The Writer in Pieces

July 3, 2014   •   By Ann Gelder

Let me write fragments without finishing them — at least I’m writing! Even so, this is literature of a kind, in a sense perhaps the only kind. Perhaps it’s impossible for a psychological type like myself in a historical period like the present to write otherwise. Yet if he writes and to some extent knows how to write, then let him write, even this way.

STRUGGLING TO REGAIN lost fluency, any number of writers might have uttered these words. I might have spoken them myself, just yesterday. As it happens, they come from the notebooks of the Soviet author Yuri Olesha, writing in the post-Stalin 1950s. This early entry in Olesha’s memoir-in-fragments, No Day Without a Line, reflects on the task he has set himself: relearning his craft by writing about his own life, at least one line every day. His confidence falters here, but years ago, he knew how to do it:

Ever since I was a child, the name Lilienthal — transparent, quivering like insect wings — has sounded marvelous to me … This name, which flew as if stretched over light bamboo planks, was linked in my memory with the dawn of aviation. Otto Lilienthal, an aviator, killed himself. Flying machines stopped looking like birds. Lightweight, transparently yellow wings were replaced by flippers. You could believe they beat the ground during takeoff. In any case, dust rises during takeoff. The flying machine now looks like a heavy fish. How quickly aviation became an industry!

In 1927 Olesha published a lovely and strange novella called Envy, filled with vignettes like the one above (quoted from Marian Schwartz’s 2004 translation). Olesha’s oddly perfect images transform daily life into a fairy-tale realm where a machine can suddenly toggle into an animal, conjured by a marvelous-sounding name. But just beneath the magic, and somehow driving it, lie threat and sorrow. Lilienthal killed himself. Planes change from ethereal insects into mass-produced, clumsy fish that might beat you to death without even noticing you.

Envy, and Olesha, basked in early Soviet critics’ praise. The novella tells the story of a dreamy, unproductive writer, Nikolai Kavalerov, who loathes (and loves) an industrial-food manufacturer, a new type of Soviet man who takes the writer under his wing. The industrialist thrives while the writer descends into a pathetic version of hell — clearly demonstrating the proper fate of all useless individualists. Then again, critics realized, one could also read Envy as protesting a machine-besotted system that excluded artists. Olesha addressed these perceptions in his 1934 speech to the First Congress of Soviet Writers (from Envy and Other Works, translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew):

People told me that Kavalerov had many of my traits, that it was an autobiographical portrait; that, indeed, Kavalerov was me.

Yes, Kavalerov did look at the world through my eyes. Kavalerov’s colors, light, images, comparisons, metaphors, and thoughts about things were mine. […]

But then, people declared that Kavalerov was a vulgar, worthless man. […]

I didn’t agree, but I said nothing. I didn’t believe that a man with an unspoiled curiosity and an ability to see the world in his own way could be vulgar and worthless. […] I wanted to believe that the Comrades who had criticized me — they were Communist literary critics — were right, and I believed them. I began to believe that everything that had seemed precious to me was really nothing but beggarliness.

As the 1930s advanced, those Comrades’ views prevailed, and Olesha, for his own safety, acquiesced to them. For the next 20 years, in the words of Judson Rosengrant, the editor and translator of No Day Without a Line, Olesha “found partial recourse in such minor genres as the sketch, the biographical reminiscence, and journalism (including occasional politically loyalist literary criticism). He also wrote short fiction of markedly inferior quality.” Working infrequently and badly, Olesha the person survived the Stalin era. But Olesha the writer did not. As he noted with astonishing prescience in the same speech (just before the passage I’ve quoted), “A fictional character can kill an artist.” More precisely, totalitarianism can kill the artist through his character.

No Day, like much writing,is an effort to raise the dead. “The book came into being as a result of the author’s conviction that he had to write … Even if he didn’t know how to write as others do,” Olesha explains in the opening fragment. The program worked. Starting in 1954, Olesha wrote his daily line and often much more. According to Rosengrant, over the next six years, he finished a screenplay, worked on translations, wrote theatrical adaptations of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, and prepared a new collection of his own prose. Then, in 1960, he died of a heart attack. It fell to Olesha’s widow, Olga Suok, the critic Viktor Shklovsky, and others to assemble the disordered fragments he left behind. However, Olesha had always intended to publish them: “It may appear to some that in these fragments I’m pursuing some kind of individualistic nonsense […]. That isn’t so. I want us to write well. And it’s my hope that one way or another I can be of help in that regard.” It still wasn’t safe in the 1950s to embrace individualism. But I also like to think that Olesha genuinely wanted to help others along with himself.


