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!

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Autobiography of a Corpse
By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Translated by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov
Reviewed by Simon Collinson
256 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9781590176702
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