© Copyright Mikhail Veller
© Copyright Translated by Eric Gillan (keeder()gmail.com)
"Your ignorance is boundless, and not even amusing..."
This was the first sentence I heard from him - the slide-tackle to my
fate that forever changed its course.
But, to hell with the intimate details.
Everything I am, I owe to him. Everything.
It is too late now to know who he really was. He liked being mystical.
I would come to his doghouse of an apartment with a bottle of port and
a hunk of salami, or a loaf of bread, or a package of dumplings, or a carton
of cigarettes. And, before my finger touched the doorbell, the confident,
successful, well-dressed educated young man turned into something I really
was - a young pup. He was a master who, from the mountain peaks of
enlightenment, had scorned the trades. He was a sage. I - a frantic and
He hated order, clothes, reputation and public opinion. He hated money,
but he hated conceited poverty even more. Good and evil didn't exist: he
belonged to the caste of hunters of the truth. He shunned the farce of
everyday news and sluiced for truth's precious grains; he panned for it like
Like a careless farmer, he scattered the golden sands of his truths by
the handfuls, paying with it for everything.
His currency had limited circulation and his life could be called a
history of struggle if it weren't a history of beatings. He was hardened and
scarred, like a saxaul tree in the desert.
Flinging open the door, he squinted his farsighted eyes with valor and
contempt for me and, through me, for the outside world. His scorn leveled
the scales of his view of life: in the other cup rested his love rejected by
the world. I understood it much later than expected.
He took my gifts like one would take groceries from the neighbor's boy
who was sent to the store while the housekeeper was sick. Every time I was
afraid that he would give me a tip - I wouldn't know how to behave if he
Deliberate with his old man's squeamishness, he silently pointed his
finger at the coat rack and then, at the door to his room. That was my
In his room, he pointed in the same way at the curio cabinet the age of
Noah's ark and a chair. I took out the wine glasses and sat down.
He tossed down the port, lit a cigarette and in the formless mass of an
old man's face appeared discrete features - hard and unhappy. He was one of
those who never quit and kept going until the end. But, since everything
alive is forever changing, he, with his unstoppable momentum, went too far
and ended up empty-handed. But in that emptiness, he possessed more than
those who perceptively followed every fluctuation of the living world. He
remained with nothing - but with the very essence of reality, gripped and
preserved by his caustic consciousness; and in his consciousness, it stayed
"My boy," he always started this way. "My boy", he would say, and the
air, vibrating with his voice, stretched like a membrane about to explode
under the unavoidable and powerful pressure of his internally concentrated
thoughts, rapidly expanding, turning into words, like gun powder turns into
gas and, expelling the projectile out the barrel, with one tight shockwave
explodes the air.
"My boy", he crowed angrily, now animated, with his two eyes stabbing
me like two fingers, "did you happen to read some of this American scribe
named Edgar Allen Poe? Accidentally, perhaps?"
I answered yes, not afraid of the ambush, but certain that I will end
up in the puddle of mud anyway, from which I will be lifted by the scruff of
my neck, only to be dipped into it again.
"So, then, my boy," he continued, and from a barely perceptible gesture
I knew to pour more into his glass. He drank, stood up and didn't look at me
again as he spoke. I was the outside world. He consulted the world. No more,
"All grief comes from ignorance," he said. "And ignorance - from lack
of respect for your mind. From happiness of being a sheep in a herd.
Ignorance. Dishonesty. Stupidity. Subservience. Cowardice. The five
things, each one able to destroy creativity. Honesty, intelligence,
knowledge, independence and courage - these are the things you must develop
to the greatest extent, if you want to write, my boy. Those honored by their
contemporaries are not writers. Edgar Allen Poe is a writer, my boy," and he
placed his hand on the spine of the book as if it were the shoulder of E.A.
Poe. He was acting, but when I replayed these talks in my head later, I
found nothing abnormal in his acting. Maybe, we act every time we stray from
the spontaneity of expression.
