Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Abram Tertz has treated many of the themes in “graphomaniacs” in an essay entitled “The Literary Process in Russia.” In that essay, Tertz argues that “all true writing—even when no clash with authority is involved—is something forbidden, something reprehensible, and in this illicit element lies the whole excitement, the whole dilemma of being a writer.” This view of writing conflicts not only with the dogma of socialist realism, which governed approved literature in the Soviet Union, but also with the prescriptions of the most famous Russian writer in exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

At the beginning of “Graphomaniacs,” Straustin is unwilling to admit that by spending his life writing, hunched over a piece of paper, he is doing something intrinsically shameful, illicit, whether or not the product of his labor meets with the world’s approval. Despite his diatribes against the worship of the nineteenth century masters (“it’s said that in Yalta Chekhov’s dried-up spit has been collected in special little packets—yes, the actual spit of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov”), he measures writers and writing strictly in terms of conventional success. In his own writing, he aspires to literature with a vengeance, with grandiloquent phrases and lofty sentiments.

Tertz, however, believes that true writing has nothing to do with “literature.” It is only when Straustin abandons his pride and accepts his place among the graphomaniacs that he is able to write anything worthwhile. This is the cunning twist at the heart of “Graphomaniacs,” for as one turns the last page one realizes that the author of the (mercifully unpublished) novels In Search of Joy and The Sun Rises Above the Steppe is also the “author” of the story that the reader has just finished reading.