Clearly the Soviet Writers Were Blockheads

It seems that in these blog-happy, newspaper-sad times I’ve been seeing a certain famous quote by Samuel Johnson crop up again and again: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Leaving aside questions of whether said quote tells us more about the person who employs it these days than about the wisdom of writing for free, I had that quote in mind when I read the following in Memories of the Future, a collection of stories that Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky surely knew were unpublishable when he wrote them in 1920s Moscow:

I don’t much believe words for which authors have been paid, and so once when I found a newspaper on a boulevard bench–this was in my hungry days–I read it carefully, never getting further than the Classifieds, for which, as you know, the authors are not paid, but rather pay themselves . . .

The nice thing about Memories of the Future is that it can toss out a quote like that in a story that’s very sympathetic to the travails of Soviet writers who preferred writing literature in obscurity to fame from Socialist Realism, while keeping the story as a whole more complex than a straight up “poor suffering writer” tale. In point of fact, the speaker of the above line is later revealed as insane, and though you end up sympathizing with his plight as a writer with standards, he doesn’t exactly come off in a good light.

I’ve read three of the seven stories in this book so far, and two of them have dealt with this theme in considerable depth. (The first was a somewhat surreal satire about a man who lives in a “matchbox” room, but then pays the price after applying a mystical substance to make it grow.) At this point I’m quite impressed at how Krzhizhanovsky can deal very authentically with the lot of the Soviet dissident writer (or even just Soviet citizen) while not making the story so tied to a certain time and place that it feels dated now. What comes most across is that these people just want to write; they’re in love with beauty and their own attempts to create it on the page, and it’s this that gives them poignancy, tragic appeal, and timelessness all in one. It’s of course a theme that has been worked to death (most recently by a certain Chilean), yet Krzhizhanovsky has a way of making it his own, of writing into these stories a great deal of relevant period detail, as well as plenty of the very idiosyncratic pleasures of his style. So far he’s a real discovery.

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It occurred to me, and it seemed funny the first time I thought of it, that ONLY blockheads write for money because writing is one of the most difficult ways to make the stuff.

Also, in a rather retrograde Jungian fashion, I’ve always thought of the “Soviet Union” as nothing more than a projection of our collective “shadow” (Jungian technical term for the part of ourselves that we don’t want to face) onto the Soviet Union.

Always excepting the few Americans who actually studied the Russian language, Russian history and traveled to the place, that is.

For the rest of us, as Pogo said, “I’ve met the enemy and he’s us.”

In the sense that you and Sam used the term, I respond,

“Blockheads unite, we’ve got nothing to lose, even money.”

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