"About honesty," his voice lowered and turned hoarse, hissing like a
worn out stylus of a turntable, dulled by the unbearable energy of the
recording - the energy mixed with the aggregate of knowledge, suffering and
anger. "You must be completely aware of your own motives. Your true
feelings. Don't be afraid
to see a monster in yourself. Be afraid of being a monster, and not
it. And don't think that others are better than you. They're just like
you! Don't be deluded and don't be offended.
Then, you will understand that every man possesses everything. All the
feelings and motives, the sacred and the evil."
His finger was a barrel in a firing squad aiming for the bridge of my
nose. I pressed my back into the chair and sweated. "These are words from
the primer. You are ignorant, but I don't fault you for that. You should
have known this at seventeen, even if you couldn't understand it. But you
are twenty four! What were you doing in that college of yours, you
feeble-minded amateur?" Hot drops of perspiration left my armpits and rolled
down my sides.
"Without honesty there is no knowledge. To be dishonest is to close
your eyes to half of this life.
Our feelings, our system of knowledge and perception of reality are a
magician's glass through which we can see an otherwise invisible picture of
the world. But there is only one point from where that picture can be seen
undistorted, in harmonic balance with all its parts. That point is truth.
The point of enlightenment is absolute truth, without the need for
Don't be afraid of the morals. Be afraid of distorting the picture.
Because with the slightest departure from the truth you will see - and
describe - not the three-dimensional picture of the world, but only a
two-dimensional one, and even of that just a drop. And distorted. A
reflection on this glass, this artificial screen of an ignorant and obliging
human brain. With the changing times society changes its point of view and
your depiction is no longer what seemed to be the truth. But the
three-dimensionality and truth, even though they may not coincide with
appropriateness of the times, never change. The oscillations of public
opinion can't touch them; in fact, they correct those oscillations.
That's why you should never associate with people who ask: "Why are you
writing about this?" Hinting that you should write in some intellectually
balanced proportion, pursuing some goals familiar to them. Those people are
dull, dishonest and ignorant. What do you know about dipoles? What about
prana? About Yoga? Don't waste your energy and your life-force by being
around idle people and idiots."
"Art, my boy," he was getting drunker and more resolved, "is learning
about the world. That's all. Never mind that with more wisdom comes more
sadness. What, you haven't read Ecclesiastes? What a gray raincoat... Gray
rat on the steamship of the modern progress... Spiritual experience of
mankind - that's what art is. Analysis and a textbook of the human race at
the same time. That is the grindstone that shapes and sharpens man's
feelings - all of them! Full range of them! With which mankind heals its
soul. All the black dirt and sparkling fragrance - the realm of art and also
the realm of humanity. Enlightenment is the realm of humanity. Happiness?
Happiness and enlightenment are synonymous, listen to me, my boy. All this
is banal, but remember it, ignorant youth. You are young; your soul, even if
sensitive, is dim and undeveloped; you won't understand me. You will
Drinking the wine, I was getting high. Intermittently, he was a sage
and an empty talker. The logic of my perception was tearing to pieces,
unable to keep up with the swift stream of strengthening essence of his
"The public always applauds fakes professionally made to its demand.
Masterpieces? It can't tell them from meager replicas. Its vision is
two-dimensional. But what's left are only the masterpieces. An artist adds
to the intellectual and spiritual fund of mankind. Why? Why are people on
this planet? Only the ignorant ask stupid questions like this...
Have you heard of experiments with rats? The first to move into the new
territory are the "scouts". A strict hierarchy is established after the
settlement takes place and the "scouts" are killed. "Such is the world, my
Hamlet"... And Icarus is still falling and still flying: the happiness isn't
in the riches, not by the bread alone, we're not dead if we're alive."
He finished the wine and, obeying again an invisible gesture, I went to
the kitchen to brew chifir. He didn't drink coffee - he drank chifir. He
said that he got used to drinking it a long time ago in a place far away and
gave long lectures extolling advantages of chifir over coffee.
Brewing of chifir signaled the end of the "general information" and the
beginning of "literary mastery" part of the conversation. He announced that
I was the lousiest and most incompetent of all the candidates for an
apprentice in his entire life. And, even more insulting, I was likely the
last one. He was inarguably right about that - I was the last...
