From Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s short story “Someone Else’s Theme,” collected in Memories of the Future.
Thanks to biblioklept.org for alerting us to this excellent excerpt.
Notes from NYRB Classics
Writers, in essence, are professional word tamers; if the words walking down the lines were living creatures, they would surely fear and hate the pen’s nib as tamed animals do the raised whip.
Certain writers are too weird to fully belong to their own time. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky—a Soviet writer obsessed with Kant and Shakespeare, whose own life barely rippled beyond a small coterie of Muscovite writers before his death in 1950—is among them. Krzhizhanovsky wrote philosophical works of fiction that veer between chattiness and, in the fine translations of Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov, unexpected elegance. They are tales of bodies suspended between life and death, of an animated Eiffel Tower that rampages across Europe, and of towns where dreams are made literal. To read these stories is to be buttonholed by a slightly mad but unfailingly interesting stranger desperate for a sympathetic ear. In Krzhizhanovsky, we find the aphorisms of a dime store philosopher and the polyphony of a schizophrenic.
- from a review of The Letter Killers Club, the recently published Krzhizhanovsky novel translated by Joanne Turnbull, in Bookforum. The collection of his short stories, Memories of the Future, is also mentioned in Jacob Silverman’s review.
According to Zez, any idea committed to paper is committed to death. To preserve ideas in their purest form, they are spoken. And so, every Saturday Zez and six companions, called ‘conceivers’ and referred to only by nonsense syllables, gather in a room filled with empty bookshelves as one member holds the floor to tell his ‘conception.’ The reader is invited into this world as leader Zez brings the nameless narrator — a literal stand-in for the reader — to the Club as an observer. Thrown into this environment, the narrator is as amazed as he is puzzled, and it is hardly surprising when he learns that the dynamics of the room are not all well and that there is another reason for drawing this eighth armchair around the fire.
To conclude our celebration of Banned Books Week we are taking a look at a different type of censorship. This one does not come from an authoritarian bureaucrat, worried about the public’s response against the regime; but from the cultural elite, in league with the political power of the day, maintaining the status quo in art and literature. Such as is the case of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, whose works were only published in 1989, after being discovered in a Soviet archive. Here’s Adam Thirwell on the matter from his review of Memories of the Future:
“In 1924 a collection of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, Fairy Tales for Wunderkinder, was accepted for publication, but the publishing house went bankrupt before the book came out. And so begins the sad history of Krzhizhanovsky’s impossible publications. In 1928 and 1929 he wrote more stories, a screenplay, and a play. None of these appeared in public. On April 23, 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party created the Union of Soviet Writers, with Maxim Gorky appointed the first chairman. In the same year, Gorky stated that stories like Krzhizhanovsky’s ‘would hardly find a publisher,’ and if they did, and managed to ‘dislocate a few young minds,’ he added, would this really be desirable?
In effect, his opinion made Krzhizhanovsky definitively unpublishable. The next year, Krzhizhanovsky’s Academia edition of Shakespeare was canceled. In 1934, another play, The Priest and the Lieutenant, went unstaged. A collection of stories that was provisionally accepted by the State Publishing House was stopped by the censors. That year, the First Congress of the Writers’ Union set the terms of socialist realism. Gorky’s speech, ‘Soviet Literature,’ contained this helpful sketch of future subject matter:
‘Life, as asserted by socialist realism, is deeds, creativeness, the aim of which is the uninterrupted development of the priceless individual faculties of man, with a view to his victory over the forces of nature, for the sake of his health and longevity, for the supreme joy of living on an earth which, in conformity with the steady growth of his requirements, he wishes to mould throughout into a beautiful dwelling place for mankind, united into a single family.’”
Valeriy Kozhin’s animated adaptation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s short story “Quadraturin”—about a mysterious substance that transforms small spaces (in this case a Soviet-era shared apartment) into large ones. “Quadraturin” is collected in Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future.
Coming this winter: Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club