I never really thought of myself as a 'Russian Literature' kind of guy. But this was another one of those books that my father bought me, during my university years, when he was, I assume, trying to improve me (I have since realised that this was a regular enough occurrence to create a shelf, father-improves-me
, to immortalise the collection). Obviously, my university years are behind me now by some way, so I figure I've put reading this one off for long enough.
I came to Gogol, brings more to the stories than he gets credit for?
The collection comprises five shorter stories, and it opens with the good stuff. Diary of a Madman
is definitely the story that brings the five stars for this book. It is told through the diary entries of a lowly civil servant as he descends into madness and over-imagination – he falls in love with his boss's daughter; reads letters written by her dog; and realises that he's next in line to the recently vacated throne of Spain. Again, my test of any awesome book is that I need to read bits out to people nearby (in a moment of serendipity this time it was my father) and while the later stories didn't quite pass that test, Diary of a Madman
did in spades.
The collection continues with The Nose
the story of a man who wakes up one morning missing his nose. As something of a cocksman, his nose is suggested to be a metaphor for his more sensitive area, but it seemed more to me to be a deliberately ridiculous and pointless story, one that he could use to cock a snoot at the censors of the day, suggesting that there is nothing left worth writing about if all literature is to be censored. The Overcoat
is another one of Gogol's more famous stories, and is the tale of an inconsequential civil servant who saves for a new overcoat. While mocked for the old overcoat, the new one makes him popular. The story seemed a little too long in the build up, although I wondered if that was deliberate to drag out the tension. The last two stories, How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich
and Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt
were amusing, but didn't feel up to the standards of the first three. Maybe Gogol's more at home with stories of nobody civil servants that he is with more middle-class landowners.
All the stories are of everyday folk and strange personalities. Gogol seems to have something of a preoccupation with civil servants, noses, geese and overcoats, as each of these items feature in multiple stories. Also, all the stories feature some narration which breaks the fourth wall. Gogol is telling us the story, but it's also a conversation with us as well.