I also want us to write well, and to be of help. However, under far less trying circumstances, I often feel I can’t write as others do. Some days I feel lucky to produce even one short line, which I immediately and triumphantly post to Twitter. A letdown then ensues. Have I written? Have I written literature? With every tweet (and Facebook status and blog post and email) that I fling into the cloud, what is happening to my writing capacity? While writing in fragments rejuvenated Olesha, I worry that translating my thoughts into digitalfragments, day after day, scatters me.

I’m not alone in my suspicions. The writer Ben Greenman recently tweeted, “I’m starting to keep a list of tweets, but offline. I call it a ‘notebook.’” In his New York Times technology column, Farhad Manjoo described his efforts to catalog his vast collection of digital images and praised a certain cloud-based gizmo for nearly achieving “nirvana”: it “has lassoed my vast mess of images into a sensible collection I can access from just about anywhere […] and be instantly transported on a photographic journey into the past — adding a deeper layer of meaning and enjoyment to a set of memories that were once all but inaccessible.” The more memories we record in digital words or images, the more we seem to lose track of. We crave ways to gather and contain ourselves.

So is the answer writing offline in a notebook, or owning a device that — unlike us — knows where all our pictures are? I’m not sold on the device, but I do think the notebook is a good idea — partly because it means taking an extra step if we want to publish (share, disseminate, scatter, lose) our thoughts. It’s too easy now to make our writing both more and less important than it can be, by instantly throwing it against the digital wall and seeing who clicks on it. But I think the main problem isn’t technology itself, but perspective — our sense of the writing self in our time. As writers, how do we fit into unfolding history? Equally important, how do we contain it?


No Day begins with a few reflections on the writing project, whose title in Russian and English derives from the Latin proverb “nulla dies sine linea.” Olesha wonders if the work might be called an autobiographical novel. “Shall I try it?” he asks. “Well, here’s the beginning.”

I was walking to school along the city’s main street, which was called Deribasovsky, walking past the shops and their windows — all, by the way, very dressed up and rich-looking — past the sycamores, the green benches, and the clock in front of Barzhansky’s shop, a clock so large in diameter and hung so low that in truth you could walk past it.

The clock repair shop of Iosif Barzhansky.

The clock above the street.

Its hands seemed to me as large as oars … No, that’s all …

I don’t know if Olesha or his editors chose to offer this as the first of his recollections. Surely the fragments that appear toward the end of the book can’t represent his intended conclusion; he died in the midst of writing No Day, his work on which was an effort to stay alive. Nevertheless, one of his book-ending memories also turns to clocks. This fragment is relatively long and complex; I’ll just quote one paragraph:

In the years of its existence during my lifetime, the clock has probably changed less than other technological things. In the time, say, that it has taken the telephone to make the dramatic transformation from a large box on the wall to virtually a tube that may be carried around from place to place, the clock has remained more or less the same as it was even three hundred years ago. Perhaps that’s because the clock, besides its practical importance, also has importance as a thing of luxury, an object of value, a gift. It has remained unchanged in much the way that bracelets and necklaces have. It may be that there was no need for it to change. A convenient form was found at once, and people soon afterward learned to concentrate the ticking of time close at hand — on the breast or wrist.

It’s easy to read these clock images as conventional reminders of mortality, not unheard-of ways to open and close a memoir. But I think something more interesting is going on. In both pieces, the writer measures himself against the clock. In the first one the clock is bigger; in the second, it’s smaller, though it makes up for that smallness by “concentrating” time and attaching it to one’s body. How big is the writer compared to time, and vice versa? Does he pass through time, or does it pass through him?

“My youth coincided with the youth of our era,” says Kavalerov to his uninterested benefactor in Envy.(In Russian, the word for “era” also means “century”; Olesha, like his alter ego, was born in 1899.) “Our era is renowned. Isn’t it marvelous when the youth of an era and the youth of a man coincide?” It is marvelous, yes, especially when the writer can truly perceive, record, transform, and thereby carry his time. As Olesha writes in No Day:

What an ample phenomenon a century is. How many generations, events, and cultural changes of face it manages to fit into itself.

