In April, I composed a biographical sketch of Dorothy L. Sayers. It was meant as a prelude to a post about the Usual Suspects’ discussion of Murder Must Advertise. Among the nuggets I included in the biography was a brief mention of Sayers’s unhappy love affair with one John Cournos. I’ve gleaned from more than one source that Cournos was the model for Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. ( I’m pleased to note that this blog entry was selected for inclusion on the Dorothy L. Sayers Facebook page.)
Joseph Epstein’s luminous piece on Nikolai Gogol and his seminal work of fiction, Dead Souls, appeared in the May 3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article’s title was “Surveying the Surging Immensity of Life;” the subject, one of the great geniuses in an era of Russian literary genius. Dead Souls, published in Russia in 1842, is a novel I’ve long wanted to read. Epstein’s eloquent retrospective was a powerful motivator. I got the book from the library. It was a rather singular edition, put out by an outfit called Wildside Press. I can find no date of publication anywhere. The translation is by one C.J. Hogarth.
Yesterday, I began leafing through the opening pages of this volume when I was stopped in my tracks by the name of the person who wrote the introduction. It was – is –
In the aforementioned blog post I characterized John Cournos as “a self-important writer and ideologue.” This is certainly the impression one gains from reading about his involvement with Sayers. But he appears also to have been a genuinely learned person gifted with a superior intellect. Cournos was born Ivan Grigorievich Korshun in Zhitomir, Russia, in 1881. His parents were of Russian-Jewish background, and although his first language was Yiddish, he eventually gained mastery of Russian, Hebrew, German, and English. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was ten years old. He relocated to London in 1912, where, years later, he crossed paths with Dorothy L. Sayers. Click here for more information on the life and works of John Cournos.
I had seen this painting of Gogol before:
But the author’s Wikipedia entry featured a daguerreotype that I’d not previously been aware of: The photographer’s name is Sergey Lvovich Levitsky. As I researched this individual, I could not help but marvel that I’d never before heard of him. The Wikipedia entry states that Levitsky “…is considered one of the patriarchs of Russian photography and one of Europe’s most important early photographic pioneers, inventors and innovators.” And indeed he took some striking pictures, including some of the Russian imperial family:
This is John Cournos’s description of the plot of Dead Souls:
It was the day of serfdom in Russia, and a man’s standing was often judged by the number of “souls” he possessed. There was a periodical census of serfs, say once every ten or twenty years. This being the case, an owner had to pay a tax on every “soul” registered in the last census, though some of the serfs might have died in the meantime. Nevertheless, the system had its material advantages, inasmuch as an owner might borrow money from a bank on the “dead souls” no less than on the living ones. The plan of Chichikov, Gogol’s hero-villain, was therefore to make a journey through Russia and buy up the “dead souls,” at reduced rates of course, saving their owners the government tax, and acquiring for himself a list of fictitious serfs, which he meant to mortgage to a bank for a considerable sum. With this money he would buy an estate and some real life serfs, and make the beginning of a fortune.
I had to smile as I read this. Yet another scam artist on the loose! Whatever the country, whatever the time period, some things never change.
Dead Souls has recently been translated by Donald Rayfield, an emeritus professor of Russian and Georgian literature at Queen Mary, University of London. One critic hailed the new translation as “…a tour de force of art and scholarship—and the most authoritative, accurate, and readable edition of Dead Souls available in English.” This is a New York Review Books Classics edition. This publisher is doing an outstanding job of making available great, and sometimes unfairly neglected, works from the past.