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The Diary of a Madman By Nikolay Gogol (Penguin Classics)

Last update - Thursday, August 15, 2013, 12:49 By Roslyn Fuller

Ukrainian-born author Nikolay Gogol was nothing if not imaginative, as displayed to great effect in this collection of plays and short stories. 

Unlike many of the great Russian-language authors of the 19th century, who focused on social and economic themes, most of Gogol’s work has the character of light entertainment, absent a reformist agenda.

But it is this very lack of rational purpose that makes Gogol so fascinating to read. Considering that the author suffered from psychological problems and eventually starved himself to death, it’s not surprising to learn that he was a bit of an outside-the-box thinker.

This eccentricity is reflected in his stories, which turn again and again to the ridiculous, the bizarre and the downright insane, as in the famous ‘Diary of a Madman’ (it delivers exactly what the title promises) or ‘The Nose’ (in which an official’s nose takes on a personality of its own).

Yet oddly enough, perhaps owing to the author’s inherent sense of humour and love of caricature, none of this comes across as particularly disturbing. ‘Life is crazy,’ Gogol seems to say with a shrug, ‘but at least it’s good for a laugh.’ It’s Kafka lite, and, for the early 19th century in which Gogol lived and worked, practically alternative.

The general tenor of the collection is perhaps best summed up in ‘Nevsky Prospekt’, which delivers a creepy foreshadowing of the author’s own demise. While out for a stroll, two friends, Piskarev and Pirogov, are each attracted to a different woman and quickly part ways to pursue these objects of desire. Piskarev soon discovers that the beautiful woman he is following is a silly and shallow prostitute.

Rocked to the core by this revelation and rebuffed in all of his virtuous attempts to save her from her fate, Piskarev retreats into a fairer and happier fantasy world, eventually committing suicide.

Pirogov, on the other hand, turns out to have been pursuing the equally stupid wife of a German merchant. Completely undeterred by this state of marital affairs, Pirogov embarks upon multiple seduction attempts, eventually landing him a beating by said husband and friends.

Initially furious, Pirogov manages to brush off the entire chain of events within a few hours and go back on the prowl.

So if you want to stay sane in this world, the message seems to be: try not to take it all too seriously.



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