“The events shape not the man, but his destiny.”
—Mikhail Bakthin, The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism
31. Here is Mikhail tearing paper. Here is Mikhail smoking. You may want to yell at him to stop, to convince him to quit before he destroys himself, his work, forever. But you can’t. And you shouldn’t. Because he knows what he’s doing. Besides, it makes for a good story.
30. It’s a story that’s been told many times, asserted as history, even as others have tried to dispel it. Some put Mikhail in Moscow, but others—like us—see him in Leningrad. Some say this happened before or after the war, but we have him in the midst of the siege. No matter: Mikhail doesn’t care what we believe. The truth to him arrives as product of the polyphonic voice. So let’s add ours—even if off-key—to the chorus.
29. While we’re at it, let’s toss in the voice of my coworker, Vanessa, too. Vanessa and I share a small office here in Gramercy. She’s fond of an expression that’s sort of a combination of never mind and what can you do and let it go and fuck it. But it’s more carefree than any of these. Vanessa says smoke it. Let’s let her smoke it hang in the air . . . whirring and reverberating like a drone. Smoke it.
28. Mikhail, you should know, had osteomyelitis, a bone disease that cost him his left leg in 1938. When I picture him, I often forget that fact, and then need to amend my image by erasing his leg. The leg consumed, sure—but the body preserved. Somehow fitting, prophetic: what’s left of his leg but stub, a cigarette smoked to the butt.
27. The amputation keeps him out of the war. Yet war, it turns out, can be obliging. So the war finds its way to Mikhail. War, of course, also says smoke it—repeats it like a toddler saying da-da-da-da-da.
26. Hitler is also in this chorus. Here’s his solo from his missive, “The Future of the City of Petersburg”: St. Petersburg, he declares, must be erased from the face of the earth. In other words: smoke it.
25. If truth is sung in polyphony, its verses tell a story. Sometimes the story sounds like a fairy tale. A whole city, for instance, can be decreed to vanish—as if by spell.
24. Mikhail’s manuscript was about stories, before the manuscript itself disappeared. At what point, he wonders, smoking, does writing become real? When it’s thought? When it’s drafted? When it’s published? Or when it’s read?
23. No: when it’s consumed.
23 (a). Funny how there’s draft like an edit, and draft a current of air, and draft to drink in, and draft into service. That’s doubtless just a twist of English, so Mikhail probably never broods much on that. But I do, for a moment. A draft and a draft and a draft and a draft.
22. Actually, it was a fairy tale that brought me to this draft, that made me think about Mikhail a minute ago. I was telling Vanessa about “The Little Match Girl,” which came up in a manuscript we were considering for publication. Turned out Vanessa didn’t know Andersen’s story, so I found it online and hit Command-P, but the printer just blinked: out of paper, out of paper. There was nothing left in the supply closet, so I offered to run to the Staples across the street. But Vanessa just said smoke it and clicked in an order for next-day delivery. Then she went downstairs for a cigarette.
21. Now I’m here, alone, envisioning Mikhail. I type and my words fill the white screen, paragraphs accumulating like storm clouds. Command-S and they’re saved, cached inside somewhere, in a space so small it’s virtually virtual. Amazing how we’ve gone from stone to parchment to paper to essentially nothing at all, as if we’ve almost managed to reproduce the very substance of thought itself, its fundamental nothingness, its lightness. Something not really existing, but not not existing either. Something tangible as smoke.
20. As the Germans and Finns close in on Leningrad, hundreds of thousands flee east. But Mikhail stays put and prioritizes. First, tobacco: he remembers too well the Revolution, cigarettes rare as peaches. So he starts selling everything: furniture, typewriter, even his library. His assets turned liquid, his liquidity turned to tobacco, the tobacco to be turned into smoke.
19. Mikhail amasses nearly fourteen kilos by the time the bombs begin falling. Fourteen kilos! And matches, too. Boxes upon boxes stacked neatly along his bedroom wall like bricks, like insulation. Maybe when he strikes his matches and lights his cigarettes, he, too, thinks of the Little Match Girl, her small warmth doubling his through that first brutal, shaky winter. If so, he has learned from her. Even if the war continues to 1950, he knows he’ll have enough matches.
