Diaries, like dreams, are better suited to life than to art. As a rule both are confused, inconclusive, and aggressively personal: personal to the point of onanism. So it stands that the most beloved diaries tend firstly to be real and secondly attached to some great moment in history, whether it be a moment of jubilation or hysteria or both. History requires its eloquent observers, its men-on-the-street. Hence the enduring power of Samuel Pepys’ descriptions of the Great Fire of London, the Goncourt Brothers’ splenetic account of modernism’s rise in Paris, and, of course, Anne Frank’s reflections, while European civilization burned around her, on girlhood and suffering and boredom and death.
The ‘fictional diary’ is another matter. On my own private spectrum of readability, this somewhat less elevated form has always sat dangerously close to the edge; not quite so dispiriting as slam poetry – and certainly not as hideous as feminist slam poetry – but still decidedly off-putting. Generally I admit a huge and involuntary sigh at the view of a block of text tucked neatly beneath a date (‘4th December, 1953: Father installed new drapes this morning. They are blue with silver tassels. Oh, how I adore fondling those tassels!’). Exceptions exist, of course. Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ is an extraordinary exception, partly because it attacks and eats up the accepted grammar of diary-keeping, with its quick bright summaries of recent events, cloying passages of self-confession, sub-philosophical ponderings, inner crises, and so on.
The ‘madman’ in question is Aksenty Ivanov Popritschin, a titular councillor from Saint Petersburg (the quintessential Gogolian occupation). Like his fellow titular councillor, Akaky Akakievitch from ‘The Overcoat’, he is just one of Nicholas I’s thousands of grey-eyed, exhausted bureaucrats, toiling away in a little paper kingdom, sealed off from real power, but safe at least from the horrors of serfdom. He insists on his elevated place in society, remarking that he is ‘a gentleman by birth’, and yet his job – hilariously, heartbreakingly – seems to consist entirely of mending his colleagues’ pens. In fact, Popritschin is precisely the kind of demure, isolated, underpaid, emotionally unhealthy, socially paralysed low-ranking administrator who will be redrawn and restored again and again throughout a certain strand of claustrophobic writing; as Melville’s Bartleby, as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, as several of the clerks and middle-class nobodies in Joyce’s Dubliners, as Kafka’s Ur-citizen K, and, recently, as the spiritually-besieged IRS workers in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. The obvious difference between Gogol’s hero and (most of) these men is that Popritschin is an out-and-out lunatic. His first diary entry, dated October 3, begins with a sinister rant against his department chief (“the damned heron”, “that wretched Jew”) and concludes with the reported apparition of a talking dog named Madgie. “I was very much surprised to hear her talking like a human being”, says Popritschin blankly, the first and last time he will be surprised by one of his own visions. The following day’s entry features another rant, this time against the French (“I’d take the lot of them”), and includes a loving description of a certain swanlike Sophie, his director’s daughter. It becomes apparent that Sophie is Popritschin’s supreme object of desire; his obsession with her leads him to commit the unlikely misdemeanour of stealing some letters belonging to Madgie – that is, the talking dog. He believes the mysteries of Sophie’s heart will be revealed to him only through the observations of her dog (apparently engaged in a correspondence with Madgie). To his frustration he finds himself toiling his way through what sounds like some sort of ridiculous canine epistolary novel
Ah, my dear, how one feels the approach of spring! My heart beats as though I were always expecting someone… I must confide to you that I have a number of suitors. I often sit at the window and look at them. Oh, if you only knew what ugly creatures there are among them. One is a very ungainly yard-dog, fearfully stupid, stupidity is painted on his face; he walks about the street with an air of importance and imagines that he is a distinguished person and thinks that everybodyis looking at him. Not a bit of it.
Eventually Popritschin gets to a relevant passage. Sophie’s dog mentions him as an ‘ugly fellow’ who inspires nothing but mocking laughter. Worse, she reports that soon Sophie is to be married to a ‘general or a kammer-junker or to a colonel in the army.” This proves too much for our diarist. Whatever spaghetti-thin bond has been keeping him tied to the sphere of humanity, and reality, it is swiftly cut. The rest of the story follows his often hilarious and occasionally awful plummet into psychic hellfire.
Although it would be wrong to read ‘Diary of a Madman’ in straightforward psychological terms, there is an authentic feel to Popritschin’s madness. His litany of obsessions – dogs, noses, Sophie, England, Spain, the Jews, the moon – characteristic of schizophrenics as well as manic depressives, is so capricious and inconsistent the reader is obliged very quickly to give up on any attempt to establish pattern or meaning; better instead just to ride the waves of Gogol’s private, poetic, entirely surreal logic.
Things go very badly for Popritschin in December. On the third day of that month, he starts to wonder if he’s really a titular councillor at all. Perhaps, he is in fact ‘a count or a general’? Two days later he reads that the Spanish throne in Madrid has been left vacant. Another three days pass, and he declares ‘I cannot get the affairs of Spain out of my head.’ Cue ominous tones. His last entry in ‘ordinary time’ has him lying on his bed, figuring things out. The reader is both surprised and not, then, to find the next entry dated ‘2000 A.D., April 43.’ Our hero has made the final leap into pure hallucination. He imagines himself the newly elected King of Spain. ‘Now everything has been revealed to me’, he writes, ecstatically
Now it is all as plain as possible. But until now I did not understand, everything was in a sort of mist. And I believe it all arose from believing the brain is in the head. It’s not so at all; it comes with the wind from the direction of the Caspian Sea.
