15 December 2009


Chichikov spread an atmosphere of joy and quite extraordinary gaiety. There was not a face that did not express pleasure or at least a reflection of the general pleasure. So it is with the faces of civil servants when the offices entrusted to their charge are being inpected by the chief of a government department: after their first panic has passed off they see that there is a great deal that has pleased him, and when at last he has graciously condescended to joke, that is to say, to utter a few words with a pleasant smile, the civil servants crowding arround him laugh twice as much in reply; those who have hardly heard what he said laugh with all their might too, and finally a policeman standing at the door an appreciable distance away, who has never laughed in his life and who has a minute earlier been shaking his fist at the people outside, even he, according to the unalterable laws of reflection, shows some kind of smile on his face, though it looks more as though he were about to sneeze after a pinch of strong snuff. Our hero responded to all and each and he felt extraordinarily at his ease; he bowed to right and to left, a little to one side, as was his habit, but without the slightest constraint, so that everyone was enchanted by him. The ladies at once crowded round him in a glittering garland, bring with them whole clouds of every kind of scent; one exuded roses, another brought with her the scent of spring and violets, a third was saturated through and through with mignonette; Chichikov just kept lifting up his nose and sniffing. Their dresses displayed an infinite variety of taste: muslins, satins, chiffons were of the pale fashionable shades for which even a name could not be found (such a degree of refinement has modern taste reached). Bows of ribbon and bunches of flowers fluttered about here and there in most picturesque disorder, though much thought had been given to the creation of this disorder. A light head-dress was supported only by the ears, and seemed to be saying, "Look out, I'm going to take flight and I'm only sorry I can't carry the beautiful creature away with me!" The waists were tightly laced and had the most firm and agreeable shape for the eyes to enjoy (it must be noted that, in general, the ladies of the town of N. were rather plump, but they laced themselves so skilfully and carried themselves so charmingly that it was quite impossible to notice how plump they were). They had thought out and forseen everything with most extraordinary care: necks and shoulders were bared just as much as was necessary and not an inch more; each one of them bared her possessions only as far as she thought them capable of ruining a man; the rest was all hidden away with extraordinary taste: either some light ribbon of a neck-band or a scarf that was lighter than a puff pastry known as 'a kiss', ethereally encircled the neck, or tiny fringed pieces of fine cambric known as 'modesties' were let in from under the dress over the shoulders. These 'modesties' concealed in front and at the back what could not possibly bring about a man's ruin and yet made one suspect that it was there that final disaster lay. The long gloves were not draw up as far as the sleeves, but purposely left bare those alluring parts of the arm above the elbow that in many of the ladies were of an enviable plumpness; some ladies had even split their gloves in the effort to pull them up as far as possible—in short, it was as if everything had been inscribed with the legend: "No, this is not a provincial town! This is a capital city! This is Paris itself!" Only here and there a bonnet of a shape never seen on earth before, or some feather that might have been a peacock's, was thrust out in defiance of all fashion and in accordance with individual taste. But you can't help that, for such is the nature of a provincial town: it is bound to trip up somewhere. Standing before them, Chichikov thought: "Who could be the authoress of the letter?" He thrust out his nose, but a whole row of elbows, cuffs, sleeves, ends of ribbons, perfumed chemisettes, and dresses brushed past his very nose. The galop was at its height: the postmaster's wife, the police captain, a lady with a pale blue feather, a lady with a white feather, the Georgian prince, Chipkhaykhilidzev, an official from Petersburg, an official from Moscow, a Frenchman called Coucou, Perkhunovsky, Berebendovsky, all were whirling madly in the dance.
 "Look at them! The whole provincial administration is in full swing!" said Chichikov to himself, standing back, and as soon as the ladies had resumed their seats, he again started trying to find out whether he could tell from the expression of a face or a look in some eyes who the writer of the letter was; but it was utterly impossible to recognize either from the expression of the face or the look in the eyes who the writer was. Everywhere something could be detected that seemed to be on the point of betraying some secret, something elusively subtle—oh, how subtle! ... "No," Chichikov said to himself, "women are a subject such as ..." Here he dismissed it with a wave of the hand: "What's the use of talking! Just try and describe or put into words everything that is flitting over their faces, all the sublte twists of meaning, all the hints—and you simply won't be able to put it into words. Their eyes alone are such a vast realm that if a man ventured to enter it he'd be as good as done for! You won't drag him out of there by hook or by crook. Just try describing, for instance, their glitter alone: moist, velvety, sugary. Goodness only knows what else you may not find there. Harsh and soft, and quite languishing, or as some say, voluptuous or not voluptuous but a hundred times worse than voluptuous—and it clutches at your heart and plays upon your souls, as though with a violin bow. No, one simply can't find the right words: the 'ever so refined' half of the human species, and that's all there is to it!"

Gogol, Dead Souls (1961: 172-174)