The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories

by Nikolay Gogol

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Nikolay Gogol was a Russian writer, of Ukrainian and Polish parents. He was born in 1809 and with Aleksander Pushkin the poet, was responsible for starting the great Russian literary awakening of the 19th century.

The short stories I have read from this collection are among his most famous: The Diary of a Madman, The Overcoat and The Nose. 

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Themes of a society dominated by bureaucracy and corruption, and of tragic and submissive heroes who live out sad, impoverished lives are evident in all these stories, and Gogol oscillates in all of them between comedy, bitter satire and tragedy.

“The Nose” is a strangely surreal story of a low ranking bureaucrat who literally loses his nose.

Kovalyov is obsessed with his ranking in the civil service, and losing his nose is an affront to his fragile image of himself in the societal system. He is further enraged when reports emerge of his nose becoming a ‘person’, obtaining a higher rank than his owner and lording it about town in a superior coach and clothing. He won’t rest until his nose is returned, and is suspicious of a number of people he thinks are responsible, because they are out to get him in his mind. The nose’s abscondment becomes a parody of the nonsensical bureaucracy that existed in Tsarist Russia. In St Petersburg there was  later even a statue erected of the nose, who has become a much loved ‘character’ in Russian culture. A fun satire about the absurdity of rank.

“My nose is driving at this very moment all over town, calling itself a state counsellor. That’s why I’m asking you to print this advertisement announcing the first person who catches it should return the nose to its rightful owner as soon as possible. imagine what’s it’s like being without such a conspicuous part of your anatomy! if it were just a small toe, then could put on my shoe and no one would be any the wiser. “

“The Overcoat” is a sad story of a lowly clerk, a copyist in a government office who is overlooked by everyone. He is barely surviving on a meagre income, and yet  is totally obedient to the system that enslaves and dehumanises him. His old overcoat is in tatters, and of course in the Russian winter, a good overcoat is essential to survival. He goes to a tailor, who tells him there is no point trying to repair the coat, he needs a new one. The poor man can’t afford it, but by literally almost starving he is able to eventually buy the most basic of overcoats, just as winter sets in.

When he receives the new coat, he feels for the first time in his life on top of the world and is invited to a party by another clerk. Here the tale takes a darker turn. A gang  of thieves robs him of his overcoat and leaves him defenceless in the snow. The police are totally uninterested in helping him recover his coat, and Akaky dies of a fever brought on by extreme cold.

In a final surreal element, Akaky comes to haunt the city as a ghost. His target is men with overcoats, that he forces to shed, a punishment for those that belittled him and brought about his death. This is a sad, haunting tale and hugely influential in later 19th century Russian literature: it was Dostoyevsky who famously wrote ” We have all come out from Gogol’s overcoat”.

“Akaky Akakievich was carted away and buried. And St Petersburg carried on …just as though he had never even existed… But who would have imagined that this was not the last of [him], and that he was destined to create quite a stir several days after his death, as though he were trying to make up for a life spent being ignored by everybody?” 

‘Diary of a Madman’ is I think one of Gogol’s best stories. It’s the only one written in the first person, and is a devastating critique on the Russian bureaucratic system and its effects on human happiness.

Arksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, is a minor civil servant, who is constantly lambasted and criticised by his superiors. He falls in love with his boss’s daughter, becoming obsessed with trying to gain her attention and approval.

The diary records his gradual slide into insanity, as in madness he finds the confidence he yearns for, and comes to believe he is the heir to the Spanish throne. Gogol’s portrayal of this slide is very realistic, as Poprishchin reads about the Spanish War of Succession in the newspapers, and to him it makes perfect sense he may be the heir.

” 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 this today. The path ahead is clear: everything is as bright as daylight… The first thing I did was tell Mavra who I was. When she heard that the King of Spain was standing before her, she wrung her hands and nearly died of fright. The stupid woman had obviously  never set eyes on the King of Spain before.”  

The last diary entries are poignantly tragic as Poprishchin is taken to an asylum and becomes subject to great cruelty and corporal punishment, yet sees this as a trial to be endured to establish his right to the throne.

All three stories are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe in their use of the grotesque and the absurd, but Gogol was himself a master at veering between comedy and tragedy, and it was a great loss that his last novel, “Dead Souls” was incomplete at his death, and moreover that he burnt great parts of it. But these stories are testament to his great talent in laying bare the great inequalities  of Tsarist Russia, and for his skill in simultaneously portraying human banality and suffering.

