Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future, Trans. By Joanne Turnbull (New York Review Books Classics, 2009)
“Written in Soviet Moscow in the 1920s—but considered too subversive even to show to a publisher—the seven tales included here attest to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s boundless imagination, black humor, and breathtaking irony: a man loses his way in the vast black waste of his own small room; the Eiffel Tower runs amok; a kind soul dreams of selling ‘everything you need for suicide’; an absentminded passenger boards the wrong train, winding up in a place where night is day, nightmares are the reality, and the backs of all facts have been broken; a man out looking for work comes across a line for logic but doesn’t join it as there’s no guarantee the logic will last; a sociable corpse misses his own funeral; an inventor gets a glimpse of the far-from-radiant communist future.”
"Fantastically imaginative, darkly ironic and marvelously crafted, these seven tales written in the 1920s were unpublished during Krzhizhanovsky's lifetime. Set mostly in Moscow, where the toilsome workdays sap spiritual strength, the stories are about the strange, wondrous and alarming things that can result from a chance encounter. In 'Quadraturin', the most straightforward story, the resident of a matchbox-size flat is proffered an experimental formula for biggerizing rooms, which, when applied, expands the space and doesn't stop until the room becomes a black wilderness. In 'Someone Else's Theme', a writer meets a down-on-his-luck seller of philosophical systems, while the protagonist of 'The Branch Line' is directed to a train that spirits him into a disorienting dreamscape. The long title story is the biography of a brilliant, lonely scientist, Max Shterer, whose obsessive pursuit of making time dance in a circle proves prescient and chilling. Turnbull's translation reads wonderfully, capturing the isolation and strangeness of Krzhizhanovsky's startling stories." - Publishers Weekly
"For anyone enthralled by the satirical avant-garde that briefly shone on the fringes of Soviet culture in the 1920s, here’s a revelation. Krzhizhanovsky somehow scraped a living in post-revolution Moscow as he wrote stories infused by a disturbing surrealism... Forget 'socialist realism': neither term remotely fits a grotesque comedy capturing the plight of 'crossed-out' marginal people, who cling on in an age not of utopia but absurdity." - Boyd Tonkin
"Nightmarish visions and philosophical conundrums explored in highly entertaining, fleet-footed prose... Krzhizhanovsky's whimsical and self-reflexive tales are more likely to strike readers as harbingers of Borges or Calvino." - Oliver Ready
"Like Platonov, Krzhizhanovsky is a poker-faced surrealist whose imagination is so radical it goes beyond political lampoon into the realms of metaphysical assault. But Krzhizhanovsky's writing is more in the fantastical modernist mode of Jorge Luis Borges and Stanislaw Lem; he works out the eccentric premises of his plot with a relentless cogency..." - Bill Marx
"Krzhizhanovsky is often compared to Borges, Swift, Poe, Gogol, Kafka, and Beckett, yet his fiction relies on its own special mixture of heresy and logic... phantasmagoric..." - Natasha Randall
“Curiously, one of the most startling qualities of his work is the directness with which it addresses our 21st century concerns. It’s as if the Soviet editors were right: Krzhizhanovsky now seems more our contemporary than theirs...His stories, like those of Jorge Luis Borges, are closer to poetry and philosophy than to the realistic novel...It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century.” –Robert Chandler
"Delightful to read, humorous, sad and meaningful...His work, subtly subversive, as his editor rightly calls it, only started to be published as a whole in 1989, when what might be described as all the usual suspects, Kafka and Borges, Swift, Gogol and of course Samuel Beckett, were promptly trotted out by way of comparison. Krzhizhanovsky has certainly much in common with them, but the flavour and personality of his writing is all his own, as if it were a subdued and friendly personal conversation. His method, as he put it, was not to borrow from reality, but to ask reality for permission to use his own imagination'." –John Bayley
"In 'The Bookmark' an editor tells one of the characters:
'You have talent. But you must put it into a pen, and the pen into your hand. Your stories are, well, how shall I put it ? Untimely. Put them away - let them wait. In the meantime, a person able to cross things out would, most likely, suit us.'
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's untimely stories had to wait a long time. Memories of the Future collects seven of them (of which one, the title piece, is near novella-length); two first appeared in the collection Seven Stories, but the rest now appear in English for the first time. Though written between 1926 and 1930, these - like essentially all of Krzhizhanovsky's fiction - were only published recently even in the original. While Krzhizhanovsky's fiction is not predominantly political, his flights of fantasy were understandably unpalatable to the Soviet regime. In their way, they are more subversive than even much that is overtly political and critical, since in their focus on imagination and creativity they challenged the most fundamental aspects of the Soviet experiment.
Many of these are writer's and storyteller's tales; even the title story, which deals with a character obsessed with defeating time itself by building a time machine, involves a biographer who wants to present his life-story. Several feature characters with an abundance of stories to tell and ideas to share - but finding hardly a market for them (as was Krzhizhanovsky's own fate); the 'theme catcher' from 'The Bookmark' is a particularly impressive incarnation.
In 'Someone Else's Theme' a character approaches the narrator with an even greater offer:
I wonder, citizen, if you wouldn't like to acquire a philosophical system ? With a double embrace of the world; a precept for both the micro- and the macrocosm. Formulated according to strict and exact methods. An answer to all the great questions.
Krzhizhanovsky's worlds are full of men who live largely in the mind -- philosophy, and philosophers such as Kant, find mention in nearly every piece -- and in their imaginations, and the few who are not creative types themselves (in 'Quadraturin' and 'The Branch Line') find themselves in nightmarish dream-(un)realities, of worlds turned practically inside out. Like several of his characters, Krzhizhanovsky is practically unable to keep himself from constantly tossing out (in both senses of the words) stories and alternate worlds, one after the other. Soviet reality intrudes to some extent, as in 'Memories of the Future', where the protagonist loses his inheritance to the new Soviet regime, but few of these other-worldly characters would fit comfortably in any sort of real-world locale.
Krzhizhanovsky effortlessly and brilliantly conceives of super-natural worlds, with time-machines (in 'Memories of the Future') and "an agent for biggerizing rooms" (in 'Quadraturin') which literally does what it is supposed to, and an alternate world of dreams-come-true (and nightmares, too) in 'The Branch Line'. But it is the subtler, smaller flights of fancy and imagination that are often even more impressive.
Each story consists of many small incidental bits and ideas, too, clever little asides such as a notice promoting "heavy dreams" the protagonist in 'The Branch Line' comes across:
Sweet dreams cannot withstand reality, sleepy reveries wear out faster than socks; whereas a heavy dream, a simple but well-made nightmare, is easily assimilated by life. Where dreams unburdened by anything disappear like drops of water in the sand, dreams containing a certain harshness will, as they evaporate in the sun, leave a hard kernel on the roof of Plato's famous cave: these deposits will collect and accrue, eventually forming a swordlike stalactite.
