Notes from the Shack:
Thoughts while Reading Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”
(Part One) *
by Christopher Schnieders
Some Initial Notes
A. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories is a paperback I bought in the early 1990s at a San Francisco bookstore. The only publication info is: “This translation first published 1972” and under that is simply “20.” It’s also: “Printed in England by Clays Ltd. St Ives plc / Set in Monotype Bembo.” If I ever have another band, our name will certainly be Monotype Bembo.
B. The cover art is a sketch of a wispy haired man thinking in black charcoal. The background is mustard with black and white lettering above declaring the book title. The art is a reproduction of a sketch by IE Repin from the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
C. Translation and introduction by Ronald Wilks. 1972.
D. This short story gives way to major world literature. Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground had not yet been contemplated, though that great writer seemingly memorized this Gogol story. As far as I can tell, we can draw a straight line from Diary of a Madman to Notes from the Underground, etc. (e.g. Crime and Punishment). I’d bet my feet, or better yet, my nose on it.
A Bit of Introduction
In any discussion of Nikolai Gogol, we must first mention Dead Souls, a book I carried for many years in various backpacks, to work and back, kept beside my typewriter and such. Dead Souls had been nearby for decades, though I admit to never finishing the novel, in traditional uncle g (me) style – which means reading a great many sections more than a few times but never the whole thing straight through. Dead Souls is always there and I’m always reading it though I’ll never reach the end of Chichikov’s story, which launched Gogol into the air with “Swift, Voltaire, Balzac, and Dickens as one of the world’s great arch-satirists.”
This quote is lifted from the back cover of my book, its front and back covers now torn from the bind but still with the paperback – a Signet Classic translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew (who translated The Gambler by Dostoevsky, etc.). The cover painting for Dead Souls: “Guerre,” from the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
Other cover info includes a quote from Vladimir Nabokov: “Dead Souls provides an attentive reader with…that Gogolian gusto and wealth of weird detail which lift the whole thing to a level of a tremendous epic poem…”
Nabokov’s endorsement is good enough for me so let’s see how Gogol got there, with an early story Alexander Pushkin liked so much; a tale of losing it, a crack up, mental illness as it goes down, or a weird vision of how it could go down, and there we were in St. Petersburg before Dostoevsky conjured Notes…
His first and middle names are Axenty Ivanovich and his obsession is the Director’s daughter, even though Axenty is a civil servant with a job description that includes sharpening the Director’s quills. When Sophie arrives at the office to ask, “Has Papa been here?” the interior monologue begins and Axenty shows his hand as he imagines, from that simple question, a proper response of: “Your Excellency, don’t have me put to death, but if that is your wish, then let it be by your own noble hand.”
With this note, we are off to the mental races in this story written in 1834 by our favorite Ukrainian who knew Pushkin as a young man, Gogol being young that is, which is what I was when I discovered him in a Minneapolis bookstore in 1990. Discovered is a ridiculous word, of course. How many great and obscure readers already knew Gogol well, after all? All of us in awe of Dead Souls, though it was a discovered blessing that day when I hustled into a bookstore near the University of Minnesota in search of something smart to read before taking off on a camping trip to northern Minnesota in the hot, dense summer.
Much the way you might jump in for coffee, I hit the store and wandered around Dostoevsky until a worker came up and asked what book I was looking for. He told me about Gogol’s stories, The Nose and The Overcoat, and it was a sell, book bought, though only later did I find Dead Souls and this early work, Diary of a Madman: a young man’s story about a middle aged man’s cracking life, the nimble humble grandiose illogical ramble stumble into utter nonsense with potential and absolute real world consequences.