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On TBR, and the joys of reading

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” Read in order to live.”

Gustave Flaubert in a letter, 1857

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I have been active on Instagram/Bookstagram for nearly two years and have noticed how my reading habits have changed over that time. From being a laid back reader of whatever I felt like, I have changed to feeling I need to read a book just because others have reviewed it or raved about it. So, I want to get back to a more relaxed reading pace, just following my whims.

It’s a double edged sword  to always be hearing about lots of different books. It can add needless anxiety, stress, and competition, which if carried too far can be detrimental. That’s what I found anyway. I have never had a massive TBR, yet I hear that this is common. Some people’s TBRs are in the dozens or even more.

It’s great to hear about what other people are reading, but it doesn’t mean I will then rush out and necessarily buy a particular book.

I have always been a very spontaneous reader, if I become obsessed with a subject I follow it as far as I can. Recently I reread ‘Jane Eyre’, one of my favourite classics. This led to me reading Clare Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, a book recommended on Instagram. Absolutely amazing book! Well, this led to reading ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Brontë, as I knew nothing about her. Very much an underrated classic. Then I decided to read ‘The Brontës” a huge biographical tome by Juliet Barker. So you get the idea, I’m obsessive. That’s my favourite kind of reading, following a particular passion, rather than trends.

My favourite types of books are classics, contemporary literary fiction, biography and poetry, also books about art and artists, with occasional sprinklings of YA.

So here is my current TBR, pretty modest but I may go to the library tomorrow and see something amazing which I will then read first instead!

Gogol -it’s a bit embarrassing, but I studied Russian Literature at university, yet never read Gogol. This need to be remedied.

Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ – I read this classic many years ago, and want to reread it in a new translation. This is a magnificent book, a murder mystery and a sweeping drama of sibling rivalry among three brothers.

Dracula- just because.  It has been hugely influential in current vampire literature, but I have no idea what the original story was. Hope it’s a fun read.

I would love to hear what your current TBR is, and what you are reading at the moment.

Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

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by Laura Thompson

This family couldn’t be made up. No one would believe it. The family line went all the way back to the Norman Conquest of England, and every member had a diamond hard unshakeable confidence that whatever they decided to do was not only appropriate but did not need to be explained or excused to anyone.

The six sisters and one brother were born into upper class, country house privilege and were prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of 1930s London. Then each sister took a very different path, some of them a very dangerous path.

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Above – left to right: Unity, Tom (their brother), Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela

In summary:

Nancy –  became a famous novelist, was a friend of Evelyn Waugh, and spent many years in France after World War 2, following a divorce.

Diana – the most beautiful of the sisters, and adored by many men, married the heir to the Guinness fortune and had a life of immense wealth in Belgravia. She gave all that away as well as  her social standing to have an affair with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Party. Later she married him. A Hitler sympathiser, she visited him and other Nazi officials in Germany many times in the 1930s.  Both she and Mosley were interned during the war and were social pariahs after it.

Pamela – probably the most ‘normal’ and also detached of the sisters, she became a solid country woman who bred poultry.

Unity – what a strange girl! She was part of Mosley’s Fascist party, and became totally obsessed by fascism and Hitler himself, basically stalking him until he took notice of her. He liked her and indulged her. It’s hard to understand what her thinking was, it’s tempting to think she was mad as nothing else seems to explain some of her behaviour. When war broke out, she was still in Germany and so upset by the thought of war that she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. She survived, Hitler actually allowing her safe passage to neutral Switzerland. She made it back to England, but was never the same again, her health severely affected by a bullet in the brain that could not be removed.

Jessica – married a Communist, and became a fervent one herself, and went to live in America where she became a well regarded journalist and writer. She totally distanced herself from everything her family was and wrote a controversial memoir about them.

Deborah – the youngest, and apparently the most well adjusted, married and became well known as the Duchess of Devonshire for her efforts to save the ancestral home of her husband by opening it to visitors.

This was a very well written and researched book, which was gripping and engaging due to the incredible variety of the sisters’ lives and allegiances. As characters however, they were not likeable all, their arrogance was breathtaking, specially Diana, who insisted on praising Hitler even after the war. A comment she made in response to a critic perhaps sums up the whole family, “Shame is a bourgeois notion”.