While presenting harsh realities (alongside the other-worldly escapes into the imagination and shape-shifting alternate realities), there's surprising little cynicism here, though 'Memories of the Future' - the most true-to-life tale, with the protagonist sent off to fight in the First World War and then having to deal with the Soviet reality - has its moments of bitterness.
Krzhizhanovsky is at his best with his slightly surreal twists and ways of seeing things - and it allows him an effective means of addressing harsher realities:
A philosophy of life is more terrible than syphilis and people - you have to give them credit -- take every precaution not to become infected. Especially by a philosophy of life.
Krzhizhanovsky's writing meanders - but in the most unlikely directions and ways. He is a writer unlike most any other, and while it is his fanciful leaps of the imagination that are most striking he is also a stylish writer: there's a remarkable felicity of expression to his story-telling, too.
Memories of the Future confirms what Seven Stories suggested: that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the best 'lost' authors of the twentieth century to have now been rediscovered. The collected works in Russian now cover five volumes; one can only hope that more quickly makes its way into English." - M.A.Orthofer
"IN the 1920s, a disaffected Soviet encyclopedia editor named Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky — a man haunted by Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and by Communist realities — began writing a series of philosophical, allegorical, fantastical short stories. Seven of them appear in “Memories of the Future,” a selection of his fiction that takes its title from the book’s longest entry — the tale of a brusque monomaniac who builds a “timecutter” to eject himself from 1920s Moscow. None of these stories were published in Krzhizhanovsky’s lifetime. This was not because the work had been rejected or because it was, well, a little weird. Krzhizhanovsky, it seems, was too proud, too shy or (more likely) too frightened to show them around — given that he was spinning his dystopic fictions at about the same time that Stalin was collectivizing the Soviet countryside.
Still, Krzhizhanovsky read his stories to friends at literary gatherings where they were, apparently, well received. And after his death, in 1950, at the age of 63, his wife deposited his manuscripts at the State Archives in Moscow, except for one novella, “Red Snow,” an anti-Soviet parable she concealed among her personal effects. In 1976, the scholar Vadim Perelmuter discovered the Krzhizhanovsky archival stash and went on to spend decades compiling and publishing the writer’s work. Now the translators Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov introduce Krzhizhanovsky’s neologistic whimsy, feverish invention and existential angst to a wider audience.
“Very tall, thin, slightly stooped, with a pale nervous face and a pince-nez,” Krzhizhanovsky the man could be a character in an absurdist tale by Gogol or an allegory by Kafka. But Krzhizhanovsky the author is harder to pin down. As he wrote in the story “Someone Else’s Theme” (in which a writer is accosted by a beggar who trades aphorisms for soup), “I should describe you as a literary descendant of Leskov, with his apocryphisms, and of Poe, with his love of the fantastic... but all that’s beside the point.”
Newcomers to this author will appreciate the guidance Turnbull provides in her introduction, which serves “to exgistolate the gist” of the stories, as the author might say. In “Quadraturin,” a man who lives in a communal apartment building “loses his way in the vast black waste of his own small room,” which has been magically enlarged by the application of a “proliferspansion” ointment. “The Bookmark” features an Eiffel Tower that “runs amok.” In “The Branch Line,” a commuter ends up in a place where “nightmares are the reality,” while in “Red Snow,” a dejected man “comes across a line for logic but doesn’t join it.” A “sociable corpse misses his own funeral” in “The Thirteenth Category of Reason.” And in the title story, the man with the time machine “gets a glimpse of the far-from-radiant Communist future.”
Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are more like dream diaries than fiction. Quite intentionally, he blurs the line between sleep and waking, real and unreal, life and death. While his translators admirably convey the whirligigging quality of his narratives, Krzhizhanovsky’s peregrinations demand unstinting focus and frequent compass checks. His characters often seem half, or wholly, asleep. Sometimes, as in “The Thirteenth Category of Reason,” they are dead — which doesn’t stop them from boarding city trams and chatting with commuters. “Alive or dead, they didn’t care.” Their only concern is whether such conduct is “decrimiligaturitized” — that is, legal. “In “Quadraturin,” the man with the proliferspansion ointment never exits a state of benumbed grogginess. Lying on his bed, “unable to part eyelids stitched together with exhaustion,” he tries to sleep through the night, “mechanically, meekly, lifelessly.” When inspectors from the Remeasuring Commission drop by to make sure he hasn’t exceeded his allotted 86 square feet of space, he hovers, terror-stricken, at the door, hoping they won’t spot his infraction. It’s an archetypal nightmare, reminiscent of Kafka.
In the most effective story, “The Branch Line,” the nightmare is more straightforward. Quantin, a passenger on a train, is warned by the conductor, “Don’t over-stay-awake.” There’s no risk of that. Quantin’s legs “feel oddly cottony and hollow, the briefcase under his elbow soft and springy, like a pillow plumped for sleep.” In prose so melodiously somnolent that it conjures Tennyson’s “tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes,” Krzhizhanovsky describes how “the old locomotive, trailing steam, moved through the night as though shuffling soft slippers.” Disembarking in a factory town where nightmares are manufactured, Quantin spots a flier vaunting the local industry: “Our nightmares, weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one’s head: some of our customers call this ‘world history.’ ” But that’s not the point, the notice continues. “The point is the durability, unwakability, high depressiveness and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes... closed eyes and open.”
Here such commentary reads as satire, but in “Red Snow” (the story his wife hid), Krzhizhanovsky unveils his anger. “Haven’t you noticed how in the last few years our life has been permeated by nonexistence?” one of the characters asks. “Aren’t we, members of the intelligentsia... inscribed in hopelessness?” But, he adds, “In hopelessness, too, you see, there’s a razor-sharp delight.”
In an essay justifying Shakespeare’s reliance on dreams as a device in his plays, Krzhizhanovsky wrote, “A dream is the only instance when we apprehend our thoughts as external facts.” His fascination with dream and consciousness emerges throughout this collection, in allusions to Plato’s cave and Socrates, to Husserl and Kant. And yet his refusal to wake to the reality of his times can fog the clarity of his visions. “To those who are awake,” Heraclitus wrote, “the world order is one, common to all; but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.” In these pages, you sense that Krzhizhanovsky, in rejecting his world order, turned aside. “According to Heraclitus,” Plato explained, “in sleep the channels of perception are shut, and the intelligence in us is severed from its kinship with the environment.” It’s only upon waking that perception “recovers the power of reasoning.” But does this truth hold when, upon waking, the dreamer confronts an unreasonable world and finds no kinship with it?
