8 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Simon Collinson on Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov), and published by New York Review Books.

Simon is a bookseller and freelance reviewer based in Adelaide, Australia, and has written reviews various outlets, including the Australian Book Review.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky—in addition to having one of the coolest and most Z-heavy names I’ve ever seen—and his Autobiography have been hitting a lot of the right button’s lately: in June, it was announced that Autobiography of a Corpse won the 2014 Read Russia Prize, and just a few weeks ago it was announced that the book won the 2014 PEN Translation Prize. Congratulations again to everyone involved! And for everyone else . . . what more recommendation could you really need?

Here’s the beginning of Simon’s review:

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that might’ve been found in commonplace books: they had become eccentrics, weirdos, freaks. This was a transformation Russell’s readers might have felt privileged to witness. Then again, they might have been horrified.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky has done something similar with ideas, both those belonging to Russell’s eccentrics and those roaming about in other fields. Written between 1922 and 1939, the short stories collected in Autobiography of a Corpse wriggle into the liminal spaces between fiction, reality, and the world of ideas: in fact, there’s even a story called “The Collector of Cracks.”

Krzhizhanovsky is fundamentally concerned with how fiction and reality influence each other, and even though his work might reference a who’s who of modern and classical philosophy—Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza, Fichte, Berkeley—he’s anything but convinced of their ideas’ verity.

For the rest of the review, go here.

8 August 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

One of the greatest services—or disservices, depending on your viewpoint—Bertrand Russell ever performed for popular philosophy was humanizing its biggest thinkers in his History. No longer were they Platonic ideals, the clean-shaven exemplars of the kind of homely truisms that might’ve been found in commonplace books: they had become eccentrics, weirdos, freaks. This was a transformation Russell’s readers might have felt privileged to witness. Then again, they might have been horrified.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky has done something similar with ideas, both those belonging to Russell’s eccentrics and those roaming about in other fields. Written between 1922 and 1939, the short stories collected in Autobiography of a Corpse wriggle into the liminal spaces between fiction, reality, and the world of ideas: in fact, there’s even a story called “The Collector of Cracks.”

Krzhizhanovsky is fundamentally concerned with how fiction and reality influence each other, and even though his work might reference a who’s who of modern and classical philosophy—Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza, Fichte, Berkeley—he’s anything but convinced of their ideas’ verity. Indeed, this is the only work of fiction I’ve ever read which plays with the possibilities inherent in Leibniz’s utterly crazy idea of “windowless monads”:

Leibniz . . . could see only a world of discrete monads, of ontological solitudes, none of which has windows. If one tries to be more optimistic than the optimist and avow that souls have windows and the ability to open them, then those windows and that ability will turn out to be nailed shut and boarded up, as in an abandoned house. People-monads, too, have a bad name: They are full of ghosts. The most frightening of these is man.

“People-monads”! As any reader of this blog would know, Russian literature is thick with them. Krzhizhanovsky won’t be outdone in the alienation/existential horror department, either:

Man is to man a wolf. No, that’s not true, that’s sentimental, lighthearted. No, man is to man a ghost. Only. That’s more exact. To sink one’s teeth into another man’s throat is at least to believe, and that’s what counts, in another man’s blood.

Thankfully, though, even when he confronts us with these unpalatable truths Krzhizhanovsky doesn’t go for the arid humourlessness of a Sartre or a Nietzsche. There’s a dry comedy running through his work, a sensibility which dares to mock not only Soviet shibboleths, but bureaucracy, religion, and the art world. Another story traces the media frenzy and subsequent national preoccupation which develops, almost by chance, around a man attempting to bite his own elbow.

At times, Krzhizhanovsky’s foresight is chilling. “Yellow Coal,” the bitterest of the stories, and the last to be written, in 1939, depicts a society engineered to sustain itself on spite alone. This is a world in which an earnest ethnographer publishes a “Classification of Interethnic Hatreds, a two-volume work asserting that humanity should be split into the smallest possible ethnicities so as to produce the maximum ‘kinetic spite’”: a confection so eerily prescient that it’s hard to find it funny.

Krzhizhanovsky’s commentary on the Russian Orthodox Church, too, is a little more serious—even while he explores elsewhere what might’ve happened to Judas’s thirty pieces of silver after they left his hands:

Through the centuries, without respite, the kopeck candle did its work: A fire would begin to smolder in some small chapel, by an icon stand, then creep down passages, up into rafters, from shed to shed, hurling firebrands from roof to roof; its flaming tongues would leap over the Kremlin’s stone walls, slither up to the tent roofs of towers and belfries, and send bells crashing down amid the growing clamor of crowds and tocsins. And then cooling ashes and another ant-like building frenzy for five or six years. Because in five or six years the kopeck candle would again set to work.

It would be a mistake, though, to read this collection as just a set of reflections on a particular period in Russian history, or a tongue-in-cheek exploration of some arcane philosophies, or an indictment of the church. It’s first and foremost a fictional exercise of the highest order: one just as real, and just as delightful, as the best of Borges.

In true Borgesian fashion, when the stock of philosophy starts to thin, Krzhizhanovsky adds a few lashings of folk tales: a set of fingers which detach themselves from their pianist and spend a day wandering the streets of Moscow, or a conversation between a woman’s lovers’ Lilliputian counterparts about the form to be filled out by new arrivals—all of whom live together inside her eye.