As the king, Popritschin’s language is afforded a new grandeur, almost a seriousness, even as he continues to make the most ludicrous statements imaginable. ‘Dash it all,’ he writes, ‘what’s the use of a letter? A letter is nonsense. Letters are written by chemists, and even they have to moisten their tongues with vinegar or else their faces would be all over scabs.’ This is a typical outburst. What begins as some kind of intelligent or at least intelligible statement is quickly carried away by its own deranged reasoning process that tends towards the absurd and the grotesque. This is one of the signatures of Gogol’s style. His love of language is also a fear of language, or at least a mistrust of it. He is fond of poisoning his most classically beautiful sentences with a drop of nonsense, a perfect dose of bathos. This sweet poison is measurable even in his sumptuously lyrical masterwork, Dead Souls. About halfway through that book there is a celebrated passage in which Chichikov, having made his flight from the town of N.N., rides across the Russian plains onto ‘fresh enterprises.’ Even in translation the musical control is breathtaking, as Gogol captures and illuminates the passing natural scenery, the immensity of space and sky, the distant glitterings of snow, and the provincial palaces, domes and bell-towers glimpsed behind banks of trees. One long sentence, which catches in its glare ‘a broad, clear pond, gleaming like the copper bottom of a vessel in the sun’, and the cross of a village church shining ‘like a star on one side’, seems to be surging towards a visual crescendo but instead trails off with a note on the protagonist’s hungry belly.
Gogol (along with Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Poe, all at their height in the 1840s and 1850s) has been rightly claimed as a father of modernism, and his playful approach to language is perceptible everywhere in European literature, from Joyce to Beckett to Thomas Bernhard (not to mention Nabokov, his greatest champion in the English language), but some of his stranger sentences, especially in ‘Diary of a Madman’, also sound eerily like what certain real-life lunatics and power-maddened dictators have said throughout modern history. When, for instance, Charles Manson declared to his accusers that they would ‘convict a grilled cheese sandwich of murder and the people wouldn’t question it,’ he sounded remarkably Gogolian. Many of Muamar Gadaffi’s speeches, especially towards the end of his life, when he fell into the habit of calling everyone either a dog or a Jew, could almost be excerpts from the story under present consideration.
Once he has proclaimed himself King of Spain, Popritschin immediately loses his sense of time. His diary entries are variously dated ‘Martober 86, Between Day and Night’, ‘No Date, The Day Had No Number’, ‘The 1st’, and, finally, ’34 February Yrae 349’ with the word February written upside-down. The next loss is his sense of place. ‘I discovered that Spain and China are one and the same country,’ he writes, from the very bottom of his mental health, ‘and it is only through ignorance that they are considered to be different kingdoms. I recommend every one to try and write Spain on a bit of paper and it will always turn out to be China.’ The final loss is the loss of freedom. Under the illusion that he is being taken to his stately residence in Madrid, Popritschin allows himself to be imprisoned in some kind of asylum. He begins to imagine that all human noses reside on the moon. He thinks the moon is in danger of falling to earth. He impels his fellow prisoners to prevent such a calamity. As his visions expand in beauty and strangeness, his actual freedom of movement is cruelly taken from him, and he ends his days in a tiny cell, with a shaved head, the ruler of a nation of one.
Popritschin’s final entry, the one dated with the upside-down February, is different in tone from all the others. He seems to have emerged from his adopted identity as King. For the first time, too, he seems to be aware of the squalor of his surroundings; aware, to be sure, that he is not in Spain and was never in Spain. He begs something or someone for escape, and beautifully envisions what that escape might look like
Give me a troika and horses swift as a whirlwind! Take your seat, my driver, ring out, my bells, fly upwards, my steeds, and bear me away from this world! Far away, far away, so that nothing can be seen, nothing. Yonder the sky whirls before me, a star sparkles in the distance; the forest floats by with dark trees and the moon… Is that my home in the distance? Is it my mother sitting before the window? Mother, save your poor son!
The quick succession of images – the troika, the whirlwind, the upward flight, his home, his mother – seems to signal a breaking free from madness, or at least an acknowledgment of his condition. It has the breathless timbre of an oncoming epiphany. In a sense, it is an epiphany. Popritschin accepts his ruined mind, accepts his place as an outsider, an outcast (rather than a king, or indeed even a ‘gentleman by birth’), and accepts, at last, that ‘there is nowhere in the world for him.’ A more conventional writer than Gogol might have concluded the story here, with its mingled note of despair and redemptive hope, but neither ‘epiphany’ nor ‘redemption’ were ideas that Gogol treasured, and so he adds one last devastating line to his story: ‘And do you know that the King of France has a boil just under his nose?’
For Popritschin, insanity is the norm. The breaking free was temporary, a gasp of lucid air before his return to drowning. Gogol’s final triumph is his ability to pull some genuine pain and tenderness out of the story’s relentless chaos, without anything resembling aesthetic coercion. The reader can only suppose that Popritschin is gazing into a fresh blizzard of obsessions and hallucinations, either identical or nearly identical (kings, noses, facial distortions) to those that have consumed him before. This may be volitional; it may not. Perhaps, in the end, madness has its consolations. Nabokov thought so. ‘This world,’ he wrote, in a lecture on another of Gogol’s miniature masterpieces, ‘excludes everything that might destroy it, so that any improvement, any struggle, any moral purpose or endeavour, are as utterly impossible as changing the course of a star.’