For all the phantasmagoria in the works of Kafka and Bulgakov, it’s the undergirding reality that gives them their power. Borges once wrote of Kafka that he “knew he could dream only nightmares and was aware that reality is a continuous sequence of melancholy nightmares.” Kafka may have marked a difference between sleeping and waking, but did Krzhizhanovsky? “I live in such a distant future that my future seems to me past, spent and turned to dust,” he wrote. The time machine his protagonist boards in “Memories of the Future” allows him to look back on the Soviet 1920s from the distance of the 1950s. He sees “destitute years stained with blood and rage when crops and forests perished while a forest of flags rose in revolt” and concludes that “in a certain present there is more of the future than in the future itself.”
In Krzhizhanovsky’s tales, relics of a future past, he transports readers back to the present he renounced, to a life that’s “not-life, a gap in existence” — a place from which he sought refuge in fiction and dreams." - Liesl Schillinger
"One of the most rewarding aspects of literary exploration is the plenitude of the medium: new relations can pop up without diminishing the standing of prior stakeholders. To read Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Memories of the Future is to enlarge one's conception of the zeitgeist that promoted some of the 20th century's most limpid deliriums. Upon acquainting oneself with the book's seven tales, there is a probability that the forest of visions, inhabited by the likes of Kafka and Borges, will seem of wider circumference.
The story of how Krzhizhanovsky's work came to be published, decades after his death, is but an addition to the roster of neglected genius. The youngest of five siblings born to Polish Catholic parents in Kiev, Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950) was a precocious youngster who found his way to Kant and Shakespeare. According to translator Joanne Turnbull's introduction, it appears he used the Englishman as a hedge against the philosopher from Königsberg who spurred the author's sense of metaphysical crisis. "Before [reading Kant] it had all seemed so simple: things cast shadows. But now it turned out that shadows cast things, or perhaps things didn't exist at all... [He] erased the fine line between 'I' and 'not I'." With Shakespeare, conversely, he took refuge in "a friend who could protect me from the metaphysical delusion." Krzhizhanovsky's restless narrative experimentation built on this enlightenment of his youth - to the detriment of his later attempts to secure a livelihood under Stalin's regime.
The stories he produced between 1926 and 1930, from which the selections in the present volume - a new translation by Joanne Turnbull - are taken, bustle with humor, paradoxes, and aporias. Their philosophical enchantments call to mind the phrase, "fairytales for dialecticians," which Walter Benjamin applied reverently to Kafka's oeuvre. (Krzhizhanovsky did not encounter it until 1939.) Unsurprisingly, Gorky and the rest of the minders of socialist realism dismissed his fiction as extraneous to the needs of the literary marketplace. "A spy for European culture in the Bolshevik night" was how one critic summarized his outré status in what could be called a backhanded insult. Krzhizhanovsky absorbed these snubs, using them as kindling for his work. (A character in the story "Someone Else's Theme" says, "I know a world where people walk on the sunny side, but only... at night.")
Thematically, Memories of the Future begins with space and ends with time. Like the bulk of the book's (male) protagonists, the lead in the first story "Quadraturin" is able to take in the outlandish with nary a show of head-scratching. While a reasonable survival tactic for living in a bureaucratic state - whose policies appear to be conducted by lunatics (see "Red Snow") - a bit of dithering is customarily advisable when one is asked to partake in a free trial of a paranormal product. Of course, who wouldn't be curious to see if a liquid solution could increase the spatial dimensions of one's abode? Inspired by the overpopulated living conditions that exasperated Muscovites in the aftermath of the Revolution, this portrait of a residential abyss - which trades on the horrors of infinite space - anticipates a book like The House of Leaves.
"The Bookmark" begins as a bibliophilic reflection inspired by the rediscovery of an old bookmark, and then segues into a flow on the art of narrative variation. (Bach is mentioned at one point to underscore the musical analogue.) Sitting on a park bench, the owner of the bookmark becomes a chance audience member to a raconteur -- a "theme catcher" who flaunts his imaginative wares. One of his stories relates to a rebellious Eiffel Tower that bolts away from its station. Another to the final hours of cat stranded on the ledge outside of an office building. A bit of grousing flavors the theme catcher's presentation; he denigrates his contemporaries thusly:
'To think that people say... we are living in a time of themelessness. They hunt for themes-practically need hounds to do it - and scare up each new series of images with a battue, a throng, when those accursed themes, the devil take them, are everywhere you look. They're like motes in a sunbeam or the mosquitoes over a swamp...'
When the narrator bumps into him on another day, he alludes to his new acquaintance's misgivings about contemporary literature. In response, the theme catcher delivers an allegory-which also adumbrates Krzhizhanovsky's predicament in Russia: A girl hurries toward a moving vehicle, clutching a basket to her side; if she puts the basket on the stagecoach, she is left behind; if she gets on, her basket is lost. The allegory of the maid and the stagecoach speaks to the disjunction between cultivating an audience and serving one's vocation. Later, following the conclusion of the theme catcher's most haunting tale - a story that a stingier artist might have launched into the world by itself - the two men part from each other. They are destitute of hope for the future, but undaunted. In lieu of goodbyes, they say: "And even so." Though neither feels the need to articulate the point, the reader is made to feel that art, inept though it may be at abolishing cultural despotism, can outflank it. And that is intrinsically worthwhile.
Besides the titular novella - a tale of time travel that doesn't emphasize travel - the most astral story in this volume is "The Branch Line." A businessman on a train awakens in an orphic land where he espies dreams being mobilized to overthrow reality. A host of jabs are directed at modern life. And a subset of mockery is reserved for life as it was lived in the Soviet context: Thomas More makes a cameo; he ducks into a cellar over which hangs the sign, "Wholesale Supplier of Utopias Since..." In a puff on the utility of nightmares, economic prattle comes in for a goosing:
'The main advantage of the heavy industry of nightmares over the light industry of golden threads plunged into brain fibrils, over the production of so-called sweet dreams, is that in marketing our nightmares we can guarantee that they will come true... our nightmares, weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one's head: some of our customers call this 'world history'. But that's not the point. The point is the durability, unwakeability, high depressiveness and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes, nighttime and daytime, moonlight and sunlight, closed eyes and open.'
