Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
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 appellation; it does not agree with his fanciful image of himself as a writer, and, worse, it emphasizes his kinship with Galkin and other unpublished scribblers.
After a futile visit to the offices of a publisher, an unpleasant surprise from his six-year-old son (whose first story, consisting of a few lines penciled in a drawing book, Straustin regards as competition), and an argument with his wife (who, sobbing, calls him a “maniac” and says that he needs treatment), Straustin goes to Galkin’s apartment, where he stays for three days. Here, the contrast in their attitudes toward writing is further developed. Writing, Galkin says, is not a matter of “expressing one’s personality”—quite the contrary: “we labor in the sweat of our brow and cover wagon-loads of paper with writing—in the hope of stepping aside, overcoming ourselves and granting access to thoughts from the air.”
Far from sharing Galkin’s awe at this process, Straustin hears the poet’s declaration with great suspicion. If Galkin does not regard what he has written as his property, so Straustin reasons, then he must not respect the proprietary rights of others; in other words, he must be a plagiarist. Straustin finds confirmation for his suspicions in the wildly funny scene that follows. Graphomaniacs of all sorts gather in Galkin’s apartment to read their work. Soon they are all reading at once, and in the surreal babble Straustin detects fragments of his own writings. Convinced that he has been the victim of massive plagiarism, he finds further evidence in books pulled at random from the shelf: Everyone, it seems, has been plagiarizing his unpublished works. He does not realize that the “incriminating” passages consist entirely of clichés.
This “discovery” sets him walking the streets of Moscow (an extraordinary number of which, he notes, are named for writers). After a hallucinatory night, he returns home and promises his wife, to her great delight, that he has given up writing. As soon as she leaves for work, however, he addresses his son as an accomplice and, swearing him to secrecy, welcomes him into the fellowship of graphomaniacs: For the first time, Straustin has accepted that designation for himself. Now the parenthetical subtitle takes on a new meaning, for the end of the story loops back to its beginning:I took a fresh sheet and wrote on the top in capitals the title: GRAPHOMANIACS Then I thought for a moment and added in brackets: (A Story from My Life)
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