Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: The Concept as Hero

“Yes, remember this, my friend: if there is one more book on the library shelf, that is because there is one less person in life. If I must choose between the shelf and the world, then I prefer the world.”

– Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

There are some writers who come to one in late life like the memories of old comrades, deceptive yet resilient, leading one into the great outdoors rather than deeper into the labyrinths of the mind. These writers might be termed literary matterphiles. A type of being who confronts Kant and Shakespeare, yet escapes the metaphysical delusions of the one, while embracing the bittersweet valences of the other.

Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky is such a poet of our despair, yet more than a poet, he is the understated literary master of works no one in the West ever heard of till now. Born into a Polish-speaking Catholic family near Kiev in 1887. He died in his adopted city of Moscow in 1950, largely unpublished and unperformed. Over a period of twenty-five years, while working in editorial offices and freelancing at various jobs (lecturer in the Acting Studio of the Moscow Chamber Theater, proofreader for the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, research assistant for radio broadcasts, translator and stage adaptor), he wrote a dozen plays, provocative essays on Shakespeare and on the philosophy of theater, and some hundred and fifty experimental prose works ranging in length from novellas to one-paragraph miniatures, usually organized in cycles. Krzhizhanovsky’s hero.

Of late I’ve been reading his work The Letter Killers Club, whose hero everywhere is the idea or concept (mysl’, zamysel) trapped in the brain. His recurring plot: how to release an inner thought into the great outdoors of existence at the right time with enough nourishment so it will survive, make contact, explore —without being freighted down or fused with anything else. This idea needs space to test itself and must remain separate from what surrounds it. Traps and obstacles to this process exist both inside the brain and beyond it, but they are more metaphysical than political.

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