Note: I was asked by Mikhail Iossel to write this text. It ended up posted on his Facebook.
Early this summer, I needed to ride a train and a bus across Chicagoland, a trip that would take a good hour or so. Buying coffee, I looked in my bag to find I had forgotten to bring a book, so I went to my neighborhood bookstore to browse around. My desires were straightforward: a book of shorts, either poems or essays or stories, something that would not weigh down my bag very much. And I wanted to spend less than ten dollars.
Several books caught my eye, but I finally settled on a tiny little tome, a simple black and white cover. It was titled Dust, a collection of essays by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. The blurbs said something about memory and dreams, favorite topics, but besides this, I had no idea who he was. I knew he had been translated from Russian, and I trusted Dalkey Archive Press. The book also cost less than six dollars.
The first sentences engaged me in a way books rarely do. As the initial paragraph made its way through my mind, I felt Dragomoshchenko’s prose was braiding strands of light among my thoughts; the effect was a trancelike wonder at the power of words to evoke spaces and sensations in the imagination. I had to stop reading for a moment to begin again—perhaps I was not concentrating properly. But this was simply the effect. The sentences were about something familiar, even tactile and intimate—knives, streets, shells—and yet his ideas and gestures flowed from one unexpected moment to another, cutting at angles that seemed invisible, passages that operated by association and accident, but also depended on some perverted mathematical principle, perhaps algebra. I read slowly, patiently, and let go of any need to understand this man, this Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. I simply let myself experience his beautiful visions, accept his gifts.
Later on in the summer, all the way in Vilnius, Lithuania, I attended the opening reception of the Summer Literary Seminar. I ended up in a conversation with Elizabeth Hodges, the publisher of the St. Petersburg Review, who handed me a bookmark, one of these meant as an advertisement for the journal. Among the names of people the journal had published—it leaped out to me—was Arkadii Dragomoshchenko.
I grew excited, “This guy! This guy! I read this guy! This guy’s a trip!” Someone else in the world knew him? Someone else liked him? Here was a person who had published him? “I stumbled on his book, totally by accident, and it blew my mind.”
I learned that he had only recently died. The news hurt me, a curious kind of pain. It was not the hurt I have felt when relatives or loved ones have died, but very much like the kind that pangs when I hear about the death of a colleague I had worked with overseas, or if I hear that my old professor’s heart stopped beating in the middle of a lecture. Reading Dragomoshchenko is like swimming in his consciousness; at least for me, it was like knowing him across a dozen births and reincarnations. He and I were once goldfish sharing the same bowl; later on I was his housekeeper, and now he was this writer who braided light in my head.
Hodges told me that Michael Iossel, the director of the seminar, had been Arkadii’s close friend. I had to tell him about my accidental discovery. While speaking, I watched a restrained, sublime pain soften Iossel’s expressions, loosen his posture. He told me about Dragomoshchenko’s methods and relations with others in Russia, few of them very good. I took mental notes on what else to read even when I already knew I’d read anything that existed in English.
It is easy to explain this as synchronicity—how often do we run into friends and colleagues of artists we admire? In one way, my encounter with Dragomoshchenko, then with Hodges and Iossel, is exactly the same as being hit by leaves falling from the same tree at different moments of the day and in different parts of the forest. In another, it is the same as searching out for those leaves, the leaves of an elm, in a space where all the other trees are maples or oaks. I read Dragomoshchenko because he is exactly the kind of writer I’d read, and I met his colleagues because they are also interested in these kinds of letters.
Even so, it illuminates something I’ve always believed about literature. Reading a book is not just to engage the thoughts of an author but also to join a community. It’s invisible, spread out over great distances, even foreign to itself, barely aware of how large or small it might be. Despite all this, it is real, enormously powerful and deeply intimate.
Writers must remember this when they stare at their words and wonder, “Why the hell should I bother with this tripe?” There’s no reason, actually, just as there is no reason to invite friends for dinner or ride the bus across town to meet colleagues. But when we do it, and when we share, we create and maintain communities which contribute to what makes life interesting. Books improve bus rides for strangers and make distant friends in the process.