A fascinating insight into another world and into a supremely dysfunctional family, not that they would have seen themselves that way.  4 ⭐️

 

 

 

Skunk Hour

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by Robert Lowell

Nautilus Island’s hermit

heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;

her sheep still graze above the sea.

Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer

is first selectman in our village;

she’s in her dotage.

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Thirsting for

the hierarchic privacy

of Queen Victoria’s century,

she buys up all

the eyesores facing her shore,

and lets them fall.

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The season’s ill—

we’ve lost our summer millionaire,

who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean

catalogue. His nine-knot yawl

was auctioned off to lobstermen.

A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

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And now our fairy

decorator brightens his shop for fall;

his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,

orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;

there is no money in his work,

he’d rather marry.

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One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;

I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .

My mind’s not right.

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A car radio bleats,

“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat. . . .

I myself am hell;

nobody’s here—

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only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

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I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air—

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

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Poetry is one of my favourite genres and I hope to post on a particular poem regularly.

There’s so much happening in this poem, with its vignettes of a declining town, its alliteration and precarious line endings. Also what a great image of a mother skunk and her tenacity!

The ‘hermit heiress’ is a self centred loner, and the repetitive use of the possessive pronoun ‘her’ emphasises her elitism and her dreams of past glory. She longs for a past before her exclusive world was invaded by outsiders like our ‘summer millionaire’. Deluded, he wishes to find acceptance in the heiress’s world, unaware that it is crumbling.

Poignantly, the possessive pronoun used about the ‘fairy decorator’, which here instead of selfishness and exclusivity, indicates a subtle pride in his work and tenuous outcast identity.

Lowell became known as one of the first ‘confessional’ poets, and his mental torment is expressed with dramatic intensity in lines like ‘my mind’s not right’ and  ‘I myself am hell, nobody’s here’, which references Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

The skunks are shown to have a unity and sense of community missing in the human world  of the poem. They take the poet out of his nightmare experience, into a feeling of hope that he will survive, due to the example of their stoicism and single mindedness. ‘a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail’.  I love this poem with its strong imagery and its ending of a mother skunk that ‘will not scare’.

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Lowell was born in 1917 to an old Boston family that could trace its origins to the Mayflower, and is his poetry he is both repelled and fascinated by his Puritan heritage. He had a tumultuous life, having three difficult marriages, and dying in 1977. Much of his poetry deals with his mental illness. He suffered from bipolar disorder and had frequent stays in mental hospitals to manage his condition

He wrote intensely and uninhibitedly  about his family, his privileged background and his mental health struggles in “Life Studies” from which this poem is taken.

In an era where on-line confessions about our innermost thoughts are so common, it’s difficult to comprehend how the candidness of his confessional poetry was so incendiary. His best poetry is intimate, disturbing and very powerful. He is without doubt one of America’s best poets of the twentieth century.

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This Faber edition of his selected poems is a good general introduction to Lowell’s work.

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The Book of Disquiet

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by Fernando Pessoa

“My boss Vasques, Moreira the book-keeper, Borges the cashier, all the lads, the cheery boy who takes the letters to the post office, the errand boy, the friendly cat – they have all become part of my life.  … Moreover, if I left them all tomorrow and discarded this Rua dos Douradores suit of clothes I wear, what else would I do? Because I would have to do something. And what suit would I wear? Because I would have to wear another suit.”

The above is our introduction to the complex and neurotic disquieting thoughts of Senhor Soares, for whom Pessoa is the vehicle.

Fernando Pessoa was a fascinating man and writer. Ironically his surname in his native tongue, Portuguese means “person”.

He was born in Lisbon in 1888, the same year as T S Eliot, and at nine years old his family moved to Durban in South Africa for almost a decade. There he learned English to a high degree of proficiency, and later translated a number of English literary writings into Portuguese. He was well read in both English and French.

He wrote a lot of poetry, but much of it remained unpublished at his death. He worked as a translator of correspondence for various firms, and was virtually unknown when he died, having avoided not only literary circles, but society in general. His quiet demeanour in life, belied the incredible inner workings of his mind. He died in 1935, at the age of 47, leaving behind in a wooden trunk thousands of pages that still have not been fully edited.

