On the outskirts of a nameless Russian town in the middle of the nineteenth century, a carriage is flying through the night...

Marc Chagall Chichikov and Sobakevich after Dinner (Etching, 1923-1927)

Marc Chagall Chichikov and Sobakevich after Dinner (Etching, 1923-1927)

Chichikov is a man with a plan. If he can persuade landowners to transfer to him ownership of all the serfs who have died since the last census, he will look on paper like a very wealthy man. As he rides in his carriage from estate to estate, encountering ever more absurd characters, his greed and ambition grow - but so too do the suspicions of those he meets.

This was a two-part adaptation of Gogol’s novel for the Radio 4 ‘Classic Serial’ slot. It starred Mark Heap as Chichikov and Michael Palin as the Narrator. It also featured David Fleeshman, Judith Davis, Wyllie Longmore, Toby Hadoke, and Graeme Hawley. It was directed by Polly Thomas.

The production was first broadcast on Radio 4 in April 2006; it was repeated on the World Service in February 2007 and on BBC7 in December 2010 and again on Radio 4 Extra in August 2012.

The adaptation emphasised the comic aspects of the book. In particular, re-reading it, I noticed that when the book was written, the classic nineteenth-century omniscient narration had not been fully settled; in Gogol’s novel sometimes the narrator knows too much (he tells us what the furniture is thinking at one point) and sometimes too little (admitting to be baffled by people’s expressions and behaviour). At one moment, the narrator narrates quietly so as not to wake the person he is narrating about. This was my keynote for the adaptation; Palin’s narration is audible to all the characters in the room, often to their annoyance.

Dead Souls exists in two volumes; the first is the most famous and the second is incomplete (Gogol destroyed it believing it immoral having come under the influence of a religious fanatic). I restructured the second book, making it more firmly Chichikov’s attempt to better himself and the world, while also ramping up the sense that he is being pursued. Many of the ‘chase’ scenes are entirely invented. The first part is more faithful to the book, though still necessarily selective. I moved the famous conclusion to the first volume - Chichikov in his coach, fleeing the town, dementedly and blindly driving his coach onward, ever onward - to the end of the second novel.

You can read my adaptation here: 

You can listen to both parts below: