Over the past few years, NYRB Classics has released two books of tales (we can call them science fiction, philosophical, political) from the Soviet writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Memories of the Future (my thoughts here; our podcast covering it here) and The Letter Killers Club (my thoughts here). It’s remarkable that these books and stories have found their way to us at all, because when Krzhizhanovksy died in 1950 he still hadn’t been able to publish them. While he did try to get some stuff through the Soviet censors, his writing was considered so subversive that many were not even shown to Krzhizhanovsky’s editors.
I loved those two books, as elusive as they are, and consequently Autobiography of a Corpse (tr. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull, 2013) was one of my most highly anticipated publications of 2013. Now it has made the Best Translated Book Award longlist.
I’ve been wrestling with this collection of eleven relatively short (most between ten and thirty pages) for the past four months. It was a pleasure simply to sink back into Krzhizhanovsky’s prose, translated, lovingly, with impeccable skill and playfulness (“The manicured fingers of the famous pianist Heinrich Dorn, accustomed to strolling the ivory keys of concert pianos, were unused to perambulating wet, dirty pavements”) by Joanne Turnbull.
Let me be clear: most of the time, I have no idea what Krzhizhanovsky is getting at philosophically, politically, or . . . well . . . narratively. This is not unique to this particular Krznizhanovsky book. I often found here (and in the other two) that I’d be following along fine — more than fine: the premise of the story, fantastic; the style, remarkable — and then Krzhizhanovsky took a turn and I’d be left sitting there confused. The promising premise doesn’t seem to cohere, seems to have been discarded even. The endings come abruptly, or they fizzle out. It could be frustrating and alienating. The setup is usually so incredible, we expect a grand finale.
An uncomfortable thought creeps in the mind: maybe there is nothing much here other than a bunch of fantastic start-ups.
And yet . . .
Well, sitting here today, some distance from a first read, with the collection reread (some parts multiple times), I still cannot completely avoid that creeping thought of anti-climax, but it is no longer uncomfortable. I think the stories do come together. And, regardless, though I don’t always know what they mean, the stories never fail to make me feel new and strange things. I am nearly certain it is simply that my relationship with the book — with Krzhizhanovsky — is still developing. I hope another collection is in the works.
Many of the stories in Autobiography of a Corpse are about identity and relationships, by which I mean they deal with the way identity is formed by, or manipulated by, our relationship with someone else. Sometimes we get strange moments when it seems a person has suddenly become something else (and narrative becomes something else), and sometimes two people become one (this, some forty years before Bergman’s Persona). While the examination — and poking and prodding, the teasing — of the “I” has been prevalent in the other two Krzhizhanovsky books NYRB Classics has published, in them it often felt like a kind of response to Soviet politics, but in the stories before us in this collection it feels much more intimate and universal.
The first story is the title story (and probably still my favorite). When “Autobiography of a Corpse” begins, a journalist named Shtamm is seeking lodging in Moscow (which brought to mind the first — the great — story in Memories of the Future, “Quadraturin”). At the least, seeking lodging in Moscow causes severe anxiety; at worst, it’s completely futile: “He knew that on the metropolitan chessboard, squares had not been set aside for all of the chessmen.” And what of the individual who seeks to find a space to live in such a system?
Well, it seems Shtamm has a stroke of luck. A room is available, and he quickly moves into the 100-square-foot space. As he situates himself, he finds that a notebook has fallen from a crack in the door. It’s addressed to him, in a way: “Resident Room No. 24.” He opens it up, and we begin reading the text that takes up the bulk of this story:
Whoever you, the person in room 24, may be, the manuscript began, you are the only person I shall ever manage to make happy: You see, had I not vacated my hundred square feet by hanging myself from a hook in the corner by the door, you would hardly have managed to find yourself a resting place so easily.
The new tenant reads the notebook over the next few nights and is intrigued — as was I — by the dead man’s account of his psychorreah, or, “soul seepage.” He talks of the “0.6 person”:
From a fairly young age, you see, I had been visited by a strange figment: 0.6 person. This figment arose as follows. One day, while leafing through a geography book, I came across this line: “In the country’s northern latitudes the population per square mile is 0.6 person.” It stuck in my mind’s eye like a splinter. I squinted and saw a flat white field stretching away past the horizon, a field divided into right-angled square miles, snow slowly falling in large, lazy flakes. And in every square, where the diagonals intersect, it, a stooped, thread-paper body bent low to the bare, ice-covered ground: 0.6 person. Exactly 0.6. Not just half, not half a person. No. A small dissymmetrizing fillip had attached itself to “just.” The incompleteness, contradictory as this may seem, had been infiltrated by a remainder, by an “over and above.”
This 0.6 person — a figment, the corpse says — continued to visit him in his dark days. I don’t want to get too much more detailed with the plot itself. Suffice it to say that this corpse accomplishes his goal — to become a figment himself:
Given all those failed experiments with my “I,” it has long been my dream to inhabit someone else’s. If you are at all alive, I have already succeeded. Goodbye.
