls in love with the hardy culture of the Caucasus — and with a spirited Cossack beauty (Maryanka).

This is both a beguiling tale of adventure and an ironic character study. The Cossack soldiers whom Olenin romanticizes are in fact genocidal mercenaries, though both his rival for Maryanka’s hand, the charismatic “playful stallion” Lukashka, and the aged hunter Eroshka (who becomes Olenin’s de facto mentor) are far more hardened and resilient souls than is the novel’s somewhat effete, and eventually disillusioned “hero.” The story of Olenin’s “education” is a vivid rendering of Tolstoy’s own hard earned maturation, and it’s a book well worth rediscovering.

If Gogol is his century’s finest comic writer, and Tolstoy its unsurpassed realist, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81) is its master of psychological penetration and thematic complexity, justly renowned for his formidable major novels “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot,” “The Possessed” and “The Brothers Karamazov.”

But Dostoevsky also wrote memorable shorter fiction, never better than in his mordant 1864 novella “Notes from Underground.”

This is a monologue that exudes a perverse brilliance: the confession and apologia of a vitriolic misanthrope who lives in the “underground” of his own embittered memories, resentments and fantasies. His effusions begin as an argument with an imaginary enemy (an amalgam, nevertheless, of all who’ve earned his hatred), then encompasses a farewell dinner for a former schoolmate (at which the narrator disgraces himself), then an extended memory of his abusive mistreatment of a young prostitute years earlier — an outrage which he simultaneously justifies and regrets.

The self-defeating spiral of his intemperate raging takes several ingenious forms. He defends the integrity of human freedom — yet nothing could be more imprisoning than his rejection of logical nuance and emotional complexity, his use of harsh “logic” to demonstrate the limits of rationality. He’s both a classic case study of rampant neurosis and a fiendishly funny avatar of our stubborn refusal to see ourselves as we truly are.

Those ubiquitous Slavophiles Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky produced their energetic translation of this venomous literary gem in 1993, and we probably need it now more than ever. Their dead-on rendering of its legendary opening salvo (“I am a sick man … . I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.”) is only the irresistible beginning of an unforgettable journey into the dark human interior.

The same translators have bolstered their already matchless resume with a volume displaying the wares of an Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) whom few of even his most devoted admirers know. “The Complete Short Novels” includes six of the great short story writer’s longer tales (exluding only the early comic novella “The Shooting Party”). Though they necessarily lack the episodic terseness and rigorous introspective concentration that distinguishes his classic stories (“The Darling,” for example, “Vanka” and “The Lady with the Pet Dog”), these richly woven works are not to be missed.

The best known of them, “The Duel” (1891), fashions a conflict of ideologies from the incompatabilities that disturb a group of political exiles living in the Caucasus, two of whom vie for the distracted affections of a gorgeous widow.

“Three Years” (1895) analyzes the emotional turmoil experienced by a harried merchant torn between a passive beauty and a fiery female political activist, in a sharply focused manner reminiscent of the short stories — as does the moving “My Life” (1896), the story of a conscientious family man who silently shoulders burdens, and sees his own life ebb slowly away.

Even more atypical is “The Steppe” (1888), which turns a schoolboy’s journey (to boarding school) across his homeland into a compact panorama of Russian life, and a partial homage to the matter and spirit of its predecessor, Gogol’s “Dead Souls:” an example of the linkages that bond the great Russian writers to one another, as surely as they connect with us, as our teachers, the touchstones of our universal literary heritage, and — in a very real sense — our contemporaries.

Bruce Allen a regular reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributor to The Boston Globe, Sewanee Review and several other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.

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