"My boy," he said with inexpressible scorn, his face reflecting a
contemplation of whether to vomit or to lie down and wait it out. "My boy,
you suppose you wrote a story better than this one," he shook the magazine
like it was a severed head and the head disgracefully flew into the corner
to join cigarette butts and dirty socks.
"Masterpieces!" He yelled. "Poe is a writer! Akutagawa is a writer!
Chekov is a writer! Put this garbage out of your head unless you like the
idea of becoming garbage!"
Then, he sang praise to the short story.
"A piece must be readable in one sitting, he insisted. Exceptions are
fiction of mystery, adventure and romance. Justification: a masterpiece
novel, with information every bit as concentrated as in a short story.
There's only been a few dozen like that.
Concentration - thoughts, feelings, storyline. The more information a
story contains per unit of volume, the greater it becomes. More possible
interpretations! A real three-dimensional plot - that's the ideal! A story
with a real plot is always a parable!
Material? Fool! Shakespeare wrote about Venice, Verona, Denmark, about
an island that didn't exist. And Poe? What about Akutagawa? The idea lies at
the foundation and you make it come to life with adequate material. You must
know, see, smell and taste it, but it doesn't mean it you'll find it under
your feet. Find it where you can. All of the time and space, real and not,
are at your service. This is the abc's ..."
He was conducting to an invisible but finely responsive orchestra.
"The process of creation of a story is composed of these layers:
choosing the most fitting, most appropriate, strongest material; building of
a story, composition; and expression by the means of a language. This
three-step process is made fertile by the idea, the underlying thread that
is the essence of the story. Disregarding any of these four steps will cease
the creation of truly great writing."
"Even though," he shook his worn-out sleeves, and the orchestra
stumbled. "Even though discovery and perfecting of just one of the four
attributes will lead us to consider luck, talent and so forth... only
perfection of all four gives birth to a masterpiece!
Every letter must be the only possible one in the text of the story.
Editing is for slobs and hacks. Don't fuss and try to be clever: listen
carefully to yourself, until the string resonates with the one true note of
the tuning fork.
Don't pile in the details. To you, they seem to define the scene, but
in reality they distract from the precision of the picture. Every reader
imagines something of his own in what he reads and it is your job to foster
his associative vision with one or two details. Scarcity of words is a
richness of perception, my dear."
I was forbidden to take notes. He was opening himself to the world and
he didn't want an alienation of his truths in someone else's handwriting.
I cheated. On the porch of the neighboring building I filled pages of
my notebook with crooked shorthand, and transferred it all into a thick
journal I kept at home. Sometimes I felt like a dimwit who was memorizing
the rules, hoping to find the secret of success.
"The boy can write, " he said with sarcasm. "The boy has a brain,
that's good. A creatively impotent man can't fertilize the material; at
best, he is a scribe. A business trip. Drove in and described what he saw.
Savages! Paustovsky was like that, too, by the way. Not for you to pass
judgment! First, learn from him the skill of clean and beautiful
description. Insufficient case, but not useless."
Drawing on a cigarette, he took a sip of chifir and inhaled the smoke.
And then exhaled:
"First. Learn to write light, free and relaxed - just the way you talk.
Don't strain and work it to death. Tell what's on your mind. Ordinary spoken
tale - only on paper and without contractions.
Second. Write about something you know, something you've seen and lived
through. More definite, more detailed, more extensive.
Third. Learn to write long. Think of a size of a story, and then write
three times that much. Come up with non-existent, but possible details. The
more, the better. Fantasize. Be naughty.
Fourth. Pull out all the stops and lie. Fabricate from the beginning to
the end; if a little truth comes through, put it in, as well. Believe that
it is just as plausible as what you experienced. You know your fantasies
just as good as your reality."
With theatrical disgust he leafed through the pages of my opuses and
they fluttered into the corner with the butts and socks, like feeble
deformed pigeons unable to fly.
"OK. We finished first grade: we learned how to draw a stick man. Let's
Fifth. Cut out everything that can be cut! Turn a page into a
paragraph, then a paragraph into a sentence! Don't mourn the fifteen pages
turned into one. What's left is sinew and meat on the bones, no fat!
