Memories of the Future, a collection of stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, was among my favorite books of 2010. Krzhizhanovsky was a 20th century Russian writer of absurdism, surrealism, magic realism, and science fiction. Bad luck and Soviet censorship kept all but a handful of stories out of print in his lifetime. His work was buried in an archive to be unearthed decades later. The NYRB classics imprint has begun slowly translating and publishing his work in English.
The Letter Killers Club is a novel and a frame for several stories, quasi-stories, and narrative fragments. I could say many of the same things about it as I said about Memories of the Future–the prose is startling, the ideas come at rapid fire, and Krzhizhanovsky draws vivid characters in very few strokes. I’ve seen Krzhizhanovsky compared to Borges and Kafka, but he reminds me more of Stanisław Lem. The Letter Killers Club recalls A Perfect Vacuum, Lem’s volume of reviews of nonexistent books–conceptions of books that don’t exist and don’t need to because Lem boiled them down to their essences.
The narrator of The Letter Killers Club is friends with a famous author who for two years has written nothing. One night, the author explains: in his youth, a financial emergency forced him to sell his library. He afterwards spent hours reimagining the books that stood on his empty shelves, and in doing so found the inspiration to write books of his own. Years later he acquired a case of writers block and returned to what worked before, setting up a room of empty shelves. But now he found he preferred keeping his ideas in his imagination: fixing his conceptions as letters on a page killed them.  Now he’s the president of a club of “conceivers,” the Letter Killers Club, who gather every week to share stories that will never be set down on paper. He invites the narrator along.
By the end of the first chapter you might expect a straightforward collection of club stories. But the meetings of the Letter Killers Club are… intense. The conceivers use nonsense-syllable aliases and skulk in like they’re attending a combination conspiratorial conclave and Ph.D. thesis defense. If a conceiver is gauche enough to read from notes, the president throws them into the fireplace. The meetings aren’t so much storytelling sessions as conflicts. The audience seems anxious to challenge the speaker–each week’s featured conceiver is on trial. The stakes are left unspoken. They feel pretty damn high.
Krzhizhanovsky is dealing with the same preoccupations that dominated many stories in Memories of the Future: writers with no outlet for their work, stories treated as matters of life and death. One story in Memories of the Future argues that writing isn’t just an occupation but the thing the writer owes the world, payment for his or her existence. That’s serious. You can’t blame Krzhizhanovsky for coming back to these themes. They’re his life. Barring those few precious published stories, the only people his writing connected with were the audiences who gathered to hear his own private readings. He had no publisher, and he must write, and I sense in his stories a feeling of bottled-upness. The malaise that hangs over the Letter Killers comes from their inability, or refusal, to fulfill their purpose. A story never read is never complete.
The conceptions vary in tone and content. The longest story, and the one that most put me in mind of Lem, is a science fictional tale of a machine, the “ex”, that can posses people’s bodies, working them like puppets, leaving their minds aware but sidelined like passengers in vehicles out of their control. At first its creators sell it as a way to deal with the insane: their care is an economic burden, goes the argument, but putting them under the control of an ex will turn their bodies, if not their minds, into productive workers. As you might expect in a story like this the exes’ influence spreads. They become the tools of a government that sees citizens as economic units rather than human beings.
Another story deals with an actor playing Hamlet who enters a world inhabited by previous performances of Hamlet to steal Richard Burbage’s mojo. Another is about a priest moonlighting as a jester, changing costumes as needed, whose career goes haywire when his vestments are stolen. With the dystopian tale, they share a thread that runs through some (though definitely not all) of the stories in The Letter Killers Club: the mismatch between the outer and inner life, actors and the parts they play, people’s real selves and the roles imposed by society. Like the characters in these stories, the Club members live in a world that expects one kind of story from people with other stories inside them. The Letter Killers Club doesn’t pay much attention to the world outside the president’s doors, but you can’t forget these people are meeting in the Soviet Union–near the end one member observes, in reference to the empty shelves, that the police can’t search what isn’t there. The members of the Letter Killers Club can speak their ideas in their empty library, but can’t give them to the outside world. The friction between their inner selves and their outer roles is wearing away at them.
Apparently five volumes of Krzhizhanovsky’s collected works have been published in Russian. I hope we don’t have to wait long for more to appear in English. His writing spent too long bottled up, and deserves to be read as widely as possible.
An idea familiar to anyone who’s been unable to work because they can’t stand the thought of substandard results. Part of the reason this blog was so rarely updated in the last year is that most of what I tried to write was in my own personal opinion too inane to share. ↩