Black Comedic Fables from Nikolay Gogol

Nikolay Gogol. The Government Inspector & Selected Stories. Russian comedies.

governmentInspectorGogol is my greatest discovery since Steinbeck, but the Russian is no tender humanist. Rather, he writes black comedies: scathing satires on bureaucracy and corruption, mock-serious representations of obsessions and absurdities—grimly comical tales worthy of Swift or Molière and dramatically distinct from Dostoevsky’s or Turgenev’s notoriously ponderous sagas.

Gogol’s short stories are marvelously quirky and original creations. “The Nose” features a petty bureaucrat, whose nose vanishes overnight, only to reappear dressed up and riding a carriage around town, yet no spectator recognizes it for a nose—modernist surrealism evocative of a Dali painting. “The Overcoat” is a Melvillian fable of a poor clerk whose purpose in life is to buy a new overcoat, only for it to be stolen—the tale models Gogol’s magical realism: destitution, mental anguish, and bureaucratic tyranny (realism) blended with surreal or fantastical elements (Akaky Akakievich’s ghost). Meanwhile, “The Diary of a Madman” shows yet another petty bureaucrat and his descent into the insane belief that he is the king of Spain, self-entrapment being one of Gogol’s favorite themes. The Russian also revels in obsession: two former friends feuding in the courts because one called the other a “goose,” a painter besotted with a prostitute (“Nevsky Prospekt”), and so on.

Best of all is The Government Inspector, in which bribe-fattened town bureaucrats mistake a journeying prat for an anti-corruption inspector and shower him with gifts and attentions—a harsh satire on Tsarist Russia’s rampant bribery and hypocrisy but also a hilarious send-up of the gullible, infallibly silly nature of man. Gogol is where Russian literature soared to earth.

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