Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Russia’s Belated Modernism

by Jacob Emery
Indiana University
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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 The émigré writer Vladislav Khodasevich invented an unpublished Romantic elegist in his 1937 “Life of Vasilii Travnikov”—“a gifted poet,” gushed the critic Georgii Adamovich, “an innovator, a teacher: it is enough to hear a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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.

In 1932, a well-wisher forwarded Krzhizhanovsky’s work to Maxim Gorky in hopes that the don of Soviet letters would intercede on his behalf. Allowing that Krzhizhanovsky might have found fame in the metaphysical vogue of the 1880s, Gorky wrote back that “in our day we are creating a new sort of gnosiology, founded on action, not on contemplation; on facts, not on words. For this reason I think that Citizen Krzhizhanovsky's works will scarcely find a publisher.”[5] This assessment must have seemed plausible in the early Stalinist era, and it is fair to say that Krzhizhanovsky was a throwback in the sense that, like other twentieth-century innovators, he reached past the nineteenth-century novel to claim the inheritance of Cervantes, Sterne, and the Romantic eccentrics.

The seminal act of literary creation in The Letter Killers Club comes when a penniless author who has sold his books to attend his mother’s funeral attempts to reproduce Don Quixote from memory, something like the character of Pierre Menard in Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” “I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the book before me,” Krzhizhanovsky writes. “Some words returned, others did not; so I began filling in the gaps, inserting words of my own” (10). The situation is autobiographical, but the results are fictional. “I took them down, one by one, my imaginary books and phantasms filling the black emptiness of the old bookshelves, and, dipping their invisible letters into ordinary ink, turned them into manuscripts, and the manuscripts into money”—a frustrated writer’s fantasy of fame and remuneration, but also one more instance of the ongoing exchange between erasure and materiality (11).

Krzhizhanovsky’s literary heroes were Hoffmann and Swift and Poe, folklorists and satirists and writers of gothic romance. His stories are written without psychology and populated with the thrilling if slightly ironic stock characters of sentimental prose: lonely, sensitive young men who sacrifice themselves at the altar of art, mad scientists and haunted visionaries. His high modernism is an extension of high romanticism, one that has skipped realism entirely and gone directly from the sentimentalism and literary play of the eighteenth century to the ontological doubt and metafictional mazes of the post-war period. Upon reaching print in 1989, Krzhizhanovsky was immediately labeled “the Russian Borges”—an apt comparison that now appears on the back jackets of all his books. His nested narratives, his distrust in material reality, his sense of non sequitur and the grotesque, and his ability to yoke sentimental banalities together with allusions to metaphysical abysses are also at times reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov, Angela Carter, Paul Valery, and Flann O’Brien. 

These traits were nourished by Krzhizhanovsky’s involvement with the lively ferment of experimental theater in pre-war Moscow. “A genuine philosophy of the theater is possible only when the theater and everything else coincide,” Krzhizhanovsky averred in a theoretical tract, “that is, when there is nothing in the world besides the theater in one or another of its manifestations.”[6] One uncannily prescient moment in Krzhizhanovsky’s writing comes in the second chapter of The Letter Killers Club, which rewrites Hamlet by sidelining the melancholy prince and focusing the play’s action on Guildenstern—divided, like an “organic cell,” into the two characters Guilden and Stern (15, 18). Twenty years later,  fragments of this idea recur in Nabokov’s 1964 novel Bend Sinister, and twenty years after that it becomes central to Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead—though neither of them could have known Krzhizhanovsky’s work.

The most intricately structured of Krzhizhanovsky’s prose fictions, The Letter Killers Club is also the piece that best showcases his range. A fraternity of ex-authors, each of whom has foresworn the written word, gathers in seclusion to recount their extravagant ideas and potential plots; to fix their fantasies in print would, for them, be tantamount to an abortion of the imagination. When an outsider begins to listen in, their stories develop into a tense, coded argument, pitting the spoken and the written word against each other through a gamut of genres ranging from Pirandellesque drama to historical novel, from science fiction to philosophical fable.

In all these genres, Krzhizhanovsky’s style is playful and idiosyncratic, suffused with semi-satirized theological and scientific jargon. He prefers long loose sentences with many subclauses, exploiting Russian’s flexible word order for narrative effect; his translator, Joanne Turnbull, has done a commendable job of rendering these syntactic quirks into English. And his imagery is uncompromising. The Letter Killers Club takes place in a literary universe of detachable eyes where one character “searched for something in me with his eyes, as one might search in a room for some misplaced object,” and another, staring into the fireplace, “poked about with his pupils in the litter of sparks and the dance of dove-colored flames” (47).

