By Mikhail Iossel | June 18, 2023

Yesterday, in an unbidden and, frankly, a bit embarrassing lyrical aside — but an understandable and somewhat forgivable one perhaps also, given the nostalgia-ridden turn of my rambling recollections at the moment, with regards to my self-styled literary beginnings back in the since-renamed city of Leningrad, restored to the cold grandeur of its squalid imperial essence, the ill-starred city of my life, a thoroughly unlikely metropolis (let’s get to the point, you don’t have all day… or indeed maybe you do — and that actually is a problem in itself), in equal measure beautiful and terrible, cruel to its heartless brittle core, the erstwhile capital of the senselessly vast old country hopelessly (too many jangly adverbs) lost on its erratic way through the serpentine of centuries and currently, at the absolute nadir of its overwhelmingly harsh history, waging an unthinkable and a priori lost war against once-sisterly, once-beloved neighboring Ukraine and indeed life itself, on death’s behalf, excessively literary and perhaps pretentious as that may sound (but I’m being serious, not speaking metaphorically or with a high-flown flourish of artistic exaggeration) — I showed the Young Writer (YW) who was interviewing me for a Nairobi-based publication (yes, I’m in Kenya now, probably for the fifteenth or so time in the last quarter of a century; it’s a long story, and I only have — let’s see… a little less than an hour to finish this piece here, before leaving for, uh, a meeting, yes, that’s right, a meeting with a really, like, interesting person, someone I haven’t seen in a good, I don’t know, eighteen years — a native New Yorker from a well-to-do Jewish family who, as a very young man, fell in love with Kenya and subsequently has lived here since 1974; a writer and scholar of African history, a philosopher of life, so to speak, an entrepreneur and… well, that should be enough; so – some other time, about me and Kenya) a few photographs of myself as a young man, in my twenties, by myself and with other people, my college-mates and such, I showed to YW, on my iPhone, and upon seeing those, YW started perceptibly, or imperceptibly, or blanched, wide-eyed (well, not quite, don’t overwrite), and said, in a hesitant voice, “But… but… what happened?” — what happened, yes, what happened? what, YW’s spontaneous, involuntary reaction implied, happened to your looks, your body, your hair? why such cruelly glaring difference, as if you back then and the now you were two entirely different people (which in fact would, if actually articulated, happen to be an accurate statement)? does this happen to everyone? will this happen to me, YW, too? no, no way, it can’t happen to me, it won’t, you just… you must’ve been somewhat unlucky in the genetics department or whatever, and obviously you didn’t take proper care of yourself over the years, that’s self-evident… no, I for one will never be that old, or old like that, in the same sad and unattractive way, staying young both mentally and physically is a choice, and we’re not talking cosmetic surgeries or expensive creams or Botox injections here, happiness is a choice, super-trite as that may sound… and I responded to YW’s impromptu outburst of a non-question (OK, forty-three minutes left until I, uh, have to leave for that meeting I mentioned), feeling more amused than sad (not true), I said that, you know, life happened, that’s what happened, life, life, life happened, life happened, that’s it, that’s all, it happens to everyone, and towards the end of life, if all goes well, if one doesn’t get mowed down by some deadly illness or fatal accident along the way, one gets old, one just does, as life accelerates on one with a vengeance, despite the fact that when you’re little, you absolutely and with utmost certainty know that you’re never going to die, you’re that special, and when you’re young you don’t even ever think about getting old, because why would you, life is too long for that, you just know old age won’t happen to you, you’ll stay young and beautiful forever, your face will never get covered with a network of unsightly wrinkles, your body will always remain lithe and joyous, your skin won’t ever lose its natural smoothness and elasticity (and incidentally, before I forget: the reason why Putin, that underground bunker-bound modern-day Hitler-lite, with his multiple face-altering cosmetic surgeries and Botox injections and such will never use the strategic nuclear weapons, or even the tactical ones, is just that – a man so intent on looking younger than his age, so mortally afraid of death, is not likely to commit suicide… plus China, which owns him now, chapter and verse, would severely disapprove of such an imprudent act on his part), and at no future point in your life will you come to a terrible heart-piercing realization (OK, thirty-two minutes left) that all of a sudden (and yes, it’s like a sharp shard of ice entering you heart) you have more friends in the world of the dead than in this one, our temporary home, an infinitely smaller one, of course, and that… but oh, what’s the point of even talking about this, it’s the primary law of, well, yes, the universe (not being sufficiently timid intellectually to limit ourselves to the solar system in our pronouncements, are we?), which is that every single living thing’s life happens at first and then it stops happening, every living thing dies in the end (and now it’s twenty-nine minutes; how time flies)… so