Written in Moscow between 1926 and 1930, in the decade following the October Revolution, the seven pieces that make up Memories of the Future (tr. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull, 2009) are surprisingly critical of Soviet life, even bitter. Consequently, they, along with most of Krzhizhanovsky’s works, were never published during Krzhizhanovsky’s lifetime. Most were not even shown to editors. Rather, they languished in the state archives until 1976 when scholar Vadim Perelmuter uncovered them. The first pieces were published in Russia only in 1989. He has since overseen the publication of five volumes of Krzhizhanovsky’s works, and we’re starting to get them in English (see my review of The Letter Killers Club here). It’s always surprising to get a glimpse into how easily great works of art can be lost for all time, sometimes unread.
Memories of the Future is composed of six short stories and one novella. Besides being critical, they are remarkably bizarre. In one, a gravedigger has a conversation with a corpse (“It’s not right: dropping dead then dropping in”); in another a man’s train takes a detour into the land of dreams (“Don’t over-stay-awake”); and in another a man wakes every morning to practice the art of resignation (“he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live”). At the time the arts in Russia were steadily moving toward the ideal of socialist realism, a form of art that portrayed the virtues of the working class and spread the good news about communism. Obviously, Krzhizhanovsky’s works did not fall in line, and what we have are these fantastical stories that, far from being realistic, show the existential struggles of the citizens of this new world.
One of my favorites in the book is the first story, “Quadraturin.” Here we meet citizen Sutulin who, like everyone else, lives in an eighty-six square feet room. It is illegal to occupy a space any larger (I was shocked to turn to the notes at the back of this edition and find out that this was not a farcical element — there really was a Remeasuring Commission created in the early 1920s whose job it was to measure rooms and find out who had “excess” living space). One day Sutulin is approached by a salesman who has “an agent for biggerizing rooms.” It’s a salve of sorts that, when applied to the interior walls, floors, and ceilings of a room will “biggerize that room on the inside, but not on the outside. Sutulin decides it’s worth a shot and soon finds his room is growing on the inside, albeit a bit mishapenly since he didn’t apply the agent evenly.
But the agent doesn’t stop working. Soon the room is so large, light from one end doesn’t travel to the other and Sutulin finds that ”an unpleasant sense of morringlessness interfered with his sleep.” The darkness proliferates, and Sutulin breaks down. The story ends with this brilliant single-sentence paragraph:
In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in the middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so — against all sense — he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.
It’s a darkly fun story that can be enjoyed even if one doesn’t put it into context in 1920s Moscow. However, in context, it is an examination of the alienating darkness that had been proliferating in Moscow, making its citizens feel unmoored, lost, and wretched.
Each story contains such criticisms. In “The Bookmark” Krzhizhanovsky is critical of the state of Russian literature as one of his characters says, “‘Authors?‘ his scraggly beard twitched nervously. ‘We have no authors: we have only second-raters. Imitators. And outright thieves.’” In that story, as in The Letter Killers Club, a man invents strange stories — or, themes — out of the random things going on around him, valorizing the imagination, the dangerous imagination. In “The Branch Line,” a man finds the world of dreams, which is attempting to take over the world of reality. There was no better time to attempt such a feat, and nightmares would be the surest means to that end:
The main advantage of the heavy industry of nightmares over the light industry of golden threads plunged into brain fibrils, over the production of so-called sweet dreams, is that in marketing our nightmares we can guarantee that they will come true, we can hand our customers ‘turnkey dreams.’ Sweet dreams cannot withstand reality, sleepy reveries wear out faster than socks; whereas a heavy dream, a simple but well-made nightmare, is easily assimilated by life.
Krzhizhanovksy was certainly ahead of his time, and it’s easy to see why he never quite fit into the literary crowd during his lifetime. His stories are, thankfully, still fresh and still relevant today. There’s much more Krzhizhanovsky in Russian, and it will be a treat to read as it makes its way into English. Quickly, please.
Though not officially state policy until 1932, socialist realism had been the unofficial type of art in Russia since the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks sought to put art into the service of the state. Art had to be easily understood and should convey a positive message about the Soviet Union and the struggle of the Proletariat. In Memories of the Future we find seven stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky that, as the book’s blurb says, were considered too subversive even to show to a publisher. These seven stories not only examine the underbelly of Soviet Moscow but they also indulge in and praise the life of the imagination, the ability to tell a story that seemingly has no relationship with reality, all in an effort to convey that reality more fully.
NYRB Classics published their edition of Memories of the Future in October of 2009, and it is the book we’ll be talking about in Episode 4 of The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast.
In Episode 5 we will be discussing Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair, if the book gets to us in time. If not, we will be discussing Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King.
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Show Notes (54:33)
- Brief Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky Bio (02:37)
- Brief Synopsis (04:45)
- “Quadraturin” (08:42)
- “The Bookmark” (17:03)
- “The Thirteenth Category of Reason” (23:44)
- “Red Snow” (26:30)
- “The Branch Line