Diary of a Madman

Diary of a MadmanDiary of a Madman and Other Stories, Nikolai Gogol

This is a collection of Nikolai Gogol short stories I picked up at a used book sale somewhere, probably the library book sale where I find most of my purchases.  This particularly collection includes “Diary of a Madman” (obviously), “The Nose”, “The Carriage”, “The Overcoat”, and “Tarus Bulba”.  That last one is very unlike the others and doesn’t really seem to belong, except that it’s also one of Gogol’s most celebrated short stories.  For most of this review, I’m really talking about the first four.

A couple of things stand out upon reading this book.  Firstly, man, Russian fiction is strange.  The first three stories are completely surreal.  “Diary of a Madman” follows the narrator’s descent into madness, including discovering two dogs exchanging letters about him and believing himself to be Spanish royalty.  In the second, an officer’s nose becomes detached from his face and wanders around town in military dress.  In “The Overcoat” a poor office worker scrimps and saves for a new overcoat, only to have it stolen.  After dying from the cold, he becomes a ghost wandering around the town and stealing other people’s overcoats.  The first and third I could at least understand, the latter being a particularly tragic tale.  “The Nose”, on the other hand, is just bizarre.  I have no idea at all what it’s really about, despite reading several different interpretations of it.

The second thing that stood out was that, even if everyone involved had the absolute best intentions, the Soviet/Communist experiment was always doomed to fail.*  What all the stories have in common (except the last, which, more about later) is the characters’ obsession with status, social rank, and their place in the bureaucracy.  “The Overcoat” in particular details how the bureaucracy causes otherwise good and decent people to treat those of lower ranks terribly because it’s what’s expected of them as bureaucrats.  From this and other Russian authors of the 1800s one gets the sense that, for the new middle class at least, it wasn’t the royalty or capitalism that was oppressing people, it was bureaucracy.  And the Soviet Union didn’t attempt at all to get rid of the bureaucracy.  Instead, they strengthened and grew one of the worst things about pre-Soviet Russia.

The last story in the book, “Taras Bulba” stands out from the rest.  It’s far longer, almost a novella instead of a short story, and is historical rather than of its time.  The story is about the titular hero and his sons.  Bulba is an old Cossack who wants to make sure that his sons do not turn soft but get to experience violence and war.  They go off to slaughter, rape and pillage/defend the Orthodox faith (potato, potahto), Bulba kills one of his sons for going over to the enemy and his other son is captured and murdered.  The story is (I guess?) meant to be a celebration of past Russian glory.  Bulba is the hero and is even based on some past Cossack legends.  It was,  you know, not for me.  I’ve been anti-Cossack ever since I was a young kid and watched An American Tale approximately one thousand times a year, and later Fiddler on the Roof.  I have to say, reading this particular tale of how awful they were  didn’t make me much more inclined to like them.  It was strange since to me everything about this story made it an excellent, deeply ironic critique of the Cossacks and what Russians held to be heroic, except for apparently it wasn’t meant to be ironic.  It left me with the disjointed and slightly off feeling you might have if you read A Modest Proposal and then found out it was serious, or listened to a Sarah Palin speech and found out she was an actual politician not a performance artist.

All in all, a strange, but interesting, collection of stories.  I don’t know that I really enjoyed this book, but I am glad I read it.


*Of course, even arguing only from Marxist theories and, again, with the best of intentions, it was always doomed to fail for a lot of reasons.  Including that Marx’s theory was that communism could only come after industrial capitalism, while Russia was still primarily an agricultural and feudal society, and that he intended it to be, you know, communal, based on small independently run communities and it was instead implemented by the Soviet Union, the largest country in the world.  Throw in the fact that Stalin hardly had the best intentions and only missed out on winning “most evil world leader” by some very extreme mitigating circumstances and that whole thing was never going to work.


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