Sixth. No repeated words. Look for synonyms; find something to replace
a repeated word. Can you read in French? Oh, pardon, I forgot what gardens
you are a fruit of. Read "Madame Bovarie" translated by Rommov! A hundred
times! Start anywhere in the book! When you can imitate that, we will go
In his voice, for the first time, I heard leniency of a high priest
towards a wet puppy on the steps of the shrine.
The pummeling began. I stopped sleeping. My heart, and the whole left
side, ached. I was jumping up in the middle of the night, unable to breathe.
The winter was coming to an end.
"What," he ridiculed. "You don't like writing simply, huh?"
I criminally read magazines and terrified myself. I wanted to publish
and announce myself to the world. The current carried me and I didn't
resist: the foggy bank promised unimaginable marvels, if I didn't drown
along the way.
In April, I brought him four pages that didn't disgust him.
"So, the second grade is finished. None too soon. Not altogether
giftless, hmm... Some talent is coming through..."
I think I was near a nervous breakdown, because I almost cried from
adoration and love I felt towards him. The old son of a bitch farted with
gusto and picked his nose.
Finishing the port, he told me that everything was now in my power:
stay with it or quit. But, if I kept going, it will for sure be the end of
Feeling ordination in his words, I answered that I was done for a long
time ago; that I could die in the gutter with dignity, and forty-five years
of life is really quite enough.
I May, I brought two more similar stories.
"Aren't you tired of writing the same way?"
"The element of discovery is gone... All right..."
"Seventh," he slammed his fist on the wall. "You must have the right
relationship, proportion between what you read and what you experienced with
your own hide, between what you made up and what you heard from people,
between refined information from textbooks and the knowledge you got by
tossing around the world. Get out of here and don't come back till autumn!
Go! The farther the better. The tropics!"
I left everything, quit my job and went to Yakutia.
His memory was like epoxy: anything that touched it was crystallized in
"Eighth," he said calmly in the fall. "Let's work with the syntax. The
punctuation can do amazing things to the text. Experiment with it, keep
bending the stick, look for it. Reverse the meaning by using only syntax.
Read some Stern, my dear. Lermontov, the one you don't know."
I put out more effort. He wrinkled his face.
"Stop showing off. Simply look for what feels right."
What followed next caught me by surprise.
"Ninth," he was quiet but triumphant. "You already know that every
detail has to work, that the "rifle hanging on the wall in act one will go
off in act three". But, the technique of the aces is a gun that remains on
the wall. That's more cunning. Carefully read Akutagawa, Ryunosuke-san, the
greatest master of short prose of all times and cultures. Only Mr. Poe can
hold his ground. Read "Rashomon" and "In a Grove". Pay attention to the
sword that disappeared no one knows where and why; to the missing finger
about which nobody asked. Akutagawa possessed - on the level of technical
application - the greatest secret, my boy: the ability to give an
immeasurable depth of hidden meaning with one detail, to instill the feeling
of inexhaustibility of occurring events," he started coughing, bent over,
and, wheezing and pressing his arms to his chest, collapsed.
I yelled for nitroglycerin and, toppling a chair, raced to the hallway
for the phone. After I called the ambulance, I saw him earthen-pale, but
calm and angry.
"You panic one more time and I will throw you out," he crowed. "I know
when my time's up. Go already!"
With the technique of "extraneous detail" I agonized like a monkey with
a sextant. Hopeless...
"Don't shame yourself," cawed my mentor. "This kind of work is for the
masters. You're still young."
Then, destroying my conception of how to write, he added more fuel to
"Tenth. Add superfluous, unnecessary to the meaning, words. But in such
a way that without these extra words the zest of the sentence disappears.
Put on your desk the "Life of Monsieur de Moliere", by Bulgakov."
And so his staff-like finger sent my life into its next mysterious
curve; by the looks of it, way off the road. As the English say, "I lost my
nerve". In March, a year and a half after I started this suicidal mission, I
came over and told him that I wanted to be a magazine writer, or, even
better, a columnist. I raised my hands.
"Eleventh," said coldly my Lucifer. "When you decide that you can't
write any better, write three more stories. After that, you can hang
yourself or go teach high school."
