Tag Archives: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Return of Munchausen

I’ve written before about the Russian fantasist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Due to Soviet censorship, he went unpublished in his lifetime only to be rediscovered and translated in the new century. He took his place among my favorite writers on the basis of Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club. Autobiography of a Corpse and the latest release, The Return of Munchausen, are slightly lesser works but still good.

Cover of The Return of Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is as perfect a hero for Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as he was for Terry Gilliam. Krzhizhanovsky writes philosophical fiction with the tools of the tall tale: literalized metaphors, wordplay, and so much anthropomorphism that his inanimate objects and abstract ideas can be livelier than his people. (Typical of Krzhizhanovsky’s technique is one character’s descent of a staircase: “Stairs scurried under Unding’s feet and then, damply through his worn-out soles, sidewalk asphalt.”)

Munchausen, for the uninitiated, is a fictional character loosely based on an actual German aristocrat. He’s a serial exaggerator. He rides cannonballs, vacations on the moon, and pulls himself out of swamps by his own hair–or claims to.[1]

Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen isn’t just a teller of tall tales, but a defender of fiction, an advocate for fantasy: “I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy.” His motto is “truth in lies.” He has a “theory of improbability”: where probability theory studies things that happen many times, improbability theory studies things that have happened less than once. A scholar protests that Munchausen’s theory is all metaphor, but that’s the point: “People are fractions passing themselves off as ones… and the acts of a fraction are all fractional,” he argues. Probability alone isn’t a reliable guide to anything as unpredictably irrational as human beings.

So when Munchausen is asked to tour and report on the new Soviet Union, he returns with a lecture full of the usual impossible adventures. Here we see why Krzhizhanovsky had no luck getting published. The Russian sequence is a long, caustic vent about Krzhizhanovsky’s every frustration with his country. Secret police and famines get a look in, but Krzhizhanovsky aims most of his satire at the government’s control of ideas and its treatment of artists and intellectuals–understandably, maybe, in Krzhizhanovsky’s circumstances. Trains are fueled by burning books; Munchausen’s train crawls by inches because the engineer is an ex-professor who keeps stopping to read. Munchausen can see Soviet science is advancing because the scientists, lacking blackboards, are running after the trucks on which they’ve scrawled their equations. For modern readers some of Krzhizhanovsky’s less broad and more specific jokes are obscure enough to warrant endnotes: at one point Munchausen is sentenced to a “conditional execution,” which the notes tell us was a real punishment handed down on one occasion to an engineer whose skills the government couldn’t actually afford to lose. But even without the context there’s still plenty of wit here.

Krzhizhanovsky knows this is satire but Munchausen doesn’t share his latest author’s awareness: he thinks he’s created a flight of fancy, unmoored from reality. When he learns his lecture was nothing more than a comic exaggeration of the truth, Munchausen is stricken.

While this review was half-finished, I came across a weirdly appropriate line in one of the blogs I follow. Adam Roberts, in a review of a different book, quoted this bit from Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread: “Amis says ”˜it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’”

Munchausen is an intellectual anarchist. For him, tall tales represent freedom; absurdity opens up new imaginative possibilities. So it’s important to Munchausen that his tall tales actually are absurd–that they put some distance between themselves and the reality they depart from. If the world isn’t reasonable, Munchausen’s refusal to conform to reason is nothing special. Now reality itself is absurd enough to overtake Munchausen’s ability to reimagine it, and the jokes don’t seem so Pythonesquely anarchic anymore. Just bitter.

  1. The Baron is often misremembered as pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Next time you hear that figure of speech, remember that it describes an impossibility.  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club, collections of fantastic tales by a once-forgotten Soviet writer, were two of my favorite books from the last few years. So it’s odd that I just last month finished the third volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. Or maybe not; it didn’t rock my world to the extent the last two volumes of Krzhizhanovsky did. Not that it wasn’t good. It just feels less new. I’ve now read enough of his stories to notice when he repeats himself. His themes and tics are familiar: loss of identity, negations, anthropomorphized ideas, the word “I” used as a noun. Most interesting writers circle back to the same wells, and that’s not a problem as long as they ring interesting changes on their preoccupations. It’s just not as revelatory.

Cover of Autobiography of a Corpse

Still, there are good stories here; all that’s lost for me is the element of surprise. “The Collector of Cracks” deals with a mad scientist who discovers that time is made of discrete moments separated by “cracks,” like the lines separating frames of a film. In “Yellow Coal” another scientist discovers a way to generate electricity from meanness and spite. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a man’s obsession with biting his own elbow becomes a media phenomenon and sparks serious philosophical debates. In “Bridge Over the Styx” a supernatural frog proposes “a bridge suspended between the eternal ‘no’ and the eternal ’yes,” allowing the dead to mingle with the living.

