Russian novelist (Taras Bulba, Dead Souls), short story writer (The Nose, The Overcoat), surrealist, satirist and playwright (The Government Inspector).
Diary of a Madman, first published in Arabesques, a short story collection, in 1835
Available to read online here – please note, this is a different translation from that by Andrew R MacAndrew, which appears in the Points of View book.
This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Diary Narration. Their description of this method continues: “The writers of diaries reveal, or perhaps betray, their own states of mind as well as report recent events. Which claims more attention, self-revelation or reporting?” Mentioning other works written in the diary format, they conclude “such stories lie between the strangely public privacy of diary and a subjective narration addressed to the world at large.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Diary of a Madman
Poprishchin starts his diary on October 3rd, with an account of a miserable day at work as a lowly civil servant, mending pens. He says his boss complains that he’s in a muddle and that his work is of poor quality; but Poprishchin has no respect for him anyway and doesn’t care. What he does care about is the director’s beautiful daughter, Sophie, whom he spies alighting from a carriage; he’s instantly lost in her stunning eyes. He recognises her dog, who starts talking to him.
“What an extraordinary dog! I was, to tell the truth, quite amazed to hear it talk human language. But when I considered the matter well, I ceased to be astonished. In fact, such things have already happened in the world. It is said that in England a fish put its head out of water and said a word or two in such an extraordinary language that learned men have been puzzling over them for three years, and have not succeeded in interpreting them yet. I also read in the paper of two cows who entered a shop and asked for a pound of tea.”
The next day he sees her again, and he’s head over heels in love. He even writes love poetry on his bed. A few weeks pass until his next diary entry, and it seems obvious that he has just been shadowing her. The chief clerk tells him he has no chance at his age, with his looks and his poverty. Eventually he gets the idea of convincing her dog that he is worthy of her. The next day, the dog writes to him, with loads of gossip about her daily life, and that of her father. But the dog lets on that the lady thinks Poprishchin is worthless. “His hair looks like a truss of hay” she says, according to the dog. And then the dog tells him that she is besotted with a young chamberlain, and marriage is on the cards.
“Deuce take it! I can read no more. It is all about chamberlains and generals. I should like myself to be a general—not in order to sue for her hand and all that—no, not at all; I should like to be a general merely in order to see people wriggling, squirming, and hatching plots before me. And then I should like to tell them that they are both of them not worth spitting on. But it is vexatious! I tear the foolish dog’s letters up in a thousand pieces.”
At this news, Poprishchin starts to imagine that he is really a count or a general. He reads in the papers that the throne of Spain is vacant, due to a woman being next in line to succeed. And he concludes, therefore, that it must be he who is the next King of Spain. He still goes to the office, but calls himself Ferdinand VIII; Sophie is still not impressed, so he assumes she is in love with the devil. He prepares for his coronation, organising a suitable costume. He waits for the Spanish deputies to arrive, to take him to Madrid. He waits… and waits…
And eventually they arrive! He is taken away to meet the Chancellor of the State who surprises him by beating him with a stick, but Poprishchin maintains his noble stance. He meets the other grandees with shorn heads and is subjected to cold water torture and assumes the Chancellor is in fact the Grand Inquisitor.
“But yet I cannot understand how the king could fall into the hands of the Inquisition. The affair may have been arranged by France—especially Polignac—he is a hound, that Polignac! He has sworn to compass my death, and now he is hunting me down. But I know, my friend, that you are only a tool of the English. They are clever fellows, and have a finger in every pie. All the world knows that France sneezes when England takes a pinch of snuff.”
Finally he can take no more. The beatings, the cold water, and the lack of appreciation of his royal birthright have taken a total toll on him. He is left to dream of what might have been, and of his childhood memories.
“Mother, mother, have pity on your sick child! And do you know that the Bey of Algiers has a wart under his nose?”
Without doubt this is the masterpiece of the anthology so far. There are many fascinating critical appraisals of this story available to research on the Internet which are definitely worth a read, but what impresses me most about the story is that the use of the diary technique means that we only see Poprishchin’s viewpoint of what’s going on. We never hear at first hand the words of his colleagues, of the director’s daughter, or of the doctors and asylum staff, who clearly operate in his head under the guise of the Spanish delegation and the State Chancellor. We only see the world through his own, disastrously dilapidating sanity.
Being Gogol, he cannot help but make you laugh as you read, but it’s a very uncomfortable laughter as you realise that you’re mocking someone who cannot help himself, and who is headed for mental catastrophe. Your laughter turns to sadness as the story proceeds, and you see the awful treatment of the patients by the staff.
The story has been considered one of the first to be a genuine portrayal of a decline into insanity, specifically through schizophrenia. We see Poprishchin’s delusions of grandeur, hallucinations, and finally his complete breaking with reality, by dating his diary entries with made-up, impossible dates. Even almost two hundred years on, it still gives the reader an alarming insight into what the mind of a – for want of a better word – madman might be like. A true work of genius.
The next story in the anthology is the first of five what Moffett and McElheny describe as subjective narration stories, Truman Capote’s My Side of the Matter. I’ve never read any Capote so this should be interesting!