Lev Tolstoy, who saw the dawn of the age of Nekrasov, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky, lived for eighty-two years and was still alive when the cinematograph and aviation first made their appearance. It’s hard to imagine what he felt when he looked, say, at an aviator — he who had seen firsthand the rather frightening chestnut cloth of the overcoats of the Sevastopol sailors, now relegated to the museum. Why, he was a contemporary of the Russo-Japanese war! […]

A lot has been fit into my life too. The day Tolstoy died, for example, or the young woman I saw reading Anna Karenina on a subway escalator yesterday, a young woman who was used to technology and who without looking or fear of falling stepped from the escalator onto solid ground, her hand sliding along the wandering rail.

Tolstoy, an ample fellow, embodied his era. Olesha hopes to embody his own; as an artist, he sees this as his job. But if Tolstoy wrote about momentous events, namely wars, Olesha wants to write about wondrous moments — like a woman stepping off an escalator while reading Tolstoy — which quietly reflect massive changes. The woman carries history in her hand, and also rides it.

This, for Olesha, is simply his era at work. “Perhaps it’s impossible for a psychological type like myself in a historical period like the present to write otherwise,” he writes. Is the fragment itself a particular historical artifact, as he suspects? In some ways, yes. But it’s also subtly designed to transcend its own boundaries:

What have I seen in my life? I’ll begin with what I just saw. As I was walking along the asphalt path that follows the Kremlin wall, a sparrow quickly moved over it, or more accurately, skipped across it. It was alone on the asphalt in the middle of a large patch of brilliant sunlight only slightly darkened by a single fallen leaf — a small, solitary sparrow that quickly hopped almost sideways over the gray surface capable of repulsing a large cloudburst. […]

Much earlier I saw a mortally wounded bandit lying in the street, his chest raised up like a mountain. That happened on Deribasovsky Street in Odessa when I was eighteen. I don’t want the reader to seek in my book any preconceived analogies or significant interconnections. If they occur on their own, that’s fine and their affair, but I’m consciously furthest of all from any wish to engage in trite philosophy, beginning with a sparrow, then jumping to a bandit.

Reading Olesha’s childhood reminiscences in No Day, we can surmise that even before Stalin’s crackdown, Olesha’s “psychological type” was conflict-averse. (He briefly discusses his alcoholic father, who once pointed a revolver at his young son.) For a writer like Olesha in Soviet Russia, fragments offer safety. In fragments, birds and bandits can be just birds and bandits — at least, that’s the writer’s stated intention. He takes no responsibility for what the reader might conclude. As a reader from Olesha’s future, I take that disavowal as a hint and a challenge.

Olesha intended these fragments to add up to something, but he left that work to others. He knew the pieces couldn’t not add up, and we’ve seen how the carefully recorded and artistically transformed moment can contain multitudes. Like the wristwatch, it’s compressed time, compressed history. A microcosm pretending to be jewelry. I’ve done the same myself, my writing fragmented for different reasons — and I don’t doubt that fear lies among them. It’s easy to dash off a tweet, receive no responses, and then console myself that I wasn’t really trying to say anything. I was just tweeting, like a sparrow, reminding the universe that I’m here. No need to make any connections.

But what if I determine that, as an artist, preserving and shaping history is my job? I coincide with my era, too; we all do, and if my times don’t seem momentous enough (or, conversely, so momentous I can’t grasp any part of them), that’s probably because I’m walking past them too fast. What if, by more carefully observing the seemingly mundane objects around me, and recording memories whose importance now escapes me, I become both more grounded and less grandiose? As a writer, can I embed myself more intentionally in my time? And by taking on this larger responsibility, can I write with more care, more significance?

And what if I do keep these fragments offline? Of course, I’m not about to give up Twitter or other digital venues — I don’t want to, and, as a 21st-century author, can’t afford to. But might it help me to hold something back, to keep some thoughts, images, and scenes in reserve (“No, that’s all …”)? Might the fragments function as a kind of secret engine for my public efforts?

So I’m contemplating an old-school version of the writer’s journal, but with a more specific design and purpose — creating a wristwatch collection, concentrating time.

Shall I try it?


Ann Gelder’s first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby, was published in 2014 by Bona Fide Books.