And so does that "dream-producing tool," the briefcase:
'[T]his, believe me, is a big step forward compared to the ordinary, old fashioned bed pillow.... No need even to trouble your head or close your eyes. Just tuck this thing under your arm, and you-while standing up with your eyes wide open in broad daylight-will sink into the deepest sleep.... Everything will swell up: your liver with ambition, and eventually your brain too will balloon: its convolutions and creases will become smooth and free of'
As befits a poet, which was his claim, Krzhizhanovsky prefers to dissolve rather than conclude his stories. On average, he does this by placing the fate of his protagonists in abeyance or by using a resonant non-sequitur to advance rather than curtail the mystery. It was predilections like these that put him at odds with literary gatekeepers of his time. But for all of the arrows directed at benightedness in its various guises, Memories of the Future is not a dour book; it is restorative. Even jaded connoisseurs of fiction may be jolted for the duration of these philosophic adventure tales whose pride, in their own un-timeliness, intersects with an ideal expressed by Deleuze and Guattari in their study, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature: "to stake out the path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone..." That's as good a description as any of Krzhizhanovsky's literary skylarking." - Christopher Byrd
"This is one of those books that must drive a certain B&N buyer (and a dozen sales reps) absolutely insane. All the book world prejudices come into play: 1) short story collections don’t sell, 2) dead authors don’t sell, 3) who gives a shit about Soviet Russia?, 4) could be cross-shelved in either sci-fi or literature, and 5) how do you pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky”? (The last one is actually serious... Can anyone give me a phonetic? Marian? Anyone?)
To be completely honest, I was only able to read a few stories from this before it was selected to the longlist. But after finishing it last night, I’m extremely glad that it made the cut and that I had the chance to fall into Krzhizhanovsky’s meta-fictional, Borgesian sort of world.
According to the bio info in the book, it sounds like Sigizmund lived a pretty interesting life . . . Born in 1887, he died in 1950 and it wasn’t until 1989 that a collection of his fictions could be published. The censors killed the first few possible publications since his writings didn’t portray the new Soviet state “in a positive light” and then WWII got in the way.
Although the pieces are quite as avant as Kharms, the strange sense of humor and the self-reflexiveness of the book remind me of the OBERIU. With a little bit of Calvino thrown in for good measure.
The book opens with a surreal story named “Quadraturin” after a strange substance that you can apply to the walls, floor, and ceiling of your apartment to make it bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Until the vastness of the apartment is much more problematic than its original confined nature.
“The Bookmark” further evidences Krzhizhanovsky’s obsession with the impossible or surreal—this story includes a bit with a guy telling a story about how the Eiffel Tower just gets up and walks away—but also introduces a metafictional element that really caught my imagination and runs through a number of the other stories:
“You see,” the sharp-featured man burst out. “It hooked you. How? You haven’t read it?” he glanced back over his shoulder. “No? Well then. The idea: to debunk all the bunk of which life is made. The plot: a writer, at work on a novel, discovers a character missing. The character has slipped out from under his pen. Work comes to a halt. One day, the writer happens to look in on a literary reading and is stunned to find himself face-to-face with his character. The character tries to run out the door. But the writer—I think this is how it goes—grabs him by the shoulder and elbow, like this, and says: ‘Listen, just between us, you’re not a person, you’re a . . . ‘ They end by agreeing not to spoil things for each other anymore and to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their common cause: the novel. The author introduces his character to an individual essential to the plot’s development. This individual then introduces the character to a charming woman with whom he falls head over heels in love. The remaining chapters of this novel withing a novel quickly begin to go awry and askew, like lines typed on a sheet that has popped out from under the bar. The author, upon receiving no new material from his love-besotted character, insists he break with the woman. The character tries to dodge, to play for time. At his wits’ end, the author demands (this over the telephone) immediate submission to his pen or else . . . But the character simply hangs up. The End.”
Granted, this sort of meta-twist might have been ballsy in 1927, but in today’s meta-infested world, fictional games like this are only as interesting as the uniqueness of the ideas they convey. Like this lengthy speech that the eccentric idea-man Saul Straight gives in “Someone Else’s Theme” when talking to a book critic:
“Didn’t one of your confrers, the most outspoken of them, I’m thinking of Hennequin, wasn’t he so incautious as to admit that ‘a work of fiction affects only those whom it portrays’? Open La Critique scientifique: that’s literally what it says. But a work of fiction recounts the life of its characters. If one were to allow a character into life without a ticket, so to speak, if one were to give him the bookcase key and the right to knock on existence’s door, then that character would be forced during his sojourn among us—about this there can be no doubt—to devote himself to criticism, and criticism alone. Why? Simply because he of us all is the one most concerned with his own fate, because he must hid his nonexistence, a nonexistence that, you must agree, is more inconvenient even than being of noble birth. And so a creature less real than the ink with which he writes takes up self-criticism in a desperate attempt to prove his alibi with respect to the book: I was never there, he says, I was an artistic failure, the author couldn’t make readers believe in me as a type in there, in the book, because I’m not a type and not in the book, rather I, like all of you, dear readers, am out here among you, this side of the bookcase door, and I write books myself, real books, like a real person. True, when the critic is making a fair copy of this tirade, he always changes ‘I’ to ‘we’ (‘As we wrote in our article’—‘We are glad to report’): all this is perfectly natural and explainable—a creature with a poor sense of identity had best avoid the first-person singular. At any rate, the characters populating books, like us, the people populating our planet, are either believers or atheists. Clearly. What I’m trying to say,” Straight wen on excitedly (the critic couldn’t get a word in), “is that not all characters turn into critics (if that were to happen, we’d all be done for!). No, the ones who become critics are the ones who deny their author’s existence—they’re the book’s atheists. They don’t wish to be invented by some inventor and so take revenge the only way they know how: by trying to prove that it’s not the author who invents the characters, it’s the characters who invent the author. You’ll say I stole that from Feuerbach: I don’t deny the critic’s erudition, I only deny his existence.”
These kind of cerebral games can be traced throughout the stories in this book, but rather than go on and on, I’d rather point out that the title story (or more of a novella), “Memories of the Future” is absolutely brilliant. And reading it when I did, it played right into my current Lost obsession. Basically it’s the story of a young boy who decides he wants to make a “timecutter” so that he can skip ahead into the future . . . or go into the past. He’s a Faraday-like character, and his ideas about the “shape of time” and the idea of making time “dance in a circle” are great, but so is this bit about time and essence (last long quote, I promise):
'A quarter of an hour after the first aphorism an outside observer might have acquainted himself with the theory of time’s cuts as set forth in the batting eyes of the lady from across the river.
As applied to love, the theory went like this: memory, “unrolling its long scroll,” may, like a reel of film, be edited. One may cut bits out of both time and the reel and dispense with the longueurs. Thus if one were to make cuts between a woman’s first meetign with her first lover and her first meeting with her second, her third, and so on, that is, if one were to leave what was purest, most sincere, and deeply embedded in memory, the film reel onto which we had transposed this series of spliced-together first meetings would show us the woman—with the speed of a roulette ball skipping from number to number—whirling from embrace to embrace and aging before our eyes. To a lawyer, of course, this would recall the article in the Criminal Code dealing with mass violence. Try editing the superfluous out of anything at all, leaving only what is essential, and you’ll see that it won’t be to your . . .'
