Russian satire and Ukrainian folklore
For roughly the first half of his career, Gogol wrote stories set in his native Ukraine. His writings of the latter half of his career are mostly set in St. Petersburg. This collection reverses the chronology and presents the St. Petersburg stories first. “The Mantle” is about a meek government clerk who is the butt of jokes at his office. Given his limited means, he gets upset when he discovers that he needs to buy a new overcoat, but once he purchases the garment he becomes rather obsessed with it. This satire of government bureaucracy has a tendency toward broad humor and feels like a 19th century Russian counterpart to the film Office Space. The comedy is even more outlandish in “The Nose,” which begins with a barber finding a nose in a loaf of bread. Its bizarre premise in a way calls to mind strange works by Franz Kafka like The Metamorphosis, but without the existentialism, “The Nose” is too absurd to even function as satire and just comes across as silly. “Memoirs of a Madman” (a.k.a. “Diary of a Madman”) is another bureaucratic satire featuring a low-level government functionary. Given the title, one wishes this might have been a realistic look at mental illness, but instead, once this madman goes off the deep end his narrative devolves into pure farce, good for a few chuckles and not much else.
The Ukrainian stories are more satisfying because they at least make an attempt at regional realism. In “May Night,” which takes place in a Cossack village, a young man swoons with love for his sweetheart until he finds out his father is also trying to woo her. Gogol still makes fun of his subjects—provincial small-town folk—but the story is relatively engaging. It includes some slapstick scenes and some supernatural elements drawn from folk tales. “The Viy” is also based on folklore, the title being the name of a supernatural being. Three seminary students from Kiev ramble into a remote village in Cossack country, where one has an encounter with a witch. This horror story is the most successful entry in this collection, probably because it takes its subject more seriously than the others.
Gogol is one of Russia’s most highly regarded writers, but personally this collection just didn’t appeal to me. Though he was considered a pioneering realist, in most of these selections any realism is undermined by sheer absurdity. Humor doesn’t always translate well between cultures and over centuries, and despite my enthusiasm for classic literature I fear many of Gogol’s witticisms were lost on me.
Stories in this collection
Preface by Prosper Mérimée
Memoirs of a Madman
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.