I don’t know enough about Gogol’s mental health but there were legendary quirks like his burning the sequel to Dead Souls, which he spent ten years writing, burned it a few days before his death in February 1852. These kind of dates irk me, realizing Gogol did all this before the age of 43 – though I’m fairly certain life expectancy was 43 in 1852, so there was a bit more urgency then, and this goof aside, his burning of the Dead Souls sequel was sheer artistic madness. None of us can imagine it – well maybe Kafka, who wanted his great friend Max Brod to burn all of his writings, a deathbed wish not granted, and I guess none of it really matters when you’re facing death, though I doubt it. I’ll confess to burning one of the five copies of my first novel The Hard Groove on a San Francisco Mission District roof in front of three members of the rock band Horsey. I did it as a symbol, as inspiration to “get better as an artist, write better next time,” knowing those four other copies existed, that my first effort at a novel was not supreme but rather a learning experience. Now, those other copies have vanished, missing forever, and that book was a miniscule blip compared to the great loss of Gogol’s monumental sequel.
As for Diary of a Madman, the young Gogol begins to realize greatness and takes pleasure in it. The words pop off the ink. He knows this story: “Don’t you know ignorant peasant, that I am a civil servant and of noble birth?” The historian in Gogol extends the bridge from serfdom to civil servitude, or certain-tude of miserable government employment, that most callous and hated of occupations (even in our conservative 21st century America).
By the end of the October 4 entry, Axenty’s obsession begins to take hold. He “copies out some very fine poetry” about the writer’s wretched life without a particular woman and notes that it: “Must be something by Pushkin.” He then decides to take an ill-advised step and stalk the Director’s daughter, Sophie, by waiting outside “Her Excellency’s house… a long time… just to see her get into her carriage once more. But no, she didn’t come out.”
The jig is up at work and the head of the department is after him. “You’re past 40 now, and it’s time you had a bit more sense…” It’s a classic diary entry in which our writer reveals his main character as a middle-aged nobody.
Axenty attends the theater, with laughing vaudevillian actors talking of Russian censors and critics: “The author asks for the audience’s protection.” This is followed by our author’s sensible commentary on current theater and clearly obsessive thoughts about Sophie, though he won’t mention her by name in this entry.
Dogs are talking. Sophie’s dogs are talking. Oh yes, of course. It’s the most obvious and unlikely thing, and a basic construct of the piece. Axenty hears these dogs speaking Russian about the latest events, which is certainly worthy of note. As readers, we know this is fiction, so it’s entirely plausible that our anti-hero can speak canine, a construct that’s old hat now and probably then, but Gogol commits to it and returns to the dogs again and again, not leaving this as a one-off, but part of Axenty’s character, his certain belief, a sign of ensuing madness.
“At two in the afternoon I set off with the firm intention of seeing Fidelé [one of the two main dogs] and cross-examining her.”
Instead, Axenty courses through St. Petersburg streets filled with the oppressive smell of cabbage: “The shops along Meshchanskaya just reek of it.”
He runs away from that and everything else as well.
Medji is writing the diary: “the letter is quite legible though the handwriting looks a bit doggy.” Axenty, now a commenter, has become the dog inside the Director’s house, the perfect spy with complete access, and have you read the title of the story? The transition is seamless, since the dog knows all – as our pets know our best and worst moments. Our cats and dogs can never tell our worst secrets, complicit friends that they are, and never praise our private triumphs either. Except Medji, who dishes about the humans in letters to his dog love, Fidelé.
If I could do the piece it’s best possible justice, I would just publish the entire story and say, “Check it out. Read this. Don’t let me explain it to you.” But that’s generally not allowed, copyright etc., and involves not much from yours truly. Kerouac said we need to give information when discussing books and literature and that is one of the truest things I know about these discussions. So I’m working to give information while participating in this experiment: a meditation from 2012 Los Angeles about Gogol’s 1834 St. Petersburg story.
Here is Axenty’s take on Medji’s writing: “The letter is impeccably written. The punctuation is correct and even the letter “ye” is in the right place.” As Editor in Chief of Intellectual Refuge, I can appreciate this note, since submissions with correct punctuation always get priority.
