Diary of A Madman and Other Stories was given to me by the same friend who recommended that I read The Trial so I was somewhat apprehensive about it and rightly so. The cover didn’t really do much for me and – I’ll cut to the chase – neither did the stories inside.
‘The Nose’ is a bizarre tale about a barber who cuts off a man’s nose and finds it in his sandwich roll. The man who has lost his nose is then forced to track it down in the hopes of reattaching it to his face. He finally finds the nose running around the streets dressed as a state councillor (yes, that’s right, everyone mistakes his nose for a state councillor). The nose is eventually returned by the police and its unlucky owner tries unsuccessfully to reattach it. When this fails he blames everyone he can think of by writing them nasty letters until he wakes up one morning only to find that his nose has returned to his face unbidden. That little summary pretty much says it all so I’ll move swiftly on.
‘How Ivan Ivanovich quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich’ is as dull and clunky as its title suggests and consists of a dreary retelling of how two friends fell out over nothing and kept up a petty disagreement over a course of many years. ‘Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt’ is pretty much the same kettle of fish.
‘Diary of a Madman’ itself is a little more interesting, it being the diary of a man who becomes convinced that he is the King of Spain when he is merely a lowly and ugly civil servant who thinks he can talk to dogs and read their letters. In this story, Gogol’s prattling style suits his subject and he gets the madman’s skewed logic and crazy indignation spot on. One of my favourite moments is when the madman says: “I have discovered that China and Spain are really one and the same country, and it’s only ignorance that leads people to think that they’re two different nations. If you don’t believe me, then try and write ‘Spain’ and you’ll end up writing ‘China’.” Brilliant.
Then the madman then goes on to say, in a tone that suggests he is being patient in the face of great stupidity: “The moon, as everyone knows, is usually made in Hamburg, and they make a complete hash of it. I’m surprised that the English don’t do something about it. The moon is manufactured by a lame cooper, and it’s obvious the idiot has no idea what it should be made of. The materials he uses are tarred rope and linseed oil. That’s why there’s such a terrible stink all over the earth”. Well indeed.
It would be unfair of me to say that Gogol’s work has no redeeming features. ‘Diary of a Madman’ is deliciously well-conceived and Gogol’s most famous story ‘The Overcoat’ is memorable and sad. (It features a man alone, scorned by all who meet him, who finally finds a way into mainstream society by buying a smart, new overcoat and promptly has it stolen.) It occurred to me, however, that Gogol writes madmen so well because there’s some truth in there for him. He had his moments of genius, sure, but there’s a fine line between genius and madness and Gogol strays too far over onto the wrong side of that line for me.
If you’re going to read Gogol, read ‘The Overcoat’ and ‘Diary of a Madman’ and give the rest of his stories a miss unless you enjoy reading about the daily grind of characters called Ivan who have loads of petty grievances with other Ivans (mainly over small plots of land, the insult of calling a person ‘a goose’ etc.). Perhaps his books are better in their traditional Russian? I don’t know. Perhaps I’m a total philistine? It’s certainly possible. Nevertheless, I will be steering clear of Gogol in the future…and possibly that particular friend’s book recommendations too…