let me just switch the old gears here and let you know, dear highly hypothetical reader of this, whoever you may or may not be, that right now, as I’m looking out my window and contemplating idly the ceaseless and seemingly chaotic human activity down in the teeming streets and broad avenues and arched alleyways of the bustling Nairobi West area, my unwitting accidental co-sharers of the extreme miracle of our being fleetingly alive at the same time on this (channeling Carl Sagan, who no longer is with us) tiny pale blue dot in space, I’m remembering (because memories come in the process of one’s writing about having them under self-imposed time constraint; twenty-four minutes left now; I don’t really know who I am and what I want… I just felt I needed to add something existentially profound here, forgive me) something tangentially related, I feel, to the whole “what happened” theme here — yes, I’m transposed in my mind to one distant Leningrad afternoon, quiet and serene, with myself as a teenager of high-school age in it, a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old maybe, sprawled on my side on the sun-dappled parquet floor of the living room of our family’s spacious (oh so well-remembered) apartment on Moskovsky Prospect and leafing through the latest issue of Foreign Literature magazine, one of the Soviet country’s most popular monthly thicklies, circulation in millions of copies (my god, what a different world it was then), just skimming through its contents, my heart beating evenly but rapidly, habitually fascinated as I am by the very idea of anyone’s being able to exist (let alone write) in any language other than Russian; and at some point I come across, and am instantly struck by, one particular image in there, a smallish painting by… I want to say (so say it) the Italian communist artist Renato Guttuso, if memory serves me (which it probably does not; that’s not its function – to provide me with accurate information about my life, and I haven’t been able to find that image anywhere online ever since), depicting a grotesquely fat naked male figure, blood-red, as if the man had been skinned alive, sitting in a heavily slouched posture in the emptiness of the white-space background and staring dully yet also, it appears, with a measure of satisfaction at his obscenely enormous distended belly, upon which his short fat little hands are folded in a vaguely Buddha-like fashion, yes, that’s what I’m remembering right now, and the title of that visual composition was, quite simply, The Good Life (imagine), and… well, that’s the extent of it actually, and I don’t really know why it, that image, had affected me so, in such an upsetting way, back then, and why it kept haunting (let’s maybe be less dramatic? just a suggestion) my mind from time to time for years to come – perhaps, if I were to give it some concentrated thought, it was because somehow, on a non-cerebral plane, I sensed right away and all along that this was not entirely and completely that unspeakable fat red blob of a man’s fault, that sorry predicament of his, with his good life — that he ended up looking and being like that… and that my instant aghast wonderment as to why anyone, the fully grown adult people in general, might actually choose to end up living that good life, looking and indeed being like him, that awful crimson man, that it might have been at least partially misplaced, in its youthful smugness, because something like that, that good life, could probably, or at least not-inconceivably, happen to many people, as they grew older, for a variety of — admittedly, hard-to-fathom, from my then-adolescent perspective — reasons, including me, possibly… oh hell no… oh yes indeed, me too, me, whom everybody liked (not, not everyone, far from it, don’t be a fool, millions of people out there wanted you dead, gone without a trace, disappeared ipso facto, sight unseen, you silly little Soviet Jew), light and agile like Steve Martin’s Picasso, weighing the immaterial fifty-five kilograms, able to execute (and with the greatest of ease, too) thirty or forty or however many you’d like (hundreds? no problem!) pull-ups, infinite number of push-ups, fleet-footed fast runner, high jumper, happily airborne, obsessive and promising soccer player, yes, me, the deathlessly young moi, with my sense of humor, my way with words, my easy laughter (nineteen minutes; enough singing paeans to yourself), my many friends and girls who fancied me, my… my… I… I… who… who… and yet, and yet… I don’t know what I want, I will never have what I want, life happened; and since memory, I’ll submit to you, has no chronological dimension to it (say what? later, later), I am also going to recollect now, in these remaining minutes until the end of this, you know, sentence (I suppose, it’s a story) — randomly, though not quite — how, in the next-to-last (I believe) year of my life in the Soviet Union (and let me take this opportunity – what opportunity? – to tell you, very quickly, that in the course of my life, among lots of other things, I’ve been a refusenik – look it up, if curious — for five and a half years, back in the USSR, in addition to having worked as a seriously mediocre electrical engineer, a thoroughly indifferent semi-secret submarine demagnetizer, that’s right, and, finally, on the lowest and safest rung of all of my existential stations, a shift security guard at the Central Park of Culture and Leisure, tasked with keeping a watchful nondormant eye on Leningrad’s