As it is, we get dog thoughts about marrow and canine tastes, no capers or greens, and forced pellets grudgingly accepted. We get Medji’s mind followed by Axenty’s take on the dog’s mind, which is: “What on earth does all that mean?” … “I only like the marrow from game birds, and then only if the marrow hasn’t been sucked out by someone else.” Everyone knows where this leads. Axenty is lost, focused in the wrong direction all together.
That fact doesn’t prevent Medji from writing more, or finally getting to Papa (the Director), who awaits some important award with keen, pompous anticipation and then actually receives it – as a well-connected Director might. And then we return to the girl, Sophie, who is attending balls and apparently not eating, which the dog would never do. “I confess that is no life for me.”
Axenty notes that the writing style is jerky, not human obviously – or rather “not written by a human being” and shall we look at another letter from Medji, and shall we further read his secret madness. Is Nikolai Gogol enjoying himself? Most definitely, yes indeed. This is the stuff that brings smiles to readers’ faces, all of us skimming letters and words, the stories, eliciting meaning and other such things, the marrow of life, from an experience we have not had – or may have, God help us – though the moment we are reading is imagination, creation, the mind that never was appearing and staking claim on immortality, that great unattainable goal for most every writer – gearing up in Gogol with this fictional diary from a middle-aged man relaying the fictional musings of a dog named Medji, intended for another dog’s affection, of course.
This is youthful energy reflecting on utter loneliness, the potential consequence of luck and age, and what are you going to do when you are a civil servant sharpening quills at age 42 in St. Petersburg? Starved for love. Affection being the most human desire, Axenty Ivanovich’s diary is starved for affection at the least. This is Gogol’s insight, his lasting look into the human soul, where the lonely will do anything, even offer the writings of dogs to their dog loves to disguise the loneliness, and who among us are ever lonelier than a dog left alone?
Axenty moves on to other Medji letters, deeper letters about mongrels and Great Dane suitors, a muzzled gallant named Tresor, and here we have a fully developed dog world identical to the human world, or enough to resemble Sophie’s world, if Sophie were to have suitors and one was a “very coarse mongrel, so stupid you can see it written all over his face, and he swaggers down the street thinking he’s someone very important and that everyone else thinks the same, but he’s wrong. I ignored him completely, just as if I’d never set eyes on him.”
Medji’s brutal words are criticized by Axenty as “trash” and this commentary is hilarious and sad. What is sad is hilarious and what’s hilarious is sad. Every comedian worth anything knows this: our base instincts reveal our real concerns, our self-centered self-preserving biases, our failings and the fight to persevere despite our humanity. Axenty’s frustration of, “all I end up with is this rubbish!” makes me wonder if the Russian word for rubbish is rubbish, or if their word is closer to our American “trash,” and how Wilks decided on rubbish and what else happened in translation? However it is, there may be no greater truth than Axenty’s acknowledgement of:
“I need people, not dogs! I want to see a human being; I ask for spiritual nourishment to feed and delight my soul…”
It’s clear that we are moving into the heart of the story. Disbelief and its suspension no longer matter. As readers, we suspend as Medji reveals Sophie’s interest in a young man, a Guard Officer with “whiskers growing all around” (a perfect fit for the hipster bill in nearby Echo Park lately).
The dog witnesses her excitement during the officer’s visits – though they only talk rubbish, of course. Medji compares him with the “civil servant who has a desk in Papa’s office. Ah, ma chére, if you only knew how ugly he is! Just like a tortoise in a sack.” The exchange between the dog’s surveillance and Axenty’s commentary is plain ole literary fun, with offence taken by our man at the canine’s honesty, a Gogolian creation of words and circumstances brimming with deranged hilarity. We are left to wonder who’s writing what, only to be buoyed by the title of the story.
