Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Russia’s Belated Modernism
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s novel The Letter Killers Club appeared in English as a New York Review of Books Classics selection in 2011, twenty years after its Russian debut and eighty-five years after the book was first written. Seventy years is not, in the grand scheme of things, a terribly long time to wait for publication or translation. Nor is it very unusual for an author to languish in obscurity in his lifetime. The Epic of Gilgamesh was extracted from an Assyrian ruin, rendered into English, and subjected to the printing press some three thousand years after it was first committed to clay tablets; the romantic figure of the posthumously recognized poet is familiar to the point of kitsch. Both are stock literary fantasies. For every unearthed literary artifact there is a forgery, an Ossian or a Thomas Rowley, and rediscovered geniuses are more commonly encountered as fictional framing devices (Paul Poissel, in Paul LaFarge’s Facts of Winter, is one recent example) than bibliographic realities.
Some of the best in this vein of hoaxes have been perpetrated by Russians. The émigré writer Vladislav Khodasevich invented an unpublished Romantic elegist in his 1937 “Life of Vasilii Travnikov”—“a gifted poet,” gushed the critic Georgii Adamovich, “an innovator, a teacher: it is enough to hear a single one of his verses to become convinced of that.” The same critic fell for Vladimir Nabokov’s creature Vasilii Shishkov two years later, and was made to allow that Nabokov was “a sufficiently skillful parodist to mimic genius.” We can appreciate the joke, yet still sympathize with poor twice-tricked Adamovich’s desire for some sign of Russian poetry’s expanding fortunes, at a time when its native development was stunted by Stalinism. These episodes of literary trickery are part of that larger period of experiment we know as modernism—a period characterized by play with the categories of fiction and reality, by revolt against the canons of bourgeois taste, and by renewed emphasis on the materiality of language. Nabokov and Khodasevich and Adamovich vigorously engaged this literary zeitgeist in their Paris exile. In Russia proper, however, the period coincided with the vicious enforcement of Soviet doctrines of acceptable art: Nabokov’s contemporaries were obliged either to write for their own desk drawers or else to disappear into Stalin’s camps. Only after the disintegration of the Soviet state in the late 1980s did free-market bookstalls suddenly advertise a host of authors who, in their lifetimes, had at best been relegated to the periphery of literary culture, and whose manuscripts were in some cases recovered from KGB files.
This wave of publications represents neither an artifact from a lost civilization, nor the discovery of a perverse author—a Lautréamont—whose idiosyncracies happily anticipated a future taste, but a major literary current as manifested in one of the world’s major literatures, even if it was, by historical accident, only partially available in its own place and time. As one of many “alternative genealogies and histories of modernity,” we can contextualize these works within what Svetlana Boym calls the off-modern, “the ‘modernity of what if’ rather than simply modernization as it is” (8). Yet the phenomenon of a general sea change in literary technique that arrives on the local scene some sixty years delayed, at once unmistakably marked by its moment of origin and dazzlingly unfamiliar, is to my knowledge unique in literary history. What are we to do with these obscurities of a belated avant-garde, whose works are at once brand new and palpably belonging to a bygone epoch in the history of the imagination? It is as if Joyce or Hemingway were discovered in an archive, and released to a readership who had not grown up with the tradition they transformed.
Krzhizhanovsky ranks among the most interesting of these authors, one likely to find a place in world literature despite the unfortunate paucity of vowels in his last name. He is also the one most keenly engaged with the problem of literary obscurity, a theme that tends for his contemporaries to lapse into maudlin self-pity or brittle elegism, but for Krzhizhanovksy is part of a larger effort to map the frontier between being and nonbeing, to discover the cost of a thought’s realization in the material of language—not just in fear of government retaliation but in a metaphysics of meaning.
“Keep silent, screen yourself and hide / Your feelings and your dreams,” writes Fyodor Tiutchev in his 1830 lyric “Silentium”: “A thought expressed becomes a lie.” In The Letter Killers Club, Krzhizhanovsky describes a copy of the Gospels scored in the margin whenever Christ refrains from speech—“Jesus held his peace” and so on. Inscribed in the flyleaf of this apocryphal “Gospel According to Silence,” is the quasi-authorial inscription S—um: a “nonsense syllable,” as one of the characters calls it, but then all the book’s characters are storytellers with nonsense syllables for names—Rar, Zez, Fev. And this particular syllable is the name of Tiutchev’s poem, “a flattened Silentium.” In the very elision that spans the word’s initial and its suffix, the Latin word for silence proclaims the author’s being: sum, I am. In his obsession with his own obscurity, Krzhizhanovksy discovers a fecund, expressive aesthetics of self-effacement.
Krzhizhanovsky gamely sought out publication, even against his own best interests: the dystopian fourth chapter of The Letter Killers Club paints a rationally organized socialist society in the very bleak colors of mass insanity and genocide, and would have spelled suicide for its author had the censor somehow failed to reject the book. But he seems to have been aware of his position’s difficulties. “I am not on good terms with the present day,” he admitted in his notebooks, “but eternity loves me.” Indeed, success was a long time coming. A book of short fiction called Stories for Wunderkinder was slated to appear in 1926, but the publishing house shut down before it could be printed. The censors denied another story collection, The Crack Collector; The Return of Münchausen, a short novel in which the fabled Baron crosses over from fiction to reality and is recruited into an elite corps of diplomats; and a Hoffmannesque tale entitled Memories of the Future. Plans to publish Stories for Wunderkinder resurfaced in 1941, but the paper shortage caused by World War II scotched them, at which point Krzhizhanovsky gave up the pen and took to the bottle.