Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Diary of a Mad Man and The Government Inspector, by Nikolay Gogol

It’s been so long since I actually spent money on a book. Actually, I didn’t even spend my own money when I bought this collection by Russian / Ukrainian writer Nikolay Gogol. I received two vouchers for a city bookshop. The other book I bought was the Dumas novel I wrote about a few days ago.

I don’t know why I picked up this collection of stories. Well, actually, I do know. I was intrigued by the titles: The Diary of a Madman (short story) and a play Gogol wrote, The Government Inspector. I’m a complete victim when it comes to a political comedy; I can’t walk past one.

My time lines for Russian literature aren’t good. (NB: even though Gogol is considered to be a Russian writer, he’s of Ukrainian / Polish extraction. He was very ambitious, and to be noticed and get ahead in literature circles, he wrote in Russian.) However, my understanding is that Gogol is one of the ‘fathers’ of Russian literature.

The tragic thing about him is he wrote so little and died so young (in his early forties). We should be thankful for his great stories and his hilarious play, The Government Inspector. I have a library copy of his only novel, Dead Souls, waiting to be read.

My critical response to the collection of stories I read in The Diary of a Madman? Wow! They’re totally amazing. This is the kind of writing that has such rich descriptions and strange subject matter that you become absolutely absorbed from the first sentence.

He has this genius to write about trivial, or day to day things, and bring out so much meaning.

His story, The Overcoat, is deemed to be his most famous, and it was this reader’s favourite. Anyone who has been a drudge, working in a dead end job, who has felt life’s humiliations, will relish every word of this story.

The play included in this collection, The Government Inspector, does not have the psychological depth of the short stories. But what it lacks in that it certainly makes up in sheer inventiveness and comic wit.

It’s basically a story about mistaken identity, and you could argue, the hollowness of power (for want of a better expression). Again, I found it thoroughly absorbing and entertaining right from the get-go.

I’m greatly looking forward to reading Gogol’s novel, Dead Souls.

Gogol seemed to write most of his material in his twenties and early thirties. The last decade of his life he devoted to essay and more academic writing. Drafts of the second part of Dead Souls he destroyed himself. People who read these drafts say they were of inferior quality.

Creativity is a strange thing. Why are some people given this gift, and only for a certain amount of time?

I’m constantly astonished that Shakespeare could write A Midsummer’s Night Dream at age twenty-eight. But that’s a digression that should belong in another post.

Anyone who should come across this post, and who loves Russian literature, you should give Gogol a go! I know you’ll find a new pal in his writings.

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