The Book

Leonid Andreyev (1902), Translated by Dmitry Fadeyev (2016)

I

The doctor placed a stethoscope onto the patient’s naked chest and began to listen: the large, unnaturally overgrown heart was beating faintly and unevenly against the ribs; it sobbed, as if it was weeping, and creaked. This was such a complete and sinister picture of approaching death that the doctor thought: “Well I’ll be damned!”, but what he said out loud was:

“You must avoid stress. Most likely you are doing some exhausting work?”

“I’m a writer,” answered the patient and smiled. “Say, is that dangerous?”

The doctor shrugged his shoulders and spread out his arms.

“Dangerous, like any illness…You’ve got maybe ten or twenty more years. Is that enough for you?” he joked, and, being respectful to literature, helped the patient put on his shirt. When the shirt was on, the face of the writer became slightly blueish, and one could not tell whether he was still young or exceedingly old. His lips continued to smile, politely and suspiciously.

“Thank you for the kind words,” he said.

Guiltily moving his eyes away from the doctor he spent a long time looking for a place to put down the payment for his visit, and, finally, he found it: on the writing desk, between the ink bottle and the pen tub, there was a cozy, modest little spot. And that’s where he put an old, faded, crumpled up, green three-ruble banknote.

“They don’t make them new anymore, I don’t think”, thought the doctor about the green banknote, and for some reason wistfully shook his head.

After five minutes the doctor was sitting with the next patient, and the writer, walking along the street and squinting from the autumn sun was thinking: why do all the red-haired people walk along the shaded side in the autumn, and in the summer, when it’s hot, along the sunny side? The doctor also has red hair. If only he told me five years or ten…but twenty? It means that I will die soon. A little frightening. Very frightening actually, but…

He looked into his heart and smiled with joy. How the sun shines! It’s as if it is young, and it wants to laugh and come down to the earth.

II

The manuscript was thick; it had many pages; small, thin lines ran across every page, and every one of them was a fragment of the writer’s soul. He turned the pages with reverence using his bony hand, and the light, reflecting off the white pages, fell on his face, setting it aglow. His wife stood next to him on her knees and silently kissed his other thin, bony hand, and cried.

“Dear, don’t cry,” he pleaded with her, “you don’t need to cry, there’s nothing to cry about.”

“Your heart…And I’ll be left alone in the whole world. Alone, Oh God!”

The writer gently stroked the head leaning towards his legs with his hand and said:

“Look.”

Her tears made it difficult for her to look, and in her eyes the dense strokes of the script moved liked waves, breaking and dispersing.

“Look!” he repeated. “Here’s my heart. And it will remain with you forever.”

It was such a pitiful sight, that of a dying man thinking of living through his book, and this has only served to increase the flow of his wife’s tears. She needed a living heart, not a dead book that everyone could read: strangers, uncaring and unloving.

III

The book went into print. It was called “In Support of the Needy”.

The typesetters ripped up the manuscript into shreds, each setting the shred he was given, which oftentimes began with only half a word and made no sense. In this way, from the word “love”, one would get “lo”, another would get “ve”, but this didn’t make any difference because they never read what it was they were typesetting.

“Plague this scribbler! What chicken scratch!” said one, and, frowning from anger and impatience, covered his eyes with his hand. The fingers of his hand were blackened from the lead dust, his young face was covered in dark shadows of lead, and when the worker coughed and spit, his saliva was of that same dark and dead color.

Another worker, also young—there wasn’t anyone old here—was fishing out the required letters with the quickness and speed of a monkey, softly singing:

“Ah, my fate, are you so black?

Like a cast-iron burden on my back…”

He didn’t know the rest of the song’s words, and the tune was his own: monotonous and quietly sad, like leaves rustling in the autumn wind.

The others remained silent, coughing and spitting out dark saliva. An electric lamp was lit above each of them, and in the distance, behind a wall of wire mesh, one could trace dark silhouettes of machines at rest. In patience they stuck out their knotty black arms, pressing down onto the asphalt floor with their heavy mass. There were many of them, and timidly pressing onto them was the silent darkness, full of hidden energy, secret speech and power.

IV

The books were arranged on the shelves in colorful rows, and the walls behind them could not be seen; tall piles of books were stacked on the floor; and at the back of the shop, in two dark rooms, there were even more and more books. And it seemed that man’s thought, fettered within them, was mutely shaking and trying to tear itself out, and that in this kingdom of books there was never any real silence or real peace.

A white bearded gentleman with a kindly expression on his face spoke in a respectful tone with someone on the phone, after which he cursed under his breath: “idiots”, and shouted:

“Mishka!”, and when the boy entered his face turned unkindly, and, threatening with a finger, he said: “How many times do I have to call for you? Scoundrel!”

The boy’s eyes blinked in fear, and the white bearded gentleman calmed down. Using both his arms and his legs he pushed forward a bundle of books; he tried lifting it with one arm, but failing to do so he threw it back on the floor.

“Here, take this to Egor Ivanovich.”

The boy took the bundle with both his arms and didn’t understand.

“Come on!” shouted the gentleman.

The boy lifted it up and carried it away.

V

On the sidewalk Mishka was bumping into pedestrians and was chased out into the middle of the street, where the snow was brown and pasty, like sand. The heavy stack dug into his back, making him stagger; the passing cab drivers shouted at him, and when he remembered how far he still had to go, he became afraid and thought he was going to die. He took the bundle off his shoulders, and, looking at it, started to cry.

“Why are you crying?” asked a passer-by.

Mishka kept crying. Soon a crowd gathered, and then came a grumpy policeman with saber and pistol, took Miskha and his books, and drove them all on a cab back to the station.

“What’s this?” asked the supervising officer on duty, looking up from a paper he was working on.

“A backbreaking burden, Sir” answered the grumpy policeman and prodded Mishka forward.

The officer lifted up one arm, cracked his joints, and then did the same with the other; afterwards, he stretched out his legs, one at a time, in his polished boots. Looking down sideways on the boy he threw out a series of questions:

“Who are you? Where are you from? What is your rank? What business are you on?”

And Mishka gave a series of answers:

“Mishka. Peasant. Twelve years old. My master sent me.”

The officer walked towards the bundle, still stretching as he walked, shifting his legs back and sticking out his chest. He took a deep breath and gently picked up the books.

“Whoa!” he said cheerfully.

The wrapping paper was ripped at the side and the officer pushed it aside to reveal the title of a book: “In Support of the Needy”.

“Hey now, you,” he pointed towards Miskha. “Read this.”

Mishka blinked his eyes and answered:

“I’m illiterate.”

The officer laughed:

“Ha-ha-ha!”

Then an unshaven passport clerk came over, exhaling the smell of vodka and onions towards Mishka, and also laughed:

“Ha-ha-ha!”

And then they put together a report, and at the bottom of it Mishka put his little cross.

Share on Twitter Facebook Email

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

Sign up to my email newsletter to receive regular recommendations to exceptional books on a wide range of topics including design, art, history and philosophy. A summary of latest site updates will also be included. Sign up below: