The Letter Killers Club
by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (Klub ubiits bukv, 1926)
translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (2011)
NYRB Classics (2011)
123 pp

A couple of years ago, NYRB Classics introduced most of us to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky when they published Memories of the Future. Krzhizhanovsky died in 1950 having lost most of his battles to publish his work to the Soviet censors (of his hundreds of stories, plays, criticism, etc., he published only nine stories in his lifetime). His work remained archived until it was uncovered in 1976. Even after that, it wasn’t until 1989 that much his work first began being published in Russian. Finally, his work is trickling into English, and we’re catching on to the fact that here we have one of the greatest Russian authors of the twentieth century. Recently, NYRB Classics has published another of his works, The Letter Killers Club.

One doesn’t have to read far into this book to figure out why the Soviet censors — in particular, Maxim Gorky — considered Krzhizhanovsky “untimely.” Here we meet a kind of secret organization of men — all using pseudonyms — who meet in a room surrounded by empty book shelves. They shun the written word, yet they meet every Saturday evening to tell each other their “conceptions,” short pieces of fiction that, very importantly, were not and will not be written down. And they come up with the strangest things . . .

But before we get into that, there is some reason to this ritual. Our narrator is a literary man, and one day he is shocked to discover that a famous writer has decided to quit writing. The narrator finds the man and asks him what is going on, and the man (the eventual founder of The Letter Killers Club) explains. When he was a poor young man, he loved reading and was proud of his library, despite his modest circumstances. But when he received word that his mother had died, he had to sell his entire library in order to make the trip to her funeral. Returning to his room with its empty bookshelves, the man discovered that these empty bookshelves still held the weight of their ideas, and the act of reimagining the books allowed him to succeed in his own writing. Eventually, though, he has rounded up all of his words and his ideas have become pent-up in his books. He longs for the freedom he felt imagining stories before they became limited by the page.

Writers, in essence, are professional word tamers; if the words walking down the lines were living creatures, they would surely fear and hate the pen’s nib as tamed animals do the raised whip. Or a better analogy: do you know about the production of astrakhan fur? Suppliers have their own terminology: they track the patterns of the unborn lamb’s wool, wait for the necessary combination of curls, then kill the lamb — before birth: they call that “clinching the pattern.” That is exactly what we — trappers and killers — do with our conceptions.

So this man, the president of The Letter Killers Club, invites our narrator to one of their meetings. On each Saturday, one of the members stands up and recites a conception. The other members comment, critique, and reimagine the story as it meanders around. This seems innocent enough, but the air of secrecy invokes the fear of a secret society. Perhaps more strangely, the members themselves feel some amount of fear toward the president of the club.

The stories themselves are all fun to read. Krzhizhanovsky favors the surreal and absurd, and his mindset is enmeshed in experimental modernism. The first story takes us to Hamlet. To show how inseparable Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are, the teller also splits Guildenstern into two characters: Guilden and Stern. Guilden and Stern are both in love with Phelia and both hope to win the role of Hamlet in an upcoming production. Soon “Role” itself comes out and speaks to Guilden and Stern, and discusses how it is to be best played, including a short bit on how it has been portrayed in the past. This particular story is a bit convoluted, but, as I said, it is fun. Better stories follow.

In particular, I was taken by a remarkable science-fiction tale where a few men, building off of each other’s ideas, are attempting to figure out a way to take over a human being’s physical movements. In other words, they want to find a way to quash the individual human will and use that body to do their own will.

Anonym’s ideas had the immediate effect of broadening Tutus’s outlook and the scope of his experiments: he realized that the machine must take control of those human movements and muscular contractions that had a clear social significance. Anonym maintained that reality, whose component parts are actions, had “too many parts and too small a sum.” Only by taking innervation away from a separately functioning nervous systems and giving it to a single, central innervator, said Anonym, could one organize reality according to plan and put paid to that amateurish “I.” By replacing the jolts from individual wills with the jolts from one “ethical machine” built according to the latest advances in morals and technology, one could make everyone give everything back: a complete ex.

However, so complex is the human body and the human mind that all experiments keep being ruined by “unaccountable scrawls of will.” But there is a breakthrough:

After three weeks of attempts to break through to life, the tightly tied sack of skin and fat, pushing the pencil lead inserted between its limp fingers, managed to scrawl: kill myself. Tutus pondered the plan and decided to turn it into a sort of experimentum crucis: even in his experiments with this seemingly completely demuscled subject, the work of the mechanical innervator had been spoilt by unaccountable scrawls of will that got mixed up in the machine’s precise musical score. It was impossible to anticipate every form of volitional resistance; what’s more, an experiment with suicide was bound to involve a moment of violent conflict between the will of the machine and that of the man. Tutus proceeded as follows: having quietly emptied a bullet case of its gunpowder, he slipped the cartridge — in full view of his subject — into the cylinder of a revolver, cocked the trigger, and enfolded the weapon of death in the inert fingers. Now the machine went to work: the fingers twitched, then gripped the gun handle; the forefinger produced an incorrect reflex — Tutus adjusted the refractory finger inside the trigger’s curve.  another press of the key — the man’s arm sprang up, bent at the elbow, and brought the barrel to his temple. Tutus scrutinized the subject: his facial muscles showed no signs of resistance; true, his eyelashes fluttered and the points of his pupils had become large black blots. “Very good,” Tutus muttered, turning around to press the next key — but how strange, the key was stuck. Tutus pressed harder: he heard a metallic click. First he inspected his machine, depressing and releasing the key that had now come unstuck. Then he flipped some switches, and suddenly the human sack with the incomprehensible self-will pitched forward, flapped its arms like a bird shot in flight, and slumped to the floor. Tutus dashed up: the subject was dead.

Krzhizhanovsky’s work was “untimely,” indeed.

This is not the only suicide in the book. As the club members continue to meet, the narrator is increasingly unsettled by what they are doing and the basis for their weekly meetings. He thinks he may see discontent among other members as well and seeks to speak with them about what is going on these Saturday evenings.

I read a lot of great books this year, but I believe this is the best of them all. It is incredible that such a voice was unheard for most of a century and was nearly lost for good. Makes one wonder about all of those voices we haven’t been so fortunate to recover.

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