What struck me this time around was how Krzhizhanovsky uses anthropomorphism. He writes about objects and ideas like they’re characters: A scholar writing a dissertation on “The Letter ‘T’ in Turkic Languages” tells how “the bustling ‘T’ would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark” at the end of a work day; the elbow-biter’s manager portrays the elbow as equal contestant in a wrestling match, at the end of every show declaring the elbow a winner.

At the same time, many of Krzhizhanovsky’s characters admit to feeling as though they’re ideas, human abstractions losing themselves in the cracks and seams of the world, like the “0.6th of a person” imagined by the narrator of “Autobiography of a Corpse.” The nameless narrator feels dead in life, and knows his disconnection from humanity is leading to his actual death, but he’s cheered by the thought that he’ll live on as an indelible ghostly image in the mind of the inheritor of his manuscript: the next tenant of his apartment. As a figment, he feels more alive than ever.

Fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas”–somewhat ridiculously, since you’d be hard-pressed to find interesting literature of any genre that doesn’t contain ideas, but we’ll let that pass. They mean that SF is writing in which the ideas are as important as the characters, or are even written about as though they are characters. Krzhizhanovsky takes this to the limit: in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, ideas and people are interchangeable, and can go back and forth from one state to the other, like the living and the dead traveling the bridge over the Styx.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Letter Killers Club

Cover art

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 StanisÅ‚aw 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. [1] 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.

  1. 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.  ↩

Memories of the Future

Cover Art

The best science fiction/fantasy collection of 2009 was a book of 80-year old stories: Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. If anyone out there knows how to pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky,” leave a comment. I’m really curious.

Memories collects seven stories written in the Soviet Union during the late 1920s. (It might also have been published in 2006 as Seven Stories, which I haven’t seen. On the other hand, maybe those were seven different stories. Another story, “Yellow Coal,” is available on the web.)

Most of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are fantasies of the kind filed under “magic realism.” “Memories of the Future” is flat-out science fiction, written in reaction to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. All of them are way the hell better than anything American SF writers–I guess at the time they would have been “scientifiction writers”–came up with in the 1930s. Project Gutenberg has been digitizing early out-of-copyright issues of Astounding, and, let me tell you, trees should not have been reduced to pulp for that dreck. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to the SF genre if Krzhizhanovsky had slipped past the censors, if he’d been translated into English, if his stories had reached western SF writers and shook it awake a little. Could the New Wave have hit the shore thirty years early?

When SF fans talk about writing, someone usually shows up to promote “transparent prose.” “Transparent prose” is writing notable for its unwillingness to impinge on the readers consciousness. It’s a “window” onto the story; you read through it. I think this kind of prose is okay, if not exciting. It’s a good minimum standard.

But for readers who hate “literary” writing transparent prose is the only way to go. Writing is about communication, they say. And they’re right. Good writing communicates clearly. But prose that communicates clearly and beautifully communicates more than plain transparent-as-glass prose. It encodes more information. Here’s a small nonstandard use of a verb, from Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Branch Line”: “Under the conductor’s canting a red beard bubbled.” Can’t you just see that beard? In more detail than you might have seen “a curly red beard?”

One sign of great writing is the unexpected but perfect image: when it would never have occurred to you to describe something that way, but it’s exactly right. Great writing renews familiar things with surprise and estrangement. It kicks down your door and shouts “Hey, you think you’ve seen this before, but look again!” That’s Krzhizhanovsky’s specialty. On every page you’ll find at least one striking image, from the small to the significant (“We’re still immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others.”)

Great writing is always doing at least two things at once. On the surface Krzhizhanovsky tells stories; subconsciously, his style tells us how he felt living in the Soviet Union. Krzhizhanovsky frequently uses synecdoche when referring to people–“briefcases,” “the earflaps,” “a five-digit number that had promised to put in a word to the right people.” People seem reduced to objects, functions; we’re also reminded of fairy tales and parables of inanimate objects that act out human failings. Some stories progress through the abrupt shifts and transitions of dream logic. Krzhizhanovsky’s world, like Stalin’s, is ruled not by sense but by arbitrary fiat.

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories weren’t published until 1989. He couldn’t get them past the censors. He had to content himself by holding readings while working a day job as an encyclopedia editor. So it’s not surprising that Krzhizhanovsky is preoccupied with the difficulties of being a writer in the Soviet Union. The star of “The Bookmark” is a frustrated writer, a “theme-catcher” who spins stories from the smallest hints–a cat on a ledge, a wood shaving blowing by in the wind–but has no outlet for his stories beyond telling them to acquaintances and passers-by.

