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.
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“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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