Overall, and simply put, this book kicks ass and if you like anything above, run out and buy it immediately." - Three Percent
"There was probably no worse time and place to be a postmodernist sage than in 1920s Russia. Still, bibliophiles like to believe that genius makes itself known, regardless of social pressures, and in the case of Ukraine-born Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, they may have a point - only it took about six decades for anyone else to catch on.
Krzhizhanovsky wrote the seven mad -- albeit, magisterially controlled - stories of "Memories of the Future" in Moscow between 1925 and 1930. To say they were suppressed is to suggest they were given much of a chance at all; rather, six of these crypto-gems were essentially binned until 1989, when they finally escaped the vast hold of the Soviet Central State Archives, with another story discovered quite by accident in Kiev in 2005. It's not that Krzhizhanovsky's tales espouse a violent political radicalism or even the kind of art-house writing that went against the nationalist creations preferred by the Bolsheviks. Instead, what one immediately denotes in most of these pieces is a stately, demurring sadness, nostalgia crossed with brave, futurist dreams and the dual threat/relief of the cemetery plot.
These were discomfiting notions in a Russia that was in the practice of trading in happier maxims. Conversely, Krzhizhanovsky's characters spend a lot of time walking through grave sites, ruminating, chatting, networking, clapping each other on the back over the latest, wistful gallows joke. It's as though they all worked together to dislocate traditional meanings from traditional concepts of place, fostering new worlds in the process, which probably wasn't a bad idea if you were a master prose stylist who couldn't get anyone to run your work and you wanted a new way of looking at the world.
Despite his limited publishing options, Krzhizhanovsky came to embrace Moscow with the same zeal that Chekhov had for the steppe and the peasant fire, and the settings themselves become characters in his fictions. "The Bookmark" begins by apostrophizing the titular noun: This particular bookmark, it seems, has lacked a good book in which to be burrowed. In search of a solution, its owner heads out on a walk, wondering what book he might offer his place-holding friend, and encounters a failed writer whom he bills as the "theme catcher." Catching sight of a mangy cat or a blowing fragment of birch bark, he eases into improvised narrative: The tom meets a tragic end, the fragment changes a political career, as observation gives life to full stories. All the while, the sights and sounds of Moscow drive the direction of the narrative, an evocation of the metropolis as its own living, organic, intensely human creation.
For all the cemetery meanderings - and they're key to "The Bookmark" - Krzhizhanovsky is also hilarious, and one wonders whether that might have troubled the Bolsheviks as much as anything in his work. Krzhizhanovsky understood the potency of juxtaposing wit with terror and the sacred with the profane. He's what one might call a "life writer" -- stories such as "Red Snow" and "Memories of the Future" teem with it, the human essence in all its contradictions and permutations, a big spongy mass. Formal precision is a hallmark of these pieces, but you'll not encounter anything arch or, as we might say today, uptight, in a Krzhizhanovsky story. It's a treat to hang out with Max Shterer from "Future." Put off by H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine," Max decides to have a go himself with the whole time-space manipulation business. Not only does he invent a device to rend time - behold, the "timecutter" - but he also hits upon the idea of selling a book of his travels through the temporal continuum. A real-life nonfiction book -- an interesting goal for a sci-fi hero fond of making metaphors about the Soviet political state. A publisher is less than thrilled:
"Facts, facts! Who's seen them, these facts of yours? Where, I ask you, is the witness who will come forward and corroborate them?
"He's coming. Or don't you hear him? I mean the actual future."
Never mind what this being/fellow looks like or how he sounds -- it's a good bit of musical language, an ominous, open-ended chord that refuses to resolve and simply rings on.
"The Branch Line" and "Thirteenth Category of Reason" are more opaque. There's less outright mirth, and their truths are oblique, whispers couched in whispers. As a passing stranger remarks in "The Branch Line": "Understanding is strictly forbidden. Even dreams have the right to dream. Isn't that so? Now go away."
The opening story, "Quadraturin," is its own hell-born, absurdist dream - a dream come to life in an 86-foot-square room that grows, maw-like, with the application of a magic, experimental paste. Sutulin, the room's tenant, is eventually swallowed whole by his home, or is at least lost within it. As his four squat walls continue to expand, Sutulin's own external existence diminishes. He meets a former lover on the street and resists her advances. "My place... isn't fit," he tells her. The bulging room that bulges only on its inside - a Doctor Who-type trick - now mirrors a priapic issue, all of which is a metaphor for the futility of Bolshevik-sanctioned "art." Not exactly shocking, then, that Krzhizhanovsky couldn't get a publisher in Stalinist Russia. Good thing the future eventually bailed out the past on this one." - Colin Fleming
"Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is a writer even most Russians knew nothing about until his work was resurrected from Soviet archives and published - most of it for the first time - in the late 1980s. He was ethnically Polish and grew up near Kiev. He studied law without much enthusiasm, worked for an attorney in that city for a few years and spent as much time as he could writing and lecturing on literature, drama and music. In 1922, when he was in his mid-30s, he moved to Moscow hoping to make a living from his writing.
His timing was not auspicious. Krzhizhanovsky became acquainted with other Moscow writers, gave private readings of his work and collaborated on scripts with experimental theater director Alexander Tairov. But publication eluded him. In the story "The Bookmark," he describes the situation of a writer who has arrived in Moscow just after the revolution with a collection of stories he's eager to publish. One editor after another rejects his manuscript: the style and subject do not fit with the new Soviet ways of thinking. "On one manuscript," the writer recalls, "I remember finding the penciled comment: Psychologizing." Another editor tells him:
You have talent.... [But] your stories are, well, how shall I put it? Untimely. Put them away - let them wait. In the meantime.... Have you ever tried writing criticism? A reappraisal, say, of reappraisals? You know what I mean. Do try.
Krzhizhanovsky did try, scratching out a living for decades writing criticism and entries for the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Friends helped him to obtain sinecures so that he would not be in danger of arrest for being unemployed. Some of his stories came close to being published in collections that were censored before they went to press. Many stories - including the seven in Memories of the Future, available for the first time in the United States - he never even showed to publishers. It's not hard to see why. His stories depict, with remarkable frankness - and with a mix of surrealism, fantasy and satire, all of which were falling out of favor with the Communist Party - the poverty and political repression of 1920s Russia.
