It seems unbelievable that Krzhizhanovksy languished in obscurity for so long, because he does seem like the answer to every cliché of Russian literature. With the single caveat that his books are significantly shorter than Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s epic tomes, I promise that these stories fulfil all criteria set out for great Russian reading.
- Philosophy. These books take Dostoyevsky’s existentialism and then show how much further it can go. Take ‘In the Pupil’ for example, when a man learns, literally, that he lives within the gaze of his beloved. If that’s not your philosophy of choice, the traditional ‘diary of a madman’ is taken to its extreme in the ‘Autobiography of a Corpse’. If you like short stories with complex themes (and most Russian literature lovers do) then these are essential additions to your bookshelves.
- Absurdist humour. Last week I wrote about how Bulgakov first struck me as completely original for his surreal sense of humour – that is, until I read more Russians and realised he was simply building on a well-established tradition. Krzhizhanovsky is the natural heir to Gogol, wonderfully re-working ‘The Nose’ in ‘The Runaway Fingers’ (the title says it all). In these collections however, the humour has a particularly dark Stalinist edge. Take the superb ‘Quadraturin’, for example, in which a man is given a product to make his room larger. The uncontrollably expanding room causes its tenant all kinds of problems as the remeasuring committee are doing the rounds to make sure that no worker gets more than his allocated eighty-six feet square.
- Mysticism. One of the joys of my reading this year has been seeing how the Orthodox Russian religion has informed the literature of the nation. Of course, Krzhizhanovsky knew this better than me, and so while his ‘Letter Killers Club’ is reminiscent of the Free Mason sections of ‘War and Peace’ he also is biblical in the manner of Andreyev and Bulgakov in his tale ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’.
- Science Fiction. I had thought that Zamyatin and Bulgakov were unparalleled in their science fiction imaginations, but ‘Memories of the Future’ isn’t just a wonderfully evocative title for a book, it is also the name of the final novella in the collection. In this story, a man invents a time machine. Of course, his investors want to use it to travel back before the revolution in order to get themselves and their jewels out of Russia. As a side note, the inventor himself has read Wells’ short story and he is highly offended at the thought of fiction invading his brain and dreams.
The final element of Krzhizhanovsky that I must mention is not typically Russian, but is essential in balancing so much of the negativity and bleakness of his stories. The books are in love with literature itself. While frequently containing explicit condemnations of the realities of censorship, nothing can diminish their passion for storytelling, language and reading. Take the start of ‘The Bookmark’:
‘The other day, as I was looking through my old books and manuscripts tied tight with twine, it again slipped under my fingers: a flat body of faded blue silk and needlepoint designs trailing a swallowtail train. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time: my bookmark and I. Events of recent years had been too unbookish and had taken me far from those cabinets crammed with herbariumized meanings. I abandoned the bookmark between lines as yet unread and soon forgot the feel of its slippery silk and the delicate scent of printing ink emanating from its soft and pliant body wafered between and pages. I even forgot … where I had forgotten it. Thus do long sea voyages part sailors from their wives.”
Krzhizhanovsky feels like the Russian writer that I always knew was out there but had never discovered. I’m so grateful to NYRB for making his work available to English language readers and, if you’re a fan of Russian literature, I can’t recommend him highly enough.