This lunatic mode wouldn’t work nearly so well without Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov’s supple translation, which manages to convey a vivid sense of Krzhizhanovsky’s subtle wordplay without undue contortion in the English. Take this passage, a parody of Plato’s allegory of the cave:

True, the Nots teach their notkins that shadows are cast by things, but if one thinks about this sensibly, then one cannot know exactly if shadows are cast by things or things by shadows, and if one oughtn’t to cast aside, as pure ostensibilities, Not things, Not shadows, and the Nots themselves with their notional notions.

Funnily enough, ostensibilities abound in the collection’s final story, “Postmark: Moscow.” It’s an odd addition to the collection: whereas every other story is shorn almost entirely of obvious referents, “Postmark: Moscow” bristles with historical figures, Moscow localities—many of them burnt down or demolished since—and obscure artistic movements. In a way, then, Krzhizhanovsky is doing exactly that which his narrator derides: casting a thing (art) with a shadow (life). And what a thing it is!

15 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club, which is available from NYRB Classics.

Here is part of her review:

The Letter Killers Club, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, follows the meetings of a secret society of men who believe that committing words to paper has “crushed the reader’s imagination.” The men, self-labeled as “Conceivers” and known by nonsense syllables instead of their given names, meet every Saturday in a firelit room lined with empty black bookshelves to exchange works of fiction that they call “conceptions” that they are forbidden to write down. There is a sense of tension pervasive in the novel between the members of Letter Killers Club during their meetings that is reflective of the political climate of the 1920s in Soviet Moscow, where Krzhizhanovsky’s works were censored in an effort to prevent anything that did not positively portray Russia from publication.

Over the course of the novella, the audience peers in at the club meetings and experiences several different conceptions as they unweave. The president of the club, Zez, is extremely dedicated to the creative process, perhaps more so than the other six conceivers in the room. Any written manuscript smuggled in must be committed to death within the flames of the fire. Furthermore, the narratives presented are often inconsistent and wrap up in a way that might even be unexpected to the storyteller themselves. When this occurs, Zez often redirects the conceiver and demands the story be retold with a different ending or be restarted altogether. This leads to stilted dynamic within the room. In order to act as a moderator within the room, the narrator is drawn into the group.

Click here to read the entire review.

15 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The Letter Killers Club, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, follows the meetings of a secret society of men who believe that committing words to paper has “crushed the reader’s imagination.” The men, self-labeled as “Conceivers” and known by nonsense syllables instead of their given names, meet every Saturday in a firelit room lined with empty black bookshelves to exchange works of fiction that they call “conceptions” that they are forbidden to write down. There is a sense of tension pervasive in the novel between the members of Letter Killers Club during their meetings that is reflective of the political climate of the 1920s in Soviet Moscow, where Krzhizhanovsky’s works were censored in an effort to prevent anything that did not positively portray Russia from publication.

Over the course of the novella, the audience peers in at the club meetings and experiences several different conceptions as they unweave. The president of the club, Zez, is extremely dedicated to the creative process, perhaps more so than the other six conceivers in the room. Any written manuscript smuggled in must be committed to death within the flames of the fire. Furthermore, the narratives presented are often inconsistent and wrap up in a way that might even be unexpected to the storyteller themselves. When this occurs, Zez often redirects the conceiver and demands the story be retold with a different ending or be restarted altogether. This leads to stilted dynamic within the room. In order to act as a moderator within the room, the narrator is drawn into the group:

As a temporary measure, we decided to include an outside pair of ears, an average reader brought up on letterizations: would the emptiness of our shelves prove sufficiently visible? Here Fev began to fret: ‘Darkness,” he said, ‘turns men into thieves—it’s only natural: what if this intruder, whose head we shall stuff full of our conceptions, manages to extract them and exchange them for money and fame?’ ‘Don’t be absurd,’ said Zez. ‘I know the perfect person for this. We may reveal all our themes to him, without a worry. He won’t touch one.’ ‘But why?’ ‘Because he’s all thumbs: what Fichte called a ‘pure reader’: the best match for pure conceptions.’

In their quest to come up with the perfect and most innovative conception, the conceivers often disagree with one another and the story comes to a head when one conceiver storms out of the room and does not return to another meeting—Rar, the only conceiver who showed a thread of humanity and who reached out to narrator and who disobeyed the rules of the Letter Killers Club, turns up dead. Over the course of the novella, the Con Shakespearean actor, split into two conflicting characters, journeys into the Land of Roles to find the perfect Hamlet to bring to the stage. A young bride is wed to an entire town. A medieval priest doubles as a jester. An elite ruling class uses mind-control by way of machines and biochemical ether to enslave lower classes. A Roman scribe is stranded by the River Acheron and is unable to move into the afterlife when a little girl comes across the money meant for his passage. Three men voyage to determine the true purpose of the mouth—to kiss, to eat, or to speak. However, the tales within the story do not join together into a larger narrative, which adds to its appeal: the club is not focused on the tales as much as they are focused on their purpose, which is the elimination of the written word.

In the ultimate act of betrayal against the club, the ‘pure reader’ who acted as the narrator throughout the book commits the tales presented to him within the meetings to paper. This suggests that the environment, as opposed to solely the written word, is largely responsible for crushing one’s imagination. The novel concludes with a question of how dangerous words, or the lack thereof, can be, especially in a setting as tense as Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

27 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)

Since today is the day Apple revolutionizes the future of book publishing and saves us all releases their new overly-slick device, and with Lost only six days and a handful of hours away, it seems like the perfect day to write about a fantastical story collection that includes a lengthy piece on time travel.

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.

....
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