FICTION: The Masterpiece

I don’t know why I even bother to write stories. How many people will read them anyway? But I persist, against all logic. Maybe it’s inspiration that drives me, but I’m not sure. I generally don’t believe in such things. But one person, Melnikov, who I happen to know, does believe in it, in the importance of inspiration—so much so that he feels he’s unable to write without it. I’ve never taken a great interest in Melnikov, to be frank. I’m even reluctant to talk about him now. But since I brought him up I guess I can spare a moment or two to tell his story.

Once, on a gray day in May, or it could have been June, or maybe July, or quite possibly August, it doesn’t really matter, Melnikov came down with a bad case of writer’s block. It lasted a long time and affected him deeply. Everyday he sat at his desk and stared at the blank sheets of paper in despair. Every night he was immersed in a pool of dark, moody nightmares, poor creature. He was ready to wave the white flag and give up the literature business altogether. He’d become a salesman, like his father, and like his father’s father. Instead of writing texts, he would sell textiles. That made sense, etymologically speaking.

Then, one bright afternoon, Melnikov was suddenly hit with a lightning bolt of inspiration. It didn’t come often, the inspiration, but when it did, he felt it in his bones. And now he felt it more powerfully than he ever did before. The writer’s block suddenly lifted, the words, once so hard to find, now came pouring out onto the page, flowing easily, naturally, the sentences forming themselves into little jewels, some of them not so little. All of them, no matter what their size, were beautifully polished and rhythmic and with high purpose. One paragraph after another sprang gorgeously to life under his swiftly moving pen, and it seemed as if Melnikov, carried along by the streams of thought, were simply taking dictation from a supernatural source.

He wrote furiously, all day and into the night, and then into the wee hours of the morning. Always plowing ahead, he only paused for a little sleep and some nourishment. Onion soup, mainly. As the days passed practically unnoticed, he knew he was writing something remarkable. There was not a single arbitrary line in it. It was all as it should be, pure, refined and poetic. Nothing, he was certain, had ever been written like it before, and no one would ever write anything like it again.

His head down, the small silver-plated lamp on his desk shining brightly over the pages, he continued to honor the inspiration, a gift from the gods. By the time he came to the conclusion of his tale, a whole week had passed by. Forget about Dostoyevsky, who forced himself to churn out so many pages each morning, and Tolstoy, who kept revising his work over and over again, mostly in the evening. Melnikov, trusting in the muses, just gave free rein to the unforced, seemingly endless rush of words. He knew, without even looking back at the lines he wrote, that he had penned a masterpiece. It was a hundred and ten pages of sheer genius, nothing less. The surge of inspiration finally over, he managed to crawl to his bed, and slept for sixteen hours straight.

The next day he woke up with an indescribable feeling of happiness, as if he were still in dreamland. One of his dreams had been of a shiny red box he found in the mail. The tips of his fingers could still feel its carved surface. The box had many strings tied around it, and it was sealed tightly in thin plastic. Though Melnikov knew there was something sparkling and wondrous inside the box, he also felt a vague uneasiness because he wasn’t able to open it. He didn’t recall anything else about the dream, but the strangeness of it seemed to follow him…

Too bad Melnikov did not stay in bed longer. Maybe he should have never awakened. But that’s just my opinion. For when he finally did get out of bed, and went excitedly back to his desk to look at his masterpiece, he could not have been more shocked by what he found. No, his manuscript did not disappear. Nothing like that happened. No jealous rival of a writer had stolen into his room in the dead of night, while Melnikov was fast asleep, and purloined his work with the hope of winning fame for himself or of selling it to the highest bidder. And no, the manuscript did not get accidentally destroyed. It wasn’t left on the stove to burn, nor did the dog eat it. (I don’t, actually, think Melnikov owned a dog.) It was still there, all in one piece, lying on his desk, right where he had left it the night before.

No, what Melnikov found was something else entirely. The text, which he had scribbled down as fast as he could, was, from beginning to end, completely illegible. That’s right. Not a word of it could be deciphered. Melnikov rubbed his eyes and wondered if he was still dreaming. He wished to God he were. He turned the pages this way and that way under the lamplight, then rushed over to the window to do the same in the sunlight. After that, his fingers crossed, he placed the manuscript under a magnifying glass he kept in his desk drawer. Nothing worked, not even his crossed fingers. He still couldn’t read what he had written.

Melnikov took a deep breath. He tried to compose himself, and then squinted at the writing, holding the pages close up to his eyes. He ran his index finger along the lines of blue ink he had scrawled on the pages, as if this might help. He imagined discerning, here and there, an article such as “the” or “an,” a pronoun such as “I” or “he,” and also maybe a verb such as “is” or “was.” But these were pure guesses. And neither did his memory, now clouded by panic and confusion, come to his aid. He only vaguely remembered the words he put down and the way the sentences shaped themselves.

For a long while he stood staring down at his masterpiece, utterly aghast. He didn’t want to believe that a work so startlingly good, so revolutionary, could be lost so easily. At first he dismissed the problem as trivial, ridiculous, not worth panicking about. There must, he thought, be a simple solution. He just needed to remain calm.

But as time passed, no solution emerged. He could try to rewrite the story, but what good would it be without the original inspiration? He’d never be able to recapture the right tone or the turns of phrases or the wonderful expressions that made the writing come alive. Perhaps he would someday be inspired to write something like it, but he knew it would never be the same. His only idea, however farfetched, was to try to find a handwriting expert who could somehow penetrate the scriptural chaos at which he continued to gaze in disbelief.

So that’s what he did.

He consulted many specialists. Most of them were downtown. He wasn’t afraid to travel that far. He’d go anywhere. He even went to the office of an Egyptologist famous for uncovering the meaning of the most obscure hieroglyphics, a man who was known as our new Champollion. After that, he visited a cryptologist who was supposed to be able to decipher anything—not only secret enemy codes but even doctors’ prescriptions. Like all the others, however, the cryptologist shook his head, threw up his hands, and claimed Melnikov’s manuscript impossible to decode. It just couldn’t be done. For Melnikov all endeavors now seemed hopeless. Months passed, and stubbornly he showed his work to still other experts, each time without success. After a while he came to accept the bitter truth. No one would ever be able to comprehend his work.

As I understand it, Melnikov decided to lock up his manuscript in a safe deposit box. Why he did that, nobody knows. Did he think the unreadable work was somehow valuable or that it might one day obtain value? Perhaps he was going to wait for the moment when, luck being on his side, someone with extraordinary skill would come along and, with uncanny insight and a whole lot of inspiration, finally unlock the mysteries of Melnikov’s masterpiece. That’s entirely possible. I wouldn’t be surprised.

On the other hand, I could be mistaken. What, after all, do I know about Melnikov? Not much. Most of what I know I’ve learned from a source that is not absolutely reliable and I’m not certain what, if anything, to believe. Someday I may understand why I wrote this story.

Dennis Pahl is a professor of English at Long Island University. His fiction has appeared in ConfrontationNew Feral PressVestal ReviewEpiphany MagazineLeopardskin & LimesFleas on the Dog, and others journals.  One of his stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he was awarded “honorable mention” in a Glimmer Train short fiction contest. Three of his stories were made into short films. With his wife, the artist Luda Pahl, he has co-written a book of absurdist cartoons.  Favorite writers: Kafka, Beckett, Daniil Kharms.

Image: Book of Doves, Nicholas Roerich, 1922

Submit a comment