But is Gogol mad? No. Not in 1834 at least. Is Axenty mad? Crushingly lonely yes, but we’ll have to read further to make a full diagnosis, which may or may not be such a good idea, if mental health experts like Stephen Morse are to be believed. Perhaps diagnosis into categories is not the best way to treat people with mental health illness at all. But now I’m writing about other experiences and not Axenty (as will happen again) and my experience of this story is not as an academic scholar, not an historian, more as a nobody like Axenty Ivanovich (if he lived in California and was married with a gorgeous two year-old daughter). So… not like Axenty but as a reader, an obscure writer who reads less than he should but loves this little story from St. Petersburg and can I tell you more?
The beginning of the break, the snapping of the crack, the ripping of the root known as reality, functionality, and our good old ability to get by. Sophie is getting married and, “It’s impossible!” After the long entries of dog writing, human facts barrel in with short punches. Axenty questions everything about his place in society, his impenetrable lot. There will never be a Sophie for him so he imagines putting on airs, dressing in the costumes of the well-to-do, “Say for example, I suddenly appeared in a general’s uniform with an epaulette on my left shoulder and a blue sash across my chest – what then? What would my beautiful young lady sing then?” All is lost on December 3, but to Axenty’s credit, this day begins his ascendancy to the throne of Spain.
To be fair to the nature of fiction, this short story was not conjured out of thin air, if literary historians are to be believed, and I think they are. Gogol read a journal, The Northern Bee, which he referenced in the Diary on October 4: “I’ve been reading the Little Bee.*” My paperback’s footnote dismisses The Bee as a “Petersburg journal… which enjoyed police protection and vilely attacked the great writers of the day – Pushkin, Gogol, Belinsky, Lermontov. Its founder, Bulgarin, in the pay of the police, was called ‘the reptile journalist’. (Trans.)” This footnote by Wilks appears to be a half-truth, or rather a whole truth with the first part of the story left out. It’s hard to balance with the Wikipedia discussion of the story. Yes, I know, Wiki is not to be cited as a source, but I’m writing as a reader looking for information beyond Wilks’ dismissal of the primary source of Gogol’s inspiration for the story. Besides, who would contribute to this Wikipedia page in English in order to save The Northern Bee’s reputation at the expense of Gogol? No one! We all just dig the story and want to know more. Why Wilks chose to slant it this way is confusing, but a simple search shows that Bulgarin published works by the great writers before he attacked them as a reptile journalist. He was apparently cool before turning to the dark side, and this is Russia – one has to do what one has to do – though even in the 21st century, Russian journalists with integrity and relentless heart tell the truth – which can indeed result in their own murders.
As it was, The Northern Bee appears to have published a series of stories about civil servants in insane asylums; some inmates were timid and others consumed with grandiose delusions. This makes a lot of sense and jibes with the truth that great fiction is inspired by truth, the stories of the day. It’s not much of stretch to accept this source as a root of Gogol’s inspiration.
In any case, the contradiction between Wilks’ dismissal of The Northern Bee as only a vile attacker of great writers and Wiki’s crediting The Bee for inspiring the story seems to fit our tale of madness in a Russia where so many were stifled by their position, their class, though I’m not here to claim any mantel as a historian of Russian literature. That would be akin to staking claim as the King of France or Spain, and I have no intention of the sort.
NOTE: More basic research reveals the name “Axenty” – as Wilks translates his first name in 1972 – is also spelled “Aksenty” or “Aksentii,” though I like the similarity of Axenty to the English word anxiety, which seems just right.
The dogs are gone, Sophie is gone and our narrator “spent the whole morning reading the papers.” This luxury remains a viable option in 2012, though the internet news is where most of us would spend similar time. We could certainly envy Axenty’s era, hanging out all morning combing through news of the world with no online anything. His reading brings news from Spain, “the throne has been left vacant and the nobility are having a great deal of trouble choosing and heir,…” Here, Gogol’s comic sensibility and literary restraint are admirable.
We see the wheels spinning as Axenty considers the process and problems of finding a new king. According to Wilks’ footnote: “Gogol is referring to the dispute over the succession to Ferdinand VII who died in 1833.”
Axenty is consumed with the issue: “There’s a king all right, but he’s hiding in some obscure place.” Wikipedia notes that, in The Bee’s series on civil servants in the insane asylums, “one article focused on an inmate who added the phrase “King of France and Navarre” to his passport.” This synchronizes well with Axenty’s guess that the new King of Spain “is forced to stay in hiding for family reasons, or perhaps because he is in danger from some foreign country, such as France.” It’s all inference from here in LA, but it makes a lot of sense since even Nabokov’s Lolita didn’t come out of cerebral air, rather the news of the day (and probably Heinz von Lichberg’s 1916 story), which is not ground breaking info. This is something for young writers to realize; it isn’t only the news, the life stories and literary inspirations we choose to fictionalize, but what our talents and imagination can conjure given the dire realities of life. Can Axenty Ivanovich Poprishchin become the King of Spain on December 5? It seems to be a distinct possibility as winter descends on Russia.
We are back from the brink with a small post about returning to the office and then not doing so. The Spanish royalty situation is still unresolved and “how could a woman inherit the throne?”
Gogol brings in a character named Marva, his housekeeper or perhaps sister: “Marva pointed out that I was very absent-minded during supper. And, in fact, in a fit of distraction I threw two plates on to the floor and they broke immediately.” Nothing to see here, of course. Nothing out of the ordinary, a few broken plates thrown by a 42 year-old man who has other things to consider, most importantly the Spanish question.
This is all acceptable outside the fact that he cannot go back to his job sharpening quills for the Director or think about Sophie and, as is cliché, denial is more than a river in Egypt.
April 43rd 2000
This date has been listed differently in other translations, in different sequences such as the difference between American and European time signatures. But it is always the same date, which is one that never existed and never will. As madness descends, Axenty contemplates the year 2000 in 1834. The 43rd of April to be precise. If there is any lesson here, and it may well be an untrue notion, at least on this day of fictional schizophrenia – Gogol’s momentary answer is that insanity will set you free. George Clinton sang with Funkadelic, “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” and a century and half earlier Axenty Ivanovich Poprishchin wakes up on a date in a future that never was to realize this: “Today is a day of great triumph. There is a King of Spain. He has been found at last. That King is me. I only discovered it today. Frankly it all came to me in a flash.”
A diary entry for the ages and the fact that this story is the only work Gogol published in the first person makes it all the more satisfying for a reader. Generally speaking, there is too much “me and I” in writing and conversation. We can debate this of course, but it would be great if our collective discussions would focus on ideas instead of you and me, e.g. this is what that expert said about the King of Spain in 1834 and here’s facts this other person knows. In the words of Paul Weller, “I could go on for hours and I probably will, but…” the best sequence of our story so far is:
“And the whole reason for this, as I see it, is that people are under the misapprehension that the human brain is situated in the head: nothing could be further from the truth. It is carried by the wind on the Caspian Sea.”
Here is the pay off we have been waiting for. All this time we have been teaching each other that our brains are in our heads and Poprishchin is now revealing an alternate truth. Or rather, Gogol has composed a rhythmical nonsensical wonder of language, such a soothing place for our brains to be, so beautiful in light of our narrator’s reality. The dregs of asylum life surely await as Marva, maid or perhaps Kafka’s sister, appears again (his only mention of another person at this point). She is at home and not thrilled about the Spanish throne: “But what can you expect from the common herd? You just can’t converse with them about the higher things in life. Marva was frightened because she was sure all kings of Spain looked like Philip II.”
Axenty’s plan is a fine one on April 43, 2000. It is dream life amid dread. There must be a grand path out of this mess after all, and the King of Spain doesn’t need to sharpen quills for anyone. “Didn’t go to the office today. To hell with them! I’ve had enough of copying out your filthy documents!” And what civil servant/office worker wouldn’t concur with that? Why so many documents? Why so many copies? Why is Axenty the King and, at the same time, nothing in St. Petersburg? This is delusion, a very human thing.
* This essay was written in late 2012/early 2013, hence the occasional references to 2012. Part Two will appear in IR next week.