Diary Of A Madman by Nikolai Gogol, 1835
The magic trick:
Dogs who write letters to each other
There is a moment in this story where I suspect you will put the book down and just sit back marveling at the genius that is Nikolai Gogol. I can’t say for sure what moment that will be; but I’m confident it will happen or already has happened. This story isn’t just good or well-written. It feels other-worldly in its brilliance.
For me, the genius moment hit when the dogs started writing letters to each other. Yep. This story is like some amazing amalgamation of Kafka, Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet” sketches from Saturday Night Live. If that doesn’t sound good to you then I just don’t know what you’re expecting from your short stories then.
Things actually start out normally enough in the story. The narrator is frustrated at work and in love in ways that nearly everyone can understand. It’s just when he suspects those dogs are talking to each other that things get a little weird and wonderful. He even goes so far as to steal the letters and then dictate their contents in his diary for us. These pages rank among my favorite of anything I have read for this SSMT blog. It’s just so good.
Of course, the wild thing is that our narrator’s complaints are perfectly fair. Society is completely unfair. His boss and his coworkers are self-important nitwits. The boss’ daughter – our narrator’s unrequited love – is superficially motivated and selfish. So in the most important ways, our narrator isn’t mad at all. He is justified in his anger. It’s just that whole dogs writing letters thing that damages his case for sanity. The reader is left with a very strange mix of emotions and feelings of judgment by the end of this diary. And that’s quite a trick on Gogol’s part.
“He has an extraordinary name. He always sits there and mends the pens. His hair looks like a truss of hay. Her papa always employs him instead of a servant.”
(I believe this abominable little beast is referring to me. But what has my hair got to do with hay?)
“Sophie can never keep from laughing when she sees him.”
You lie, cursed dog! What a scandalous tongue! As if I did not know that it is envy which prompts you, and that here there is treachery at work—yes, the treachery of the chief clerk. This man hates me implacably; he has plotted against me, he is always seeking to injure me. I’ll look through one more letter; perhaps it will make the matter clearer.