It all ended in May - a good month for either a beginning or an end for
"Young man", he addressed me formally. "Have you any money?"
I haven't had money in a long time. I have become a lumpenproletariat.
"I don't care. Steal it," he advised. "Come back in an hour. Bring a
bottle of good cognac, half a pound of coffee, a package of "Peace Pipe"
tobacco and a pipe made by master Fedoroff, which should cost anywhere
between 12 and 30 rubles at the "Artist's Bench". Don't forget the lemon and
the "Karakum" candies."
I sold eight books to the book pawn. To this day, I have yet to replace
Gogol, Camus and "Sailor in the Saddle".
I begged the lemon from a manager of the special orders desk at the
"That's it, young man," he said. "There is nothing more I can teach
He was unrecognizable. He was wearing a cream-colored wool suit,
light-blue silk shirt and gold-with-black necktie. Maroon woven-leather
shoes and red socks covered his feet. He was clean-shaven and smelled of
expensive cologne. In front of me sat an aristocrat who did not need
confirmation of his standing by everyday attributes.
Noble cobalt flowers on the snow-white tablecloth were made up of the
embroidered "Property of Berlin Municipal, 1900." Crystal glasses clinked
together like at a wedding in a king's castle.
"I saw Mihail Chekov as a boy," said the host. I froze because I didn't
know who Mihail Chekov was. "All my life I dreamt of running a school of
literature. Don't be an idealist; I don't really care about anything,
anyway. Obviously, it is my own business."
"Don't delude yourself," in the almost-transparent coffee cup he
stirred the lemon with a silver spoon. "I gave you no more than a few
techniques and showed you how to use them. I opened your eyes (it wasn't
your fault they were shut) to a couple of things. I saved you some time,
while I still had the strength. Only time will tell if it was worth my
Sentiments in his presence were inappropriate. The terrible sadness
about this farewell came later.
How much nobleness of true and unadvertised importance was in this man!
I swear he could have been the crowning jewel of any international assembly!
A luminary who came down from his Mount Olympus for a half-hour.
He sipped cognac, rocked his woven-leather shoe, and smoked his
captain's pipe. And magnanimously gave out farewell instructions.
"Read less, re-read more," he said. "Four hundred books is quite enough
for a professional. When the classics reveal to you the human weakness and
sinfulness of the authors then you can really begin to learn from them.
When reading, try to improve it in your mind. Read slowly, very slowly.
Taste and savor every phrase with the author's eyes. Only then will you be
able to understand what it contains.
Hurry up while you're young. Fame of the old men is built on their
accomplishments in younger years. The best years for a prose writer are
between twenty-six and forty-six; exceptions are rare. When you're fifty,
you can engage in literary nonsense, but before - it would be a pity..."
Later, hanging around in his kitchen, I learned a lot about him - all
contradictory and less than credible. These two years he kept me from
sticking my nose in the wrong places, trained me like a coach trains an
athlete who can't be allowed in the competition until he is in top shape.
"Learn how to pull yourself away from your work," he taught. "Save the
nerves for when you need them. Professionalism, besides other things, is an
ability to consciously bring yourself to a state of highest excitement.
There, connecting with your subconscious, you can iterate the different
variants and alternatives with great speed."
"By the way", he got excited, "how na ve are discussions about
creativity of machines, don't you think? A maxim: knowledge is inexhaustible
and infinite, especially as related to the workings of a "man". We will
never be able to understand - and, consequently, model - the mechanism of a
creative act and account for all the factors: weather and humidity of the
air, arthritis and heartburn, feeling of a cavity in a tooth, even the time
of year, month or day. What we know is like a "black box": we put something
in it, but what comes out is completely different. We try to imitate with
the goal of like results. Masterpiece is a non-standard solution. Computer
is a "super-solution" using the "super-standard": it is all logic. Art is
"An artist is a turbine through which pours a huge amount of scattered
energy of the universe," he kept teaching. "This energy emerges in all
spheres of intellect and perception. And, really, all those spheres are one:
to think, to feel, to create and to enjoy are all one and the same. That's
why an impotent cannot be an artist."