The subject of the story "Quadraturin" is a Soviet city dweller, Sutulin, who lives in an apartment so tiny that when he hears a knock on his door one evening, he doesn't need to get out of bed to open it: he merely "threaded a toe through the door handle, and pulled." The stranger at the door persuades Sutulin to take a free sample of an experimental substance that is supposed to make rooms bigger. Sutulin begins to apply the Quadraturin to his walls as the instructions on the tube advise, but he accidentally spills the entire contents of the tube on his floor. He wakes up the next morning in a "faintly familiar, large, but ungainly room," where his furniture looks awkward and the angles of the walls are uneven. He enjoys the novel pleasure of strolling from one end of his room to the other, but he must enjoy it in secret, for like other citizens he is legally allotted only ninety-seven square feet of living space, and owning more than his share could mean losing his apartment. Sutulin is, like Akaky Akakievich, Raskolnikov and Joseph K, a bachelor whose quarters contain a secret - something at least obscurely embarrassing, perhaps criminal. As usual, there is a talkative landlady and neighbors to be avoided. Sutulin realizes he has to buy curtains to hide his apartment from the eyes of passers-by.
It only gets worse from there: every time Sutulin leaves the room, he returns to find that his apartment has grown still bigger. He realizes that he forgot to apply Quadraturin to the ceiling, so his apartment is only growing outward, not upward, the dimensions increasingly oppressive even as the room becomes larger. It outgrows its electric circuitry and Sutulin is trapped in the darkness. "He knew that there, behind his back, the dead, Quadraturinized space with its black corners was still spreading."
The scenario is a nightmare familiar to the Russian imagination: a vast expanse of space, terrifying in scope, its limits invisible, its territory inhospitable. And this is Sutulin's punishment for having wanted to escape the other Russian nightmare, the squalor of cramped urban quarters. "Quadraturin" is the story most obviously indebted to Gogol in this collection, Sutulin's apartment evoking both the windy square where Akakievich loses his prized possession in "The Overcoat" and the sprawling country itself that Gogol apostrophizes at the end of part one of Dead Souls. Its dark, expressionistic Moscow settings and flashes of paranoid humor also owe something to the Russian symbolists, in particular to Andrei Bely's novel Petersburg.
But "Quadraturin" is not particularly representative of the collection--no single story is. Krzhizhanovsky tried out different tones, framing devices and surreal and fantastical juxtapositions, many of which Western readers would later know better through his near-contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov, as well as Kafka, Borges and the French Surrealists. (According to translator Joanne Turnbull's introduction, Krzhizhanovsky did not read Kafka until 1939, and was "very surprised.") Krzhizhanovsky called his own work "experimental realism," and the second word applies as much as the first: his are not the experiments of the Russian futurists. Krzhizhanovsky is not interested in picking apart the sense-making mechanisms of language that readers take for granted. Instead he is feeling out ways of conveying both the quotidian dreariness and the horrifying threat of violence of 1920s Soviet life. The difficulties of adjusting to Soviet society was a recurring subject among writers on the left through much of the 1920s, and some of them - including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Evgeny Zamyatin and Yuri Olesha - produced scathing depictions of smug party hacks and their attempts to regiment most aspects of daily life. But Krzhizhanovsky's pessimism about Soviet life seems to run deeper than theirs, unchecked by any hint of communist ideals.
Sutulin's name presumably comes from the word sutuliy, which means slouched - a posture that Krzhizhanovsky's Soviet citizens have much reason and opportunity to assume. In the story "Red Snow" (1930) a Moscow bachelor, Shushashin, begins every day with an unusual exercise regimen: "he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that's all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live." Shushashin is unemployed and spends part of his day following fruitless job leads, then idly wanders the streets. On his walks through the fog-shrouded city, he overhears his fellow citizens' guarded discussions of the new political and economic realities of the country. One man says to another, "Oh, dear sir, from your apartment you say.... But I've been evicted from my own head." Shushashin sits down on a bench where, at the other end, a couple abruptly stop talking, then resume their conversation in murmurs. "Haven't you noticed how in the last few years our life has been permeated by nonexistence?" the man asks his companion. "We're still immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long since been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others."
Shushashin is no eavesdropper - he does not want to hear these conversations and even fears looking the interlocutors in the eye, such is his general meekness and sense of unease. But there are people everywhere, looming suddenly out of the fog before he can avoid them, and he helplessly catches bits of their dialogue. A man is telling a story to two friends: "So then, he was nearing his building.... It was late at night and all the windows were dark, but in his a light was burning. You know why. And whether he went up or he didn't: either way he was done for." The possibility of a light at his own window - that is, a visit from the secret police - haunts Shushashin as he hurries home. To his relief, "his window was dark." But in his own bed, in his "almost restful" room in a noisy communal apartment, his actual nightmare begins: he dreams of terrifying encounters in the streets of a familiar but darker Moscow:
'Facing him was a man of an exceedingly peaceable, if slightly hunched appearance: having set his briefcase down beside his left overshoe, he took hold of his head and began--using the even, circular motion one does with an electric light bulb--to unscrew it from his collar. Shushashin tried to glimpse the hunched man's face, but his head flipped so fast--nose-nape-nose-nape--it couldn't be apperceived. Twist, one more twist, and the hunched man's hand was holding out his head to the shocked Shushashin, exactly as a beggar does his wooden bowl for a well-meaning coin.'
During the day, Shushashin's fellow Muscovites dare only to speak elliptically about the arrests and denunciations that are multiplying around them. At night he dreams grotesque fantasies through which he seems to apprehend the violence of the postrevolutionary state. History gets revised, ideological ground shifts, people disappear, facts are elusive and no one can attempt to talk or write directly about what's happening. Only the illogic of dreams can adequately convey the experience of Soviet life, and Krzhizhanovsky's characters do a lot of dreaming.
In "The Branch Line," a commuter named Quantin falls asleep on a train, using his briefcase as a pillow. He dreams that the train has dropped him off in an otherworldly city where he sees crowds of people marching with placards (Glory to the Unwakeable). Quantin stumbles into an auditorium where a speaker is exhorting "the kingdom of dreams" to revolt against reality.
'Reality since Pascal's time has lost much of its constancy and invariability, events of recent years are rocking it, the way the waves do a boat; nearly every day the morning papers give waking up a new reality, whereas dreams.... Haven't we hoodwinked humanity with that sweet million-brain dream of brotherhood, a united dream about unity?... We'll break the backs of facts.'
Krzhizhanovsky realizes that the Soviet revolution not only overturned government, economic and social status, religious practice and traditional means of employment; it was an assault on one's very perception of reality. The rules of logic might be violated by the press, the most obvious lies passed off as truths. But the extent of this assault became clear, for Krzhizhanovsky and most Russians, only in retrospect, years after the revolution, as Stalin expanded the list of forbidden subjects while publishing ever more false denunciations and revisionist interpretations of the recent past.
The longest piece in this collection, a sort of science fiction novella called "Memories of the Future," is suffused with regret, in hindsight, about the events of 1917. Its hero, Max Shterer, born before the revolution to a provincial landowning family, spends decades developing a time travel machine. Cataclysmic political events are little more to Shterer than obstacles to his time travel plans. He's nearly finished building the device when he gets drafted into the war. He takes the first opportunity to be captured and gives "himself up to the Germans for safe-keeping": this gives him ample time to think about his machine while pacing the grounds of the prison camp, and protects him from premature death by a bullet before he can carry out his scheme.
