Reviewed by Karen Langley
Soviet Russia’s Best-Kept Literary Secret
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky could accurately be described as the lost writer of Russia’s Soviet era. Born in the Ukraine in 1887, after attending Kiev University he held down a variety of jobs and eventually moved to Moscow in 1922. He’d made a name for himself in the literary world through his lectures on theatre and music, and wrote steadily from his small room in the Arbat. However, despite managing to have some pieces placed in periodicals, he was never able to see a collection of his work in book form.
Although many writers struggled to make their voice heard against state and censor, Krzhizhanovsky lost the fight – three attempts were crushed by the censor, and the fourth was defeated by the Second World War. He died in 1950 and it was not until 1976 that his archive (kept safe by his partner, actress Anna Bovshek) was discovered by Vadim Perelmuter, poet and literary historian. It was through Perelmuter’s efforts, and after the fall of the Soviet union, that Krzhizhanovsky ‘s work finally gained the recognition it deserved. Gradually, his work became known in the west, when translations of several of his stories by Joanne Turnbull were published in a special issue of Glas magazine in 2006. Since then, NYRB have published three collections of his work – Memories of the Future, The Letter Killers Club and this latest volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. (Although this collection isn’t strictly speaking a reprint, it also doesn’t seem to fit under the heading of ‘new fiction’, so the Shiny New Books editors hope you’ll excuse its presence in this section!)
Having loved the previous volumes, I was eager to read the new one, hoping it would live up to the earlier collections. Autobiography of a Corpse contains 11 pieces: the title story plus “In The Pupil”, “The Runaway Fingers”, “Yellow Coal”, “The Unbitten Elbow”, “Seams”, “The Collector of Cracks”, “The Land of Nots”, “Bridge over the Styx”, “Thirty Pieces of Silver” and “Postmark: Moscow”. Each story is individual, the subjects ranging from slighter, more Gothic tales (“The Runaway Fingers”, where a concert pianist’s fingers detach themselves and run off for a night on their own), to the deeper, more thought-provoking fables (“The Yellow Coal”, a story of how the human race, having exhausted the earth’s natural resources, finds an unexpected source of power).
But there is a consistent narrative theme here, and most of these stories are deeply symbolic. In fact, symbols are one of the most important things in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories; so often objects and concepts take on an independent life of their own: a pair of spectacles is a glassy creature with wiry legs; a man’s reflection in a pupil becomes a real, miniature version of himself; the letter T and so on. This makes the stories a joy to read, and they have an unexpected playfulness at times, but always a serious intent.
Come dusk the bustling “T” would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark, whilst I, so as not to disturb it, would pace from corner to corner in the dark. And every time, I distinctly heard my soul – with a high thin tinkle, drop by drop, – dissolving in the emptiness. The drops were rhythmic and ringing, they had that same familiar glassy sound. This may have been a pseudo-hallucination, I don’t know; It’s all the same to me. But at the time I gave this phenomenon a special name: psychorrhea. Meaning “soul seepage”.
Krzhizhanovsky’s characters are marginalized (in the ‘cracks’ or ‘seams’), dissociated from reality in a way that makes them feel unalive – an obvious allegory for the state of the citizen under Soviet rule. The shifting perspectives of the stories allow us to look at humanity from the outside, in a way that is often illuminating. They play with our perceptions of the world around us in such a way that ordinary, everyday life will never seem the same again. Running through all of Krzhizhanovsky ‘s work is a sense of detachment, isolation: from life, love, reality. Whether this is a necessary consequence of the sensitive individual surviving under the Soviet regime is a matter of debate, but it certainly seems to me to be a result of the constant daily strain that must have been felt by Russian writers in the 20th century.
Comparisons have been made with other writers, and the obvious Russian voice is that of Platonov, similarly ignored during most of his writing career, and similarly obsessed with Moscow. There are hints of Poe, Kafka and Borges, certainly; but Krzhizhanovsky has an individual voice all of his own which is instantly recognisable (probably helped by consistency in translation – the excellent Joanne Turnbull has been behind all of the English versions). His is the kind of elliptical storytelling in which Soviet writers so excel, where because of the restrictions and fear of reprisals, no tale could be approached head-on. Instead, there had to be hints, allusions, allegories – anything to sneak past the less intelligent censor to reach the thinking audience.
And the stories are certainly wonderfully imaginative and fantastic – the title story tells of a man arriving in Moscow, being allocated a tiny room, and then being absorbed by the previous owner’s story; “The Unbitten Elbow” is a satirical tale of a strange individual on a quest to bite his own elbow, and how (in a very modern way) this takes over the media and the public, becoming almost a religion or a political crusade; “Yellow Coal” foreshadows many modern ecological concerns and also says much about the human condition; “Seams” is the story of a starving, unpublished writer walking the city streets, excluded and invisible because of his poverty; “Postmark: Moscow” takes the form of letters from the city to an acquaintance, outlining the writer’s discovery of that great capital and much more. His imagery is dazzling and inventive; the stories are entertaining and very, very thought-provoking – and also poignant in places.
The revolution crashed down like lightning… In an instant, all thresholds had been removed – not only from rooms, cells and studies but also from consciousnesses. Words one had thought forever crushed by the censors’ pencils, shrunk and shunted into breviers and nonpareils, suddenly revived, and began waving and calling from red flags and banners. Having suddenly overcome my own threshold, I too crept out to meet the banners and crowds. Whatif had managed to convince even me. Not for long, but still.
Despite his frustration at lack of recognition, in some ways it might be seen as having been better for him that his work was uncollected during his lifetime, as it allowed him to slip under the radar and keep writing. The shadow worlds inhabited by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s characters seem to reflect his own discreet path through life, unpublished and in the margins. The fact that his work survived and has now made it out into the wider world is a great blessing for all readers who love individual, quirky, imaginative and thought-provoking writing.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is determined one to day to actually visit Russia!
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse (NYRB Classics: New York, 2014). 978-1590176702, 230pp, paperback.