For Krzhizhanovsky, the penetration of vision into the world becomes emblematic of fiction’s aim—as the novel’s narrator exults on the final page—to “break out of my orbit and step out of my ‘I’!” (111). Orbit here carries its ocular meaning as the eyesocket as well as its astronomical sense, and is thematically related to a larger debate over whether a work of art suffers by obscurity or finds its uncompromising perfection in isolation—whether a stage play needs an “outside pair of eyes” or whether a performer ought rather to “gouge them out” (18-19). His story “In the Pupil” is entirely motivated by the narrator observing his reflection in his lover’s eye as he bends down to kiss her: this diminutive image is lured down the optic nerve into the woman’s brain to join the homunculi of her other forgotten lovers, and after many adventures absconds back to the narrator with the leather-bound volume of the woman’s memory. An exchange of glances precipitates a fantastic exchange of consciousnesses. 

Exchange of every kind is central to Krzhizhanovksy’s literary project, especially the limit case of getting something for nothing, a published book for the author’s private fantasy. The first lines of The Letter Killers Club compare printed books to bubbles rising from the mouths of drowning men, shimmering spheres that reflect an image of the world between a river’s banks for just a moment before they burst; throughout the text, printed volumes are characterized as swollen, bulging things, bubbles or bloated drowned bodies. In Krzhizhanovksy’s next book, The Return of Münchausen, the fabled Baron orders stein after stein in a beer hall without ever taking a sip; when the drunken poet one stool over asks him why, the Baron explains that “the bursting bubbles interest me… and when they all burst, I have to order another helping of foam” (138). In both cases, the initial image of the bursting bubble develops into an economy of art and existence. “Like every other item of trade, life is subject to supply and demand,” the Baron reproaches the poet who questions his reality, “and the state of the political stock exchange is such that I can hope not only for life, but for flourishing health” (139). In The Letter Killers Club, the origin of writing is likewise a trade-off between life and literature. “The death of the woman who gave you life,” says the Club’s founder, is “like a black wedge in your life”; it compels him to exchange his library, “now in the form of three or four banknotes,” for a ticket home to the funeral (6).

As we listen in on the stories recounted at the Club’s weekly sessions, it becomes apparent that this “black wedge in your life” is also the river of black ink flowing through the nib of a fountain pen. We reach this Styx’s banks in the final tale when a dead Roman, in a last reflex of posthumous generosity, spits out the coin in his mouth so that a slave child can buy a bunch of dates. Stranded in the gap between life and death, with no way to pay Charon for his passage, the frustrated Orphic hero can neither return to sing of death nor pay to pass on to the silence of the other side. After all, as The Letter Killers Club reminds us, a toll of nonexistence must be paid in order to communicate between life and art. To pass from one’s own life onto the stage “is like passing through customs,” and an actor steps into his role only by paying the tariff of his own self (18).

The metaphor recurs in Krzhizhanovsky’s 1931 story “Bridge across the Styx,” where a loathsome frog from the undiscovered country attempts to recruit a civil engineer from among the living. The land of the dead is “a nation like any other,” the frog explains, “but with somewhat inflated customs duties: upon crossing the border, one hundred percent of life is exacted from the living.”[7] At the end of The Letter Killers Club, a similar frog watches bubbles or books rising from the mouths of those drowning in the Styx, the “inky current of plot-scribbling” that is death’s frontier (87, 104, 109, 129-30). Initially framed as a sequence of disconnected narratives, the book gradually becomes a coherent tale of suspense as we realize that someone—we don’t yet know who—will have to accept non-existence in order to midwife the text into being.

The morbid power of these images derives in part from the unpleasant historical fact that many of the writers in Krzhizhanovsky’s milieu were disappearing into Stalin’s camps as payback for the words that they had written. It is sobering to remember that Krzhizhanovsky’s inability to publish might have saved his life, or at least delayed his death by a dozen years or so. In the writings that survive him, Krzhizhanovsky constantly reminds us of the cost of what we read—not just the monetary value of the book, but the staggering fact that as human beings we spend our limited lifespans largely absorbed in the products of our own imaginations. Like a bubble come miraculously to rest intact, his writings are a specimen of a modernism whose emergence from obscurity and death now plays a part, though still an undefined one, in our experience of literary history. And having spent his life blowing the bubbles of his unread books, Krzhizhanovsky never lets us forget the unspeakable price we pay for fantasy, even as his fictions seduce us into making the trade.

[1] Quoted in I. P. Andreeva et. al., Notes to Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh, by Vladislav Khodasevich (Moscow: Soglasie, 1997), 3.579. All translations mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Quoted in Vladimir Nabokov, The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (NY: Vintage, 1996), 667.

[3] Cristina Vatulescu, Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010), 30.

[4] Fedor Tiutchev, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh (Moscow: Pravda, 1980), 1.63

[5] See Vadim Perel’muter, “Posle Katastrophy,” in SS, 25-25.

[6] Krzhizhanovsky, SS, 4.44.

[7] Krzhizhanovsky, SS, 2.506.