Meanwhile, back in Russia, the Bolsheviks stage a coup. For Shterer, this is a nuisance: he can't collect the inheritance his father recently left him, which Shterer planned to invest in his machine. When he returns to Russia from the German prison, his country's poverty and chaos register merely as further impediments to his work. Shterer finally gets money to complete his machine when he pitches his invention to some formerly rich Muscovites desperate to get back to prerevolutionary years. "To at least 1861, or ten years before that," requests a former czarist general, referring to the year that serfs were freed. Shterer takes the last of their money and finishes his machine, but the white Russians never get a return on their investment. Shterer takes the maiden - and only - voyage alone.
He makes it all the way to 1957, but what exactly he sees there Krzhizhanovsky pointedly leaves out of the story. All we know is that Shterer sees something shockingly bleak. Something that makes him reflect, for the first time, about the events of the past. He turns his time machine around and heads back toward the years of revolution and civil war--years that he paid so little attention to when he was living through them. On his way to the past, however, his machine is destroyed, and he finds himself deposited back in the late 1920s, not long after he originally departed. He returns to his own era to walk the streets of Moscow in a daze, wandering toward a bench where a prostitute is sitting. She assumes--incorrectly--that "the approaching male shape" must be a potential customer.
"From out of town?"
The figure nodded. The woman whistled....
"What do you want from Moscow? The good old days?"
The figure turned toward the question.
"Yes." And after a second's pause: "The good old years. Since I didn't understand, I'll have to go through them again and again until..."
The man's voice and intonation were exceedingly serious and intent. The woman peered at him uneasily: could be a lunatic.
A slight wind came up. In an effort to redirect the conversation, she said, "The night's nearly gone."
The man, his outline becoming gradually clearer in the half-light, leaned lower to the ground.
"I know a night about which you could never say that."
This bore little resemblance to an offer to go to bed.
The novella's mix of science and satire takes unusual form. Like the hero of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, Shterer narrates his experience of time travel to a group of rapt fellow intellectuals; he lingers on the mechanics of his machine but unlike Wells's hero doesn't actually get around to telling his listeners about what he's seen in the future. Krzhizhanovsky, an admirer of Wells, seems curiously uninterested in using the premise of time travel to imagine the world of the future. The novella is clearly not the kind of Russian utopian science fiction that was popular in the years before and just after the revolution, when leftist writers like the Bolshevik revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov, the author of Red Star (1908), projected their ideal of a technologically advanced communist society into the distant future. But neither is it a futuristic satire in the vein of Zamyatin's We. Krzhizhanovsky does not intend "Memories of the Future" as a corrective to the problems he observes in Bolshevik society; there are no satirical extrapolations from the present, no details about what exactly awaits his countrymen. It is an expression of pure pessimism that suggests correctives are useless.
The story is dated 1929, by which time Krzhizhanovsky, along with most other writers, would have had intimations of the unprecedented brutality and philistinism of Stalin's reign, even if the show trials and terror were still to come. Until the end of the 1920s there was a good deal of literary ferment among writers on the left. These writers could still openly argue with one another over how - if at all - they should be serving the socialist state, and they debated both how to write (realism? fantasy? abstraction?) and how to live (like a regimented factory worker or a nineteenth-century bohemian?). But at the end of the decade new party directives swiftly changed literary culture. The range of permissible art forms narrowed to the kind of conservative, ideologically driven parables that would later be called socialist realism; the great Modernist experiments of the revolutionary era came to an end. The militant writers' union RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) harassed, fired and censored anyone whose writing was experimental or satirical or frank about Soviet society. In 1929 RAPP declared the new Five Year Plan the only acceptable subject for writers.
Krzhizhanovsky's stories are full of metaphorical reminders of the silence imposed on writers and artists. Shterer is befriended by a writer in his building who persuades him to write a memoir about his time travels to earn money for the materials he needs to rebuild the machine. But an astounded publisher tells Shterer he can't possibly publish this dark vision--it would at the very least cost him his job. Nonetheless, the manuscript takes on a life of its own, secretly copied and circulated, presumably with the assistance of the publisher himself. People start whispering about it; it has admirers but also, apparently, critics. Not long after the meeting with the publisher, Shterer disappears. His neighbor goes to look for him one morning only to find that Shterer's tiny apartment--which had been made out of a closet - has been put to another purpose: "the entire under-stairs closet, right up to the ceiling, was stacked with sticks of stovewood; pressed snugly together, their flat ends protruded from the throat of the cage like a tight damp gag."
Krzhizhanovsky knew his stories and his associations with prominent Moscow writers put him in a precarious position; he hid his work at the houses of friends during the terror in the hope of preserving it should he get arrested. Some of his acquaintances were arrested and killed. Like some of the characters in his stories, he worried that he would come home to find the secret police in his apartment. The worry did not, however, keep him from writing through the 1930s. Perhaps he had a prescient sense of the arbitrary nature of the purges. If loyal Bolsheviks could get arrested and killed for no apparent reason, why not write critically about Soviet conditions? He stopped writing fiction in the early 1940s, possibly because he was drinking heavily and in poor health, though he continued to make a modest living from literary criticism and lectures until he died in 1950.
The fascination of Krzhizhanovsky's work today is also its limitation: the blatant criticism of the Soviet regime that makes itself felt, in different ways, in every one of the stories. Each is about a man and his private reckoning with the political, economic and social conditions of post-revolutionary Russia. There seems to be no room for any kind of struggle but the one between citizen and state. For Krzhizhanovsky's characters this struggle is silent and inward rather than confrontational, and the need for secrecy creates an atmosphere of intense loneliness and isolation. There is a kind of aridity in these stories when it comes to human relations. The family drama, friendship, love, marriage - none play any significant role. Sex is a little joke well out on the margins of life. As for the pointless humiliations of existence and the baser human impulses, these are, for Krzhizhanovsky, bound up with the new regime and culture, which, of course, offers no shortage of examples.
Turnbull writes in the introduction that a Soviet editor dismissed Krzhizhanovsky's work as "untimely," a common shorthand for fiction that was not politically correct. But of course Krzhizhanovsky's stories are exactly and deliberately timely: they observe the follies and cruelties of early Soviet life. Even knowing that they would not be published, Krzhizhanovsky continued to write his stories for the drawer (as the Soviet saying about dissident writing goes), hoping, presumably, that one day someone other than his friends and family would read them. From that drawer Krzhizhanovsky's work mutely skewered and censured the regime for fifty-some years. His stories are full of insight into official Soviet culture--insight that proved both prescient and useless. By the time his work was finally published in 1989, the millions who would be killed were already dead, and his countrymen needed no convincing about the corruption and violence of the Soviet state. " - Elaine Blair
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Seven Stories, Trans. by Joanne Turnbull (Glas, 2006)
"It's not hard to imagine Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as the 'theme catcher' in one of the stories included in this collection, The Bookmark. The theme catcher is a story-teller the narrator of the tale encounters, someone who simply can't stop his imagination and out of thin air and nothing throws forth story after story, finding the germ for yet another in any small detail or thought. The narrator first meets him when the theme catcher imagines 'The Tower Gone Mad', in which the Eiffel Tower... well, goes mad and stomps through Paris.