It’s remarkable stuff, both because the idea is so far out there and the prose is such a unique and masterly combination of philosophic technicality and playfulness. At the best of times — like when the corpse is describing the 0.6 man — it is both, though sometimes Krzhizhanovsky skews closer to the philosophic (and the story loses some steam) or closer to the playful (and the story loses some direction).
An example of a story that loses some steam and direction both is the second, “In the Pupil.” This story starts out dark, with a — speaking of supreme mixtures — voice that is controlled, composed, and completely mad (I often thought of, say, James Mason narrating Poe’s “The Tale-Tell Heart”). “In the Pupil” is a good example of another of Krzhizhanovsky’s strengths: rendering a world composed of darkness, a world that goes into that liminal space outside of the daylight and into semi-consciousness. It begins:
Human love is a frightened thing with half-shut eyes: It dives into the dusk, skitters about in dark corners, speaks in whispers, hides behind corners, and puts out the light.
This story has a wonderful setup where the narrator talks of loving a woman in the daylight, but later he does all of his loving in the darkness, due to a magnificently rendered dread he experiences after seeing a man (a former lover) in the woman’s pupil.
For several days I did not show my face — to her or to anyone else. Then a letter found me; the narrow cream-colored envelope contained a dozen questions marks: Had I gone away unexpectedly? Was I ill? “Perhaps I am ill,” I thought as I reread the slanted cobwebby lines, and I decided to go to her — straightaway, without losing a minute. But not far from the building where my love lived, I sat down on a bench to wait for the dusk. Doubtless this was cowardice, utterly absurd cowardice: I was afraid, afraid of again not seeing what I had not seen. You would think that the simplest thing then would be to search her pupils with mine. It was probably an ordinary hallucination — a figment of the pupil — nothing more.
There’s that haunting “figment” again. And, indeed, the figment is likened to “modified, minimized ‘I’s.” I was so far on board this train when by this point . . . we go off with another narrator and story altogether. In the third part, finding oneself suddenly on a different trail can be frustrating, and even with distance I still find myself frustrated here. I wanted to keep going with the first narrator, and suddenly going off with the other left me disappointed.
Of course, one of the best parts of this collection is “not knowing”; Krzhizhanovsky, perhaps because he was simply writing for the joy of writing for himself, knowing he’d never publish a word of this, so fully shuns expectations we may have due to convention. I have learned it’s best to take what he gives, which is marvelous, even if it doesn’t get me where I want to go.
At least, story by story. If we take the work as a whole, it becomes more clear that Krzhizhanovsky is dealing with the same (or, similar) things in each story. The first section of the third story, “Seams,” is entitled: “1. Man Is to Man a Ghost.” The fourth, “The Collector of Cracks,” has this on its first page: “The sun dislikes phantasms, whereas lamps are sometimes not averse, their shades attentively cocked, to listening to a tale or two.” This one also brings in another favorite stomping ground: the writer/storyteller sharing his work.
The next story is “The Land of Nots,” a wonderfully paradoxical exploration of being and existence. It begins like this:
I am — Adsum. And I namely am because I belong to the great Nation of Ises. I cannot not be. I think that’s fairly clear and common sense.
But to explain to you, my worthy Ises, how Being can tolerate a clot of Nots, how it can have allowed — even on a desolate outskirt, on an out-of-the-way little planet — a strange little world of Nots to spring up and spread, that for me will be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, the Land of Nots is a fact. I myself have been there and what follows will attest to the truth of my declaration.
A philosophizing Not once said, “Being cannot not be without becoming Nothing, while Nothing cannot be without becoming Being.” This is so very reasonable it’s hard to believe that a Not, a nonexistent being, could — in little more than a dozen words — have come so close to the truth.
As the collection continues, the strangeness does not diminish. In one story, a famous pianist’s fingers flee. In another, a man tries — and crowds cheer him on — to bite his own elbow.
The last is a strangely reflective piece, called “Postmark: Moscow (Thirteen Letters to the Provinces).” In this, a man writes letters, post-marked Moscow, to his friend in the provinces as he explains how he came upon “the meaning of Moscow.” It’s hardly straightforward or devoid of obscure abstractions (together, the other ten stories have eleven pages of notes in the back, while this one — which is not long — has fourteen all its own), but it’s still filled with emotion. Naturally, he first finds his room (fifty-four square feet is all). Then, as he tries to work, the city invades him, and he shoots his musing off to his “dear friend.”
It’s a tragedy that Krzhizhanovsky had to deal with the politics and censorship of Soviet Russia — that shouldn’t go unmentioned — but I don’t think the themes that pervade his work, closely linked to the forces he lived under and yet so universal, would have been explored in this way were it not for that system. Krzhizhanovsky would have been thinking of other things instead of digging deep into his soul — in the dark — to pull out these bizarre stories. Also, while frustrating at times, I’m glad these didn’t suffer under any editorial attempt to make them fit what I expected. The book is imperfect — and, in a way, because of that, it’s perfect. There is a great void (rendered beautifully in these works), and these are the broken echoes — could they be any other way? — of a man shouting.