Sunday, June 28, 2015

Diary of a Mad Gogol

It's been a while since I've read one of my 19th-century Russians, and normally I would go for any Dostoevsky or Tolstoy I hadn't read yet (or reread lately), but there was something about Gogol that was gnawing at me.

I'd read Dead Souls a number of years ago, or at least most of it. I'd had the 1961 David Magarshack translation sitting patiently on my shelf, and I really enjoyed it up until I started seeing things like [Here ends the manuscript of the first four chapters of Part Two] and [Part of the manuscript is missing here]. There had been no indication on the cover of the book that I was about to embark on an unfinished story. I see by my old business-card/bookmark that I didn't even make it all the way to the end of the incomplete manuscript.

Yet, Gogol, I felt, was a master satirist, storyteller, scene maker, and character analyst. I'll put him ahead of Chekhov anytime for the sheer joy of reading. But I had a little bit of a Gogol block years ago when I took up my thrift-store 1960 Andrew R. MacAndrew story collection. It opens with "The Diary of a Madman," which so happens to begin on my birthday. I took it as an evil omen and threw it across the room.

Recently, a scholar among my friends was talking about the significance of particular dates used in texts. I decided to conquer my Gogol superstition and take up the Madman's diary again. It was hilariously disturbing.

As the protagonist inexorably slips in and out of delusion, from his conversations with neighborhood dogs to his revelation that he is the king of Spain, his diary-dating system reflects his growing madness: From October 3, he goes as normal through the end of December, then abruptly finds himself in Year 2000, April 43; then Martober 86, between day and night; then No date. A day without a date; Faubrarius the thirtieth; 25th date; and finally da 34 te Mnth. Yr. yraurbeF 349.

The other short stories in the collection capture the absurd, dream/nightmare-like frustrations of civil servants and petty functionaries in Russian life. "The Nose," in which a man's proboscis escapes his face and literally takes on a life of its own, is as surreal as anything you'd find in Kafka.

The MacAndrew collection ends with the something-completely-different historical romance of "Taras Bulba," which I was vaguely aware had been a movie with Yul Brynner. Set in the 17th-century Ukraine's Cossack battles against the Poles, Tartars, Catholics, Jews, and other infidels, this novella contains a great deal of manly violence, drunkenness, and treachery.

It also contains some of the richest expository writing you'll find, and the loveliest treatment of romantic love as Taras's younger son, Andrei (Tony Curtis in the movie), is enchanted by a Polish general's daughter:
But neither chisel nor brush nor the mighty word can express what may be found sometimes in the eyes of a woman, any more than they can convey the storm of tenderness which sweeps over the one those eyes are looking upon.
Not bad for a writer who supposedly never had love in his life.

love, hosaa,
back from a 19th-century view of the 17th-century steppes

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