Chagall’s Illustrations of Dead Souls: Nozdryov
In this illustration of a scene from Chapter 4 of Gogol’s Dead Souls, Chagall introduces us to one of the more fantastic characters in the story. This is Nozdryov, a notorious reveler, dandy, and swindler. Above is depicted his entrance into a provincial tavern where he recognizes his acquaintance (our protagonist, Chichikov). Nozydrov has just come back from the fair where he has gambled away all his money, but his high spirits are undampened.
We are told Nozdryov has two children whom he ignores, looked after by a pretty governess. He spends his time at fairs, balls, and at the card table. He has an ability to strike up an acquaintanceship extraordinarily quickly, but then picks fights or double-crosses these new friends, who, inexplicably, soon forgive him. He is notorious for one of his side-whiskers being shorter than the other—the consequence of his habit of cheating at cards and then being found out. This practically unthinkable man seems to propel himself through life by the sheer force of his own exuberance.
In his etching, Chagall makes Nozdryov the dominating figure. His stoic, fair-haired companion behind him, the greedy tavern-keeper in the doorway, and the puppy whom Nozdryov has stolen from its owner are all subordinate figures in the composition. It seems that the page can barely contain all of Nozdryov, whose legs are splayed, arms flung upward. Even Nozdryov’s side whiskers, writes Gogol, teem with “generative force.”
Chagall makes the viewer struggle to find coherence in Nozdryov’s figure; his dandyish curls seem to float above his head. One eye is well-defined, although its focus is indeterminable, but Chagall has just barely given the suggestion of Nozdyrov’s left eye, which doesn’t seem to point in the same direction. It’s almost as if Nozdryov won’t keep still long enough to be drawn. To pin him down in speech takes pages and pages of description in Dead Souls—-to do so in a single etching seems even more difficult. But it’s in the very disorder within himself in which Nozdryov revels, and it is through depicting this that Chagall can capture this extraordinary character.
Sophy Schulman – St. John’s College Student