Gogol Would Understand Trump

Nozdrev from Gogol’s “Dead Souls”


I’m currently reading Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) and have come across a character who helps me understand why many people, especially in the media, are fascinated with Donald Trump. Nozdrez may be an infuriating figure but, as I read, I can’t take my eyes off of him. Here he is described:

Nozdrev’s face will be familiar to the reader, seeing that every one must have encountered many such. Fellows of the kind are known as “gay young sparks,” and, even in their boyhood and school days, earn a reputation for being bons camarades (though with it all they come in for some hard knocks) for the reason that their faces evince an element of frankness, directness, and enterprise which enables them soon to make friends, and, almost before you have had time to look around, to start addressing you in the second person singular. Yet, while cementing such friendships for all eternity, almost always they begin quarreling the same evening, since, throughout, they are a loquacious, dissipated, high-spirited, over-showy tribe. Indeed, at thirty-five Nozdrev was just what he had been an eighteen and twenty—he was just such a lover of fast living.

Like Trump, Nosdrev must be constantly in the public eye and, like Trump, he thrives on conflict. Chaos appears to energize him:

Never at any time could he remain at home for more than a single day, for his keen scent could range over scores and scores of verses, and detect any fair which promised balls and crowds. Consequently in a trice he would be there—quarreling, and creating disturbances over the gaming-table…

Nozdrez, it turns out, has the same regard for the truth that Trump has:

Moreover, the man lied without reason. For instance, he would begin telling a story to the effect that he possessed a blue-coated or a red-coated horse; until, in the end, his listeners would be forced to leave him with the remark, “You are giving us some fine stuff, old fellow!”

After Trump, one can easily imagine Nozdrev on twitter:

Also, men like Nozdrev have a passion for insulting their neighbors without the least excuse afforded. (For that matter, even a man of good standing and of respectable exterior—a man with a star on his breast—may unexpectedly press your hand one day, and begin talking to you on subjects of a nature to give food for serious thought. Yet just as unexpectedly may that man start abusing you to your face—and do so in a manner worthy of a collegiate registrar rather than of a man who wears a star on his breast and aspires to converse on subjects which merit reflection. All that one can do in such a case is to stand shrugging one’s shoulders in amazement.) Well, Nozdrev had just such a weakness. The more he became friendly with a man, the sooner would he insult him, and be ready to spread calumnies as to his reputation. Yet all the while he would consider himself the insulted one’s friend, and, should he meet him again, would greet him in the most amicable style possible, and say, “You rascal, why have you given up coming to see me.” Thus, taken all round, Nozdrev was a person of many aspects and numerous potentialities.

Also like Trump, Nozdrev talks up everything he’s connected with, refusing to let facts stand in his way. Here’s only one instance from the many where he makes extravagant claims while refusing to let a rational assessment stand in his way:

The tour began with a view of the stables, where the party saw two mares (the one a grey, and the other a roan) and a colt; which latter animal, though far from showy, Nozdrev declared to have cost him ten thousand roubles.

“You NEVER paid ten thousand roubles for the brute!” exclaimed the brother-in-law. “He isn’t worth even a thousand.”

“By God, I DID pay ten thousand!” asserted Nozdrev.

“You can swear that as much as you like,” retorted the other.

“Will you bet that I did not?” asked Nozdrev, but the brother-in-law declined the offer.

And then there is his way of playing chess, which is not unlike the way that Trump is running the White House. Nozdrev is most interested in how much mayhem he can cause:

“I say again that it is a long time since last I had a chessman in my hand.” And Chichikov, in his turn, moved.

“Ah! I know you and your poor play,” repeated Nozdrev, for the third time as he made a third move. At the same moment the cuff of one of his sleeves happened to dislodge another chessman from its position.

“Again, I say,” said Chichikov, “that ‘tis a long time since last—But hi! look here! Put that piece back in its place!”

“What piece?”

“This one.” And almost as Chichikov spoke he saw a third chessman coming into view between the queens. God only knows whence that chessman had materialized.

“No, no!” shouted Chichikov as he rose from the table. “It is impossible to play with a man like you. People don’t move three pieces at once.”

“How ‘three pieces’? All that I have done is to make a mistake—to move one of my pieces by accident. If you like, I will forfeit it to you.”

“And whence has the third piece come?”

“What third piece?”

“The one now standing between the queens?”

“‘Tis one of your own pieces. Surely you are forgetting?”

“No, no, my friend. I have counted every move, and can remember each one. That piece has only just become added to the board. Put it back in its place, I say.”

“Its place? Which IS its place?” But Nozdrev had reddened a good deal. “I perceive you to be a strategist at the game.”

“No, no, good friend. YOU are the strategist—though an unsuccessful one, as it happens.”

“Then of what are you supposing me capable? Of cheating you?”

“I am not supposing you capable of anything. All that I say is that I will not play with you any more.”

“But you can’t refuse to,” said Nozdrev, growing heated. “You see, the game has begun.”

“Nevertheless, I have a right not to continue it, seeing that you are not playing as an honest man should do.”

“You are lying—you cannot truthfully say that.”

“‘Tis you who are lying.”

“But I have NOT cheated. Consequently you cannot refuse to play, but must continue the game to a finish.”

“You cannot force me to play,” retorted Chichikov coldly as, turning to the chessboard, he swept the pieces into confusion.

That’s just a small sampling. Yet as frustrating as Nozdrev is, he is far more interesting than the protagonist Chichikov, who is described as “cautious and frigid.” Which is to say, he resembles most of the politicians that Trump ran against.

If one had to choose, one would rather have Chichikov running the country. There is little doubt that Nozdrev would run it  into the ditch.

But Nozdrev makes for a far more interesting story, and in the 2016 many Americans wanted the more interesting story.

Reflecting on the character, the narrator observes,

Some may say that characters of his type have become extinct, that Nozdrevs no longer exist. Alas! such as say this will be wrong; for many a day must pass before the Nozdrevs will have disappeared from our ken.

We have living proof that the narrator is right.

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