He towered as he rose to shake my hand. It was all over.
But, really, it was all over in October, when I came back from working
up North, having cleared my head and regained consciousness. I spent a week
blowing money with old friends and called him on the eighth, leaving myself
to forever regret waiting until the eighth.
Ambulance took him on the sixth with a heart attack. After forty
minutes of calls to information, I got a hold of the doctor at the hospital
where he was taken. He had died the previous night.
He had no relatives. At the morgue and his building's office, I found
out how to take care of his burial and his apartment.
I got a key from the neighbors and, uncomfortable and ashamed, looked
for the necessary things with the help of a super. There were none. I bought
all that was needed, and a wreath and a plain ribbon. It was unlikely he
would have wanted anything elaborate.
But, under the curio cabinet, I found a packet of my writings, neatly
stacked and tied together with twine. They were all there, to the last one.
That packet, and four more like it, I burned in the back yard by the
In the drawer of his desk I found an envelope, addressed to me and with
instructions to open on my thirtieth birthday.
I ripped it open that evening and read:
"So, you couldn't wait? All the worse for you.
You are not Turgenev; you don't have land to support you. A
professional must make a living. The only thing to do for people like you is
to write for the public, but without writing for the public. With the same
chisel! There is a tight connection between publishing and ability to write
to the fullest extent of your talent. Writing for the future leads to
degeneration. Kafka is the one exception that confirms the rule. Bulgakov,
well, that's Bulgakov. In spite of being limited by mythical themes, they
were great artists. Build your life in such a way that all the gates and
ruts in the road happen when you are not there. As if you don't even know
Otherwise, you get fruitlessly bitter. Then, sorrow and dementia. "He
is nothing! I can write better than that!" And who kept you from doing it?
Sorrow and dementia!"
A few silver spoons, porcelain cups and crystal glasses was all he had
of any value. I thought for a while what to do with the few hundred rubles
that I got from the consignment store. There wasn't enough for a tombstone
and nothing else came to mind. Somehow, the money disappeared.
The night after the funeral I was again leafing through my thick
journals where I wrote down everything he said.
"Don't forget about "ending with a tail"
"Cut twenty years from the body of an uneventful story and put what's
left together. It creates "dramatic longing".
"Good story is like a coded text, it has the beauty of suggestion and
innuendo, and is understood with slow reading."
"Don't be afraid of contradictions in your description. They allow the
reader to view the object from different angles, and make it richer."
"Short story has not yet known a master of counterpoint."
And a lot of other stuff. I couldn't sleep.
The day of the funeral was just another day, ordinary and gray. He lay
there in the coffin and it wasn't him. Yes, I knew how the bodies were
prepared in the morgue...
I didn't call anybody and sat next to the coffin by myself in the back
of the morgue van.
The North Cemetery, a huge industrialized necropolis of a city of many
millions, with businesslike rhythm and lines at the entrance, didn't inspire
contemplations of eternal life.
The hired men took the coffin out of the van and placed it next to the
open grave. For some reason, I recalled a tale of Czar Nicholas the First
getting out of his sleigh to walk behind a coffin of a poor officer who had
It was strange how simple, conventional and commonplace this was. Like
going to the dacha for a weekend. But, driving back from the cemetery, I
thought that I would never write anything more.
Saxaul is a woody shrub that is native to the semi-desert and desert
zones Of Mongolia. Almost leafless, saxaul "trees" grow to between 2 and 4
meters high in moving sand, rocky valleys, and on hillsides.
Chifir is powerful drink, black and thick, was invented by inmates of
the Gulag. It is brewed with approximately half a pound of tealeaves to a
pint of hot water. The resulting drink contains great quantity of caffeine
and tannins and was used by the inmates to "get high".
Konstantin Georgievich Paustovsky (1892-1968) was a Russian writer
known for his colorful descriptions of nature scenes.
Yakutia, also known as Sakha, is a region in North-Eastern Siberia.
Lumpenproletariat - permanent underclass: in Marxist analysis, people
regarded as living on the margins of society, particularly criminals,
homeless people, and the long-term unemployed
Dacha is a vacation home away from the city, a country cabin.
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