Part of this cache was The Book of Disquiet, but to call it a book is a little misleading. Who knows how Pessoa would have wanted to present it? It consists of diary entries, some fragmentary, written across decades of his life. These have been edited into this book. I think it is true to say that there is nothing else out there like it.

“My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.”

Philip Pullman wrote “This is the very book to read when you wake at 3 am and can’t get back to sleep – mysteries, misgivings, fears and wonderment. Like nothing else.”  I would have to agree.

Within Pessoa, there were a multitude of ideas, characters and styles of writing. So he took this to an unprecedented conclusion and wrote under a number of ‘heteronyms’. This concept differs from a pseudonym (Greek for “false name”). Instead heteronyms have their own style and biography as though they actually existed. Pessoa went so far as to create astrological charts for them.

“If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. what I confess is unimportant, because everything is unimportant.”

“There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.”

In The Book of Disquiet, the heteronym is Bernardo Soares, a clerk who works in the Lisbon business district, and in diary fragments relates his thoughts on life, death, the universe and everything. It is tempting to think that Soares is Pessoa, although he might deny it.

“Friends: not one. Just a few acquaintances who imagine they feel something for me and who might be sorry if a train ran over me and the funeral was on a rainy day.”

Was Pessoa genius or neurotic borderline madman? It’s a fine line, depending on your point of view.

This is a fascinating book, an insight into a singular mind, but not recommended if you’re feeling depressed or melancholy, as it will certainly accentuate those emotions.

“We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky.”

Pessoa was intriguing to the end. On 29 November 1935, he wrote his last lines in his diary in English: “I know not what tomorrow will bring”. He died the next day.

Note: All quotations from The Book of Disquiet are from the Serpent’s Tail edition, published in 2010, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

Photo of Pessoa: copyright Getty Images

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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By Susan Cain

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality – ‘the north and south of temperament’,  as one scientist puts it -is where we fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum.”

This is the book that started a Quiet Revolution. And it was a revolution that needed to happen.

Susan Cain is a passionate and persuasive writer, and her case for the power of introverts is skilfully made with many real life stories. Without introverts we wouldn’t have the Apple computer, Van Gogh’s sunflowers or the theory of relativity.

As an introvert myself, with an introvert daughter, I found this book to be informative and empowering. Extroverts take up an inordinate amount of speaking space in employment, schools and in social life. Introverts have as much to offer, but being quieter it is not always noticed, or they themselves do not promote it.

Introverts often think deeply, but have trouble putting their thoughts into words fluidly and confidently. So inevitably, extroverts are more likely by their confidence to get more attention. This is specially troubling in schools. Cain presents research showing that for many teachers the “ideal student” is an extrovert. This is extraordinary when you think of classic introverts like Einstein, Steve Jobs and George Orwell who ironically enough did not do well at school.

There are many chapters on this and other research that has been done on introversion, and on the excessive rise of the extrovert ideal in modern society.

This book is a must read for introverts and extroverts alike. 5 ⭐️

If interested in this topic, I highly recommend the website: quietrev.com founded by Cain to address issues that prevent introverts from achieving their best both in work and in life. As Cain so poignantly puts it:

“If I had one wish, it would be to reverse the stigma against introversion for children so that the next generation doesn’t grow up with the secret self-loathing that plagues so many introverted grown-ups today. “

If you have read this book, I would love to read your thoughts on it.

Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson 

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” You have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”

“I hate to think what I would give for a thousand mornings like this. For two or three. You were wearing your red shirt and your mother was wearing her blue dress.”

“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.”

This novel is beautifully crafted, a meditation on life and death, but more particularly on what constitutes a good life, and how a good man does what he can with what he has on the small canvas of an insignificant Iowa town.

Reverend John Ames is a ‘good’ man, who has led a simple life in a small, obscure town. He comes from a long line of ministers, and he muses on the different theologies and lives of his father and grandfather. The former was a pacifist in World War 1, the latter was a fighter for the abolition of slavery and condoned violence to achieve that end.

In 1956, Ames is terminally ill, and so begins a letter to his young son, who will have few memories of him. Deceptively simple as a device, it allows Robinson to wander through a century of American history, and more particularly different types of Christianity, as well as black and white relations.

At times humorous in a very quiet and subtle way, at others poignant, “Gilead” reads like an elegy to another world.

Recommended. 5 🌟