Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: The Fantastic Stories of Russia

Thought I’d start a new series highlighting authors of the fantastic that may or may not be on your radar. If you’ve not heard of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky then read on…

SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY (1887–1950), the Ukrainian-born son of Polish emigrants, studied law and classical philology at Kiev University. After graduation and two summers spent exploring Europe, he was obliged to clerk for an attorney. A sinecure, the job allowed him to devote most of his time to literature and his own writing. In 1920, he began lecturing in Kiev on theater and music. The lectures continued in Moscow, where he moved in 1922, by then well known in literary circles. Lodged in a cell-like room on the Arbat, Krzhizhanovsky wrote steadily for close to two decades. His philosophical and phantasmagorical fictions ignored injunctions to portray the Soviet state in a positive light. Three separate efforts to print collections were quashed by the censors, a fourth by World War II. Not until 1989 could his work begin to be published. Like Poe, Krzhizhanovsky takes us to the edge of the abyss and forces us to look into it. “I am interested,” he said, “not in the arithmetic, but in the algebra of life.”

The Letter Killers Club:

The Letter Killers Club is a secret society of self-described “conceivers” who, to preserve the purity of their conceptions, will commit nothing to paper. (What, after all, is your run-of-the-mill scribbler of stories if not an accomplished corruptor of conceptions?) The logic of the club is strict and uncompromising. Every Saturday, members meet in a firelit room filled with empty black bookshelves where they strive to top one another by developing ever unlikelier, ever more perfect conceptions: a rehearsal of Hamlet hijacked by an actor who vanishes with the role; the double life of a merry medieval cleric derailed by a costume change; a machine-run world that imprisons men’s minds while conscripting their bodies; a dead Roman scribe stranded this side of the River Acheron. But in this book set in an ominous Soviet Moscow of the 1920s, the members of the club are strangely mistrustful of one another, while all are under the spell of its despotic President, and there is no telling, in the end, just how lethal the purely conceptual—or, for that matter, letters—may be.

The Autobiography of a Corpse:

This  collection of eleven mind-bending and spellbinding tales includes some of Krzhizhanovsky’s most dazzling conceits: a provincial journalist who moves to Moscow finds his existence consumed by the autobiography of his room’s previous occupant; the fingers of a celebrated pianist’s right hand run away to spend a night alone on the city streets; a man’s lifelong quest to bite his own elbow inspires both a hugely popular circus act and a new refutation of Kant. Ordinary reality cracks open before our eyes in the pages of Autobiography of a Corpse, and the extraordinary spills out.

Memories of the Future:

Written in Soviet Moscow in the 1920s—but considered too subversive even to show to a publisher—the seven tales included here attest to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s boundless imagination, black humor, and breathtaking irony: a man loses his way in the vast black waste of his own small room; the Eiffel Tower runs amok; a kind soul dreams of selling “everything you need for suicide”; an absentminded passenger boards the wrong train, winding up in a place where night is day, nightmares are the reality, and the backs of all facts have been broken; a man out looking for work comes across a line for logic but doesn’t join it as there’s no guarantee the logic will last; a sociable corpse misses his own funeral; an inventor gets a glimpse of the far-from-radiant communist future.

The Return of Munchausen:

In Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s update, the Baron returns in the troubled twentieth century, where he will rediscover the place of imagination amid the tenuous peace, universal mourning, and political machinations of the aftermath of World War I. “To me,” he claims, “the debates of philosophers, grabbing the truth out of each other’s hands, [resemble] a fight among beggars over a single coin.” Transcending truth, the Baron instead revels in smoke and mist. He is a devotee of the impossible and a worshipper of “Saint Nobody.” But lost as he is in the twists of his imagination, can the Baron heal Europe through diplomacy—or at least hold a mirror up to its absurdities?


NY Times: Review of Autobiography of a Corpse and Books on Amazon

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