The theme-catcher goes to a Soviet publisher with a book called Stories for the Crossed-Out. “Are you one of the crossed-out or one of the crossers-out?” asks the editor. Someone “able to cross things out” would be more in line with the times. Another editor invites the theme-catcher to write something safe: a biographical sketch on “Bacon.” The theme-catcher asks which one. The editor, surprised, tells the theme-catcher to write about “The Brothers Bacon.” The theme-catcher points out that Roger and Francis Bacon lived three hundred years apart. The editor screams “You’re all of you alike!” and storms out of the office. I think this is autobiography. The way the editor covers his embarrassment with sudden, wild hostility has the ring of truth. In the Soviet Union, good Party members were rewarded with jobs they were totally unqualified for. It was a nation of Heckuvajob Brownies. I’ll bet Krzhizhanovsky dealt with these guys all the time.

The narrator of “Someone Else’s Theme” meets another down-on-his-luck writer named Saul Straight who’s come up with a “theory of separation.” Lovers, says Saul, should be forcibly separated: weak, imitation love will fizzle; true love will grow stronger with distance. Saul has a lot of ideas like this. He’s provisioned with philosophical ramblings and not much else. When the narrator meets him, he’s trading aphorisms for food.

Saul also has theories about art. Art is our way of giving back to the world which provides us with so much: “the painter pays for the colors of things with the paints on his palette, the musician pays for the chaos of sounds produced by the organ of Corti with harmonies, the philosopher pays for the world with his worldview.” And it’s got to be good: “talent… is not a privilege and not a gift from on high, but the direct responsibility of anyone warmed and lighted by the sun, and only metaphysically dishonorable people–of which the earth is full–shirk their duty to be talented.”

The narrator is a writer himself. He’s probably been dealing with the same crap as the theme-catcher. He can’t pay what he owes to the world because politics is everything, the Soviets scrutinize every word, and his only option is to take the metaphysically dishonorable path and play along. He’s separated from himself: “And when your “I” is missing, when you’re just the binding from which the book has been ripped out…”

But the narrator of “Someone Else’s Theme” isn’t the author. The narrator passed his story to another writer–presumably Krzhizhanovsky himself–who’s told the narrator’s story in the narrator’s voice. Now Krzhizhanovsky is faced with a problem: how can he gracefully transition back to his own voice? And writing within the limits imposed by authority, buried in someone else’s themes, how can he hold on to his own “I”?

These stories aren’t all about writers. “Red Snow” is about coming home to find a light in your apartment window. That might sound reassuringly homey. In the Soviet Union it was bad news. “Red Snow” is the most nightmarish and disorienting story in the collection.

“Quadraturin” is about the apartments themselves. In the early days of the Soviet Union masses of population moved from the country to the cities. Housing was scarce. The government turned people’s homes into communal apartments; people who’d lived in a place for years found themselves living in a couple of rooms while strangers were installed in other parts of the apartment. Sometimes entire families lived and slept in one room. According to the introduction, Krzhizhanovsky himself thought it worth noting in a letter when he discovered a way to stretch his legs while sitting at his desk. “Quadraturin” is a Moscow apartment-dweller’s fantasy–more room!–that goes horribly wrong.

“Quadraturin” is about space; “Memories of the Future” is about time. The USSR was a jam-tomorrow kind of place. Comfort, abundance, and luxury goods were waiting at the end of the five-year plan–all it would take was a little shock work. And then a little more. Somehow the good times remained out of reach. Soviet citizens lived in, and for, a purely theoretical future.

So, in a way, does Max Shterer, the mad scientist at the heart of “Memories”–which really is one of the great time travel stories, one that would have influenced the genre if life were fair. Max’s big ambition is to build a time machine. He’s born into a comfortable family around the end of the 19th century, sent away to school, drafted into the Great War, stuck in a German POW camp, and disinherited by the Revolution. Max barely registers any of this. He’s thinking about his time machine.

Eventually Max builds his machine, leaps forward, and finds… something. The climax of “Memories” is stunning, not despite but because we’re not entirely sure what Max sees. This is a time travel story written like a ghost story: what’s implied, what we imagine, is scarier than anything Krzhizhanovsky could have described outright. No wonder this story didn’t get the Soviet stamp of approval: the future feels less like a time and place than a Lovecraftian monster waiting to swallow the Russians who lived for it.

When Memories of the Future was reviewed in the New York Times the reviewer complained that Krzhizhanovsky’s “refusal to wake to the reality of his times can fog the clarity of his visions.” This is dumb. Krzhizhanovsky is engaged with the reality of his times; he engages it slantwise, through metaphor. And the times Krzhizhanovsky lived through were in many ways unreal. I can’t blame him for turning to the literary equivalent of lobster telephones and melting clocks. If he wanted to keep his grip on reality, surrealism might have been his best option.