(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The naïve, cliched subtitle of this story suggests that its first-person narrator is rather inept, hardly a skilled writer. This impression is confirmed within the first page of the story when Paul Ivanovich Straustin, the narrator and protagonist, determines to memorize a phrase that has come to his mind: “the breath of an approaching thunderstorm could be sensed in the air.” Oblivious to its excruciating banality, Straustin vows that he will use this phrase as the last sentence of his novel In Search of Joy, adding it “if necessary even at the proof stage.” As the reader soon learns, however, this novel has been rejected for publication—the fate of all the other books that Straustin has written in twenty years of utter failure.

In the story’s opening scene, Straustin meets another writer, Semyon Galkin, a poet translator rather than, like Straustin, a writer of fiction, but equally unsuccessful. However, while they are both failures, Galkin’s attitude toward his work and toward writing in general contrasts sharply with Straustin’s, and this contrast is pivotal to the story.

In the common view, Galkin says, those who write year after year without so much as achieving publication, let alone the perquisites of the successful author, are simply sick. “Graphomania—it’s a disease, the psychiatrists tell us, an incurable vicious urge to produce verses, plays and novels in defiance of the world.” Yes, Galkin admits, writers such as he (and Straustin) are sick—but so also were William Shakespeare and Alexander Pushkin. They, too, were graphomaniacs, “graphomaniacs of genius.” Straustin, however, rejects this...

(The entire section is 681 words.)