18. The war doesn’t last that long, but it doesn’t need to. The bombs feel never-ending: exploding for hours, days, months, years. How much time, how many moments of torment can be summed up so neatly in a word like years. Leningrad burning, smoldering, afire again, over and over—the city become smoke. Many who don’t burn suffocate; many who don’t suffocate starve, rot like bad wood. The city turns to air, fills his lungs. Mikhail coughs the city back into itself.
17. Mikhail sits in his bathroom and smokes and thinks about Being. He smokes and rethinks old thoughts. As the bombs shudder his building, he thinks I both actively and passively participate in Being. In winter, he opens the window and exhales smoke into the overcast sky, adding his gray breath to the clouds. His ash sails out into the air, descends to the street.
16. Mikhail smokes and thinks new thoughts: My uniqueness is given, but it simultaneously exists only to the degree to which I actualize this uniqueness. And: Because I am actual and irreplaceable I must actualize my uniqueness.
15. When I used to smoke, I thought about my unhappiness. When I quit, I lost those moments. I’m not sure if I’m happier now; I don’t take the time to think about it.
14. Mikhail is smarter than I am, so when he smokes he considers Kant, the mind’s relation to the world. This world that consumes as it is consumed. He thinks about Dostoyevsky and unfinalizability—how a person can change, can’t help but change, can never be fully revealed, unveiled, or known. We still try though, sometimes, I suppose.
13. Mikhail smokes and puts his thoughts to paper. Who will know of this work? Is this dialog or monolog? Months pass. A year. His manuscript grows tall as the buildings crumble. The city grows backwards around him; civilization runs in reverse. As he drinks from his teacup, its grim water spreads both toward and away from his lips. Each cigarette he smokes, one after another, disappears as it advances upon him, leaving a column of ash in its wake. This is the voice of the cigarette, whispered as rhetoric sibilance, the shh of a suspended cymbal, the salivary sound of a wavelet’s white edge slipping over the stones on the shore of Neva Bay.
12. Mikhail finishes his manuscript and takes stock. He’ll have enough tobacco and he’ll have enough matches. Then he realizes he’s forgotten one third of the troika: he’ll soon be out of cigarette paper.
11. The next morning, after waiting for his sawdust loaf, Mikhail hunts for paper. One-legged, he hobbles the de-cobbled streets. He sees others searching, sifting through rubble for what—for whom—until recently had sat in plain sight, within arm’s reach. Now all these grasping hands. Buildings crushed, turned to knuckles. Some other absence besides, something missing from the ears. The pigeons—their tufty fluttering—gone, long ago made meals of by St Petersburg’s gray-skinned starving. Mikhail has heard of people turning to their pets; others are eating the dead. The rumor of a mother feeding her son to his siblings.
10. Mikhail finds his publisher’s building. It too has collapsed, turned inside-out. Its former walls now ridges of broken bricks, each a hilly horizon drawn in to Mikhail’s feet. Of the countless crisp pages it once contained only a few stray burnt fragments whisk through the street like feathers. He traps a scorched scrap under his cane. Its few legible words read familiar. Mikhail bends to pick it up, but loses it to the wind.
9. There is no cigarette paper anywhere in St. Petersburg. In fact, there’s no paper to be had at all. When reality disintegrates, what’s left is a joke.
8. He turns to what’s left of his notebook, takes some pleasure in the sound of tearing its sheets into strips. Blank pages have always made Mikhail think of the future. He smokes his way through it in the space of a few frigid December weeks.
7. His manuscript sits on his desk. If blank pages are the future, this is the past. It is 543 pages. That’s about 270 leaves of paper. He looks at his good leg. He looks at his missing leg. It is New Year’s Eve, 1942.
6. This is where, I feel sure, Mikhail thinks smoke it.
5. Mikhail inhales his draft, exhales, and looks into the cloud.
4. Mikhail smokes and thinks Now I am in dialog with the world. He smokes and thinks Now I am in dialog with myself.
3. As Mikhail consumes his manuscript Mikhail is consumed. He is consumed and consumer. The siege will continue for another two years. In the end, almost everything is consumed. War is the greatest consumer.
2. The opening section of Mikhail’s manuscript, The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism, survives. You can read it online. You don’t even need to print it out.
1. Vanessa has just returned with a new ream of paper from Staples. She also went to the bodega and bought a pack of cigarettes. She is offering me one.
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