only, and the country’s oldest, roller-coaster, and… I suppose what I’m trying to say, is that mine has been a long life, that it happened, my life did happen, in all the quietly satisfying hushed glory of its sheer comparative insignificance, and I suppose it still keeps happening… not sure why I felt like saying that again), how, one late afternoon (what is it with me and late afternoons?), while waiting in a sinuous long line in front of a liquor store on Chernyshevsky Prospect, diagonally across from the condemned and depopulated Dostoyevskean (just using that term out of the perverse subconscious need to annoy myself, you know) apartment building, in the rooftop mansard space of which the so-called “westerners” wing of the semi-unofficial, underground, samizdat literary club to which I belonged at the time was located (I realize, of course, that there’s too much context here for me to be able to elucidate even a smidgen of it all for you now, at this point, under this time constraint, so… well, I’ll just have to leave it un-expounded on, if that’s OK, which it will have to be, for now… all the more so, by the way, since I’ve already written about it, yes, in a past sentence-story like this one, only shorter and tighter, called Sentence, which is Googleable, in case one might be interested), and I was passing the waiting time by conversing casually (you don’t say) with an old man standing right behind me in the line, with a face as narrow as a knife blade (very original description), telling him that I was about to celebrate, with my literary, you know, buddies up at the top of that condemned building across the way (and I waved back nonchalantly in the aforesaid building’s general direction… OK, fifteen minutes left, hurry up) my, uh, translation, yes, of the American writer Guy Davenport’s short story “President Richard Nixon’s Freischutz Rag,” that’s right, Freischutz, no idea what that German word means, just as much at a loss with regards to it as you are, comrade, which is about Nixon and Kissinger in China, visiting Mao, it has this cool nonlinear structure of separate segments of text spliced together, and also about Leonardo da Vinci inventing the bicycle, literally so, in the real time of his life and our reading, quite the juxtaposition, as well as about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas drinking wine and chatting and getting drunk in Luxembourg Garden in Paris, the story is its form, from light to darkness, from hope to, like, hopelessness (great writing, congratulations; I’m in a hurry, OK?), OK, the story is too complex and beautifully conceived and imaginatively written for me to be able to retell it now, but anyway, that’s the gist of it, so… and the old man was listening and nodding, nodding and listening, and then, out of the blue, he shared with me the suspiciously literary-sounding fact that ever since getting out of (well, where else, given the generation he belonged to and the characteristically otherworldly severity of his countenance?) the Gulag camp in 1956, the year of our (our!) invasion of Hungary (and now, inevitably, it’s us, all of us, if indirectly, because of our shared past, trying to annihilate Ukraine and every last remnant of goodness within ourselves, our entire scattered nation of those whose life or at least its beginnings happened within the ambit of Russian-Soviet culture) and the Melbourne Olympic Games, he mysteriously lost the ability to see his own reflection in the mirror, yeah, like a damn vampire or something, so for himself he was a man without a face (Putin is a man without a face, too – let me spend a few seconds on this observation – the fascist bastard lost his previous no-face repeatedly due to his fear of getting older and dying; and so his life, in that sense, has not happened, his no-face doesn’t reflect nor testify to its passage; a man without a face is a man without a life) and there was a strong liberating factor in that, the old man said, in not ever being able to see your face, and (pre-empting the question that… well, actually was not on the tip of my tongue) it was his niece, his late sister’s daughter, who came to his place, his small room in an eternally messy communal apartment midtown, twice a week to shave him, without fail, because it was important to him somehow to present to the world the appearance of, yes, an old and inwardly dead man, sure, yet one still with his dignity largely intact; and in general, he added, rather inconsequentially, waxing philosophical, while our birth is totally random and overall seems like a miracle each time, our death is natural and unavoidable, beautifully and rigidly predetermined, and there is comfort in that too, the way I see it, young man, and I really look forward to it, to not existing anymore, and let me tell you, I’m grateful for not having made more terrible and irreversible mistakes in my life (apart from an inadvertent and unforced one of having been born where and when I and all of us were born) — and I told him to that, not knowing what to say and losing interest in the conversation, that, you know, no matter what, his life had happened, it had, so he shouldn’t be too hard on himself, and as for the past, it’s past, according to Chairman Mao in Davenport’s story (OK, nine minutes left, it’s full-on race against time now), and he responded to the effect that he used to wish, back in the labor camp, that he could go back in time and start life from scratch and so on, all that childish