Diary of a Madman and Other Stories

by Nikolai Gogol


Surprising and refreshing given my experience with other Russian writers. Gogol’s stories are contrastingly light and comic, and his intrusive narration sometimes hilarious. His close to “The Nose,” a completely absurd tale about a man losing and then finding his nose (which in the meantime has been disguising itself as a government official), made me laugh out loud:

. . . I cannot understand. It’s absolutely beyond me. But strangest of all, the most incomprehensible thing, is that there are authors who can choose such subjects to write about. This, I confess, is completely inexplicable. It’s like. . . no, no, I can’t understand it at all. In the first place, there is absolutely no advantage in it for our mother country. Secondly. . . well, what advantage is there in it at all? I simply cannot understand what it is. . .
However, when all is said and done, and although, of course, we conceive the possibility, one and the other, and maybe even. . . Well, but then what exists without consistencies? And still, if you give it a thought, there is something to it. Whatever you may say, such things do happen– seldom, but they do.

“The Diary of a Madman” was intersting in its description of the rise of a man’s insanity, and it was much funnier and more readable than something like Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. “The Overcoat” is justifiably famous, and Gogol displays a gift for creating an incredibly sympathetic main character, however pathetic.

In all of the shorter stories, you see the typical characterization of Russian bureacracy and society as some huge immovable force, with ridiculous stratification and labrynthine channels for gaining an audience of a Very Important Personage. It struck me as trite until I realized that Gogol was writing before any other famous Russian writer, about 50 years before Dostoyevsky if I’m not mistaken.

Also, it gave me the idea that if Russian society was so bureacratized and regimented in the 1830s, it’s no wonder that Leninist and then Stalinist communism failed so spectacularly. There was never a chance in a society that has historically awarded social status based on whether one was an 8th or 7th level government clerk.

Gogol’s St. Petersburg stories aside, the inclusion of the novela “Taras Bulba” at the end of the collection is masterful. After reading the short, whimsical exercises, I was astounded at the epic scope of the historical fiction of the Ukrainian Cossacks. While still retaining some occasional satiric jabs (whether at the Church, the Motherland, the “barbarians” themselves, or the Poles), and despite his blatant anti-semitism, Gogol nevertheless proves here an incredible range, able to move seamlessly from broad comedy to epic adventure.

Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by this collection, my introduction to Gogol. I look forward to reading Dead Souls sooner rather than later.


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