The world the theme catcher lives in - after the "lifequake" (the Russian Revolution) - isn't one where there is any room for his sort of creativity (or productivity), and in that his story closely mirrors Krzhizhanovsky's own. Krzhizhanovsky's collected works apparently amount to some 3000 pages, but almost none of it was published during his lifetime - because of a combination of terrible luck and a style that wasn't of the times. Finally, he gave up - but, as noted in the Introduction, "like the hero of 'The Bookmark' - gave away the 'themes' with which his imagination continued to fountain in casual conversation."
There's a tinge of bitterness to 'The Bookmark' as the theme catcher describes the many rejections he received for the stories he submitted for publication -- a too common writer's fate (aren't they all misunderstood ?) to really move any more. Still, it's hard not to sympathise with the obviously talented writer recounting the fate of his own work here -- and one imagines an editor really did tell him:
'You have talent. But you must put it into a pen, and the pen into your hand. Your stories are, well, how shall I put it ... untimely. Put them away - let them wait. In the meantime, a person able to cross things out would, most likely, suit us. Have you ever tried writing criticism ? A reappraisal, say, of reappraisals?'
What it comes down to is related in the last encounter between the narrator and the theme catcher:
"So there's no hope ?"
I hadn't gone more than a dozen paces when - through the noise and hubbub of the square - his voice overtook me:
"And even so !"
And one of the things that shows Krzhizhanovsky isn't just a natural storyteller, but rather a master of a craft is that that's not how he ends it, as many other writers would, but rather that he uses a framing device - of just the right dimensions - nestling the theme catcher's story there, and making it just that bit more poignant in how the narrator relates (and relates to) it.
'The Bookmark' shines - occasionally stunningly brightly - with that creative spirit, but too much of Krzhizhanovsky's personal hurt shimmers through for it to be entirely satisfactory; it's the other stories, the pure invention, that really impress.
Not untypical of the times - think Karel Capek - scientific innovation of fantastical extremes is at the centre of several of the stories. 'Yellow Coal' (written more than a decade after any of the other stories collected here, in 1939) imagines an alternative energy source in a world of global warming and depleted natural resources - and find it in human bile (a story in which Krzhizhanovsky perhaps tries too hard for a moral). A more amusing smaller effort is Quadraturin, set in the Soviet times when individuals were allotted at most nine square metres of living space (and a Re-measuring Commission was established that would go door to door making sure no one had excess space...). Sutulin's matchbox of a room is smaller than the legal limit - so small he can barely move around in it - but then he is offered a sample of Quadraturin, "an agent for biggerizing rooms". Coat the walls and the room expands - but Sutulin finds that along with all this new-found space there are unexpected consequences.
Another tale of the times is 'Autobiography of a Corpse', in which the journalist Shtamm comes to Moscow and looks for an apartment - and finds one where the previous tenant was a suicide. The 'autobiography' of the title is a suicide note of sorts, left behind for that next tenant (who turns out to be Shtamm), a fascinating exploration of death- (and life-) obsession. The corpse describes, for example, the official government publications listing the war-dead:
'Officially regulated, death began putting out its own periodical, which, like any well-organized publishing concern, appeared on schedule. It was the most succinct, businesslike and absorbing publication I had ever read: I am speaking of those white booklets, like fortnightlies, that provided a "complete list of the dead, wounded, and missing in action". At first glance, a death journal might seem dull: number - name - number - another name. But given a certain imagination, the dry, lapidary style of those booklets only intensified one's sense of the fantastic.'
And it is this that Krzhizhanovsky consistently does: touch that imagination, and intensify the sense of the fantastic (and since he starts off with considerably more than number - name - number - another name, readers are in for quite a ride). Ultimately, the stories are haunting, their various echoes - from the plot and structure to the stylistic details - resonating long after the book has been closed.
The corpse adds:
'I maintain that people with a numb sensorium, with an almost corpse-like ossification of the psyche, can no longer live themselves. But they can be lived. Why not?'
It's the sort of imaginative leap - the possibility of 'living' another (which the reading experience, at its best, offers) - that Krzhizhanovsky repeatedly makes.
In 'In the Pupil' the narrator sees himself - or rather: "my miniature likeness" - in his beloved's eye - and then gets the whole story from the little creature (who turns out to be surprisingly real - and not the only one stuck in there), a conceit that Krzhizhanovsky pulls off with surprising ease.
'The Runaway Fingers' offers a pianist's hand on the loose, briefly asserting its independence and exploring the world on its own (though not quite going to the extremes of the Michael Caine schlock vehicle, The Hand).
Krzhizhanovsky was also interested in philosophy (not surprisingly, Max Stirner crops up repeatedly) and 'The Unbitten Elbow' is the most philosophically-playful of the stories, focussed on a man who responds to the question: "Goal in Life" in a magazine questionnaire with: "To bite my elbow." It's this physically impossible undertaking that pre-occupies him. The magazine thinks there might be a story in it, and there is. It's just a small one, but then strikes a chord and many fancies and suddenly elbowism is all the rage. First hired as a performing freak - a circus act of Elbow vs. Man. Will he or won't he bite it ? Three 2-minute rounds. - his relentless effort is soon something a whole nation is fascinated by. Others take to the idea; the book Elbowism: Premises and Deductions goes through 43 editions in its first year, for example. Even the state takes a stake in the elbow-fanatic's obsession...
The theme catcher of The Bookmark was advised that his books were "untimely", and that he should: "Put them away - let them wait." It's hard to imagine Krzhizhanovsky's stories were ever untimely, but they were put away, for a long time. But the wait has done them no harm; there's barely any dust to blow off here. Even on the basis of such a small sampling of his work as these Seven Stories, there's no question that Krzhizhanovsky is a major (re)discovery.
These seven stories show some wonderful flights of the imagination, but it's the confident, easy style that set them apart. Here a natural storyteller, striking intellect, and deeply creative soul are found all in one - a rare combination. Joanne Turnbull's translation also reads exceptionally well.
Here is the rare author where we would immediately purchase any other available work of his; sadly, this is the only English translation of his writing currently available.
Well worthwhile." - The Complete Review