idealistic nonsense, but then he realized, of course, that it probably and indeed almost certainly would have been an even more unhappy and basically hellacious life than the one he’d ended up having in reality, with him possibly managing to avoid some of the momentous mistakes he’d made (he was beginning to sound like a broken record; but then, whose life is not a broken record?) but undoubtedly committing many more new and much worse ones in that imaginary new life of his, and so, he said, looking up at the overcast, low-slung Leningrad sky with unseeing eyes, we’re stuck until we die with the lives we’ve been meant to have, for better or worse, yes, we could’ve lived very different lives perhaps but we ended up having the ones we do, because… and I’ve just remembered this quote from Aldous Huxley, for no reason; just a second, let me find it online, so as not to quote from memory, it will only take a few moments… OK, here it is, “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them”… beautiful, isn’t it; and believe it or not (and it is entirely up to you, of course, whether to believe me or not; but if I were you, I’d believe me, just sayin’; stop wasting time), the next thing I knew, the old man, all of a sudden, without finishing his sentence (as I’m about to start finishing mine; just five minutes left), turned totally ashen and, you know, started listing to one side, like a sinking ship, and then he slowly fell down onto the Prospect’s dirty pavement, causing a certain amount of momentary havoc along the line of the hungover souls, and someone (not me, I’m afraid; I just stood there, stunned; he still seemed to be breathing) shuffled off to the nearest phone booth to call the ambulance, skoraya pomoshch’, which last arrived with commendable and somewhat surprising swiftness, and his insensate body was loaded into it, and of course, I have no idea what happened to him after it took him away, that old man with a knife-blade face who couldn’t see his own reflection in the mirror, whether he lived a little longer that day or died on his way to the hospital, but either way, it probably made little difference to him personally; his life, having happened, had come to its conclusion (OK, three minutes left; one’s got to honor one’s own self-imposed constraints, so…); I’m typing as fast as I can, I’m not a fast typist, to put it mildly, I type with, let’s see, three fingers, I suppose, four maximum; this piece has no overarching theme or any special meaning, although maybe it does, I sort of hope so, and there will be no so-called coda to it, no vaunted closure or meaning-heavy conclusion; that old man, that old man, life happened, life happened, life keeps happening (if, for people like me, at a markedly and naturally slower pace, with steady deceleration), and… finally, let me tell you that I’ve just remembered (I really should stop remembering things, at this point) watching online (I haven’t owned a TV set in ages, you know) the Muhammad Ali memorial service in Louisville, KY, some six years ago, I guess (I could look it up, the exact date, but no, can’t slow down, no time for that, the end is near) – how, as Bill Clinton was speaking, fighting back tears, I was thinking, with light sadness (and oh… o wow, a giant marabou stork, the angel of you-know-what, OK, stop it, no time, flapping its enormous Marquezean wings majestically, just flew, blotting out the sun for an instant, right over the roof of the unprepossessing yet fairly tall building in Nairobi West where I’m sitting in a small top-floor apartment, looking out the window, thinking and remembering; life happened, life still keeps happening; OK, no time), yes, I was thinking at that moment of the perfectly ordinary, unremarkable, unknown to the vast majority of the human race, lonesome old woman, ill, infirm, limited of mobility, my mother’s closest friend since high school, who had been kind and nice and funny and easy with a laugh and truly, strikingly beautiful even in middle age, yes, god, was she ever, and starkly and incomprehensibly unlucky in love and childless, and in general had known little happiness in her life, as life kept happening to her at the wrong time and in the wrong place, Leningrad, Soviet Union, being Jewish didn’t help, and who had died, the day before Muhammad Ali’s funeral, in St. Petersburg, Russia, at eighty-six years of age — just one of more than one or nine or however many hundreds of billions of people who had gone that way before her, before you and me, and I . . .


  • Mikhail Iossel

    Mikhail Iossel was born in Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia), where he worked as an electromagnetic engineer and a security guard at the Leningrad Central Park of Culture and Leisure, and belonged to an organization of "samizdat" writers before emigrating to the U.S. in 1986. He is the author of, most recently, of "Love Like Water, Love Like Fire," a collection of stories, " "Notes from Cyberground: Trumpland and My Old Soviet Feeling," and one previous collection of fiction: "Every Hunter Wants to Know." He is a frequent contributor to, and his stories and essays have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Iossel, a Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Stegner Fellow, has taught in universities throughout the U.S. and is an associate professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal.

Dooney’s is serializing Mikhail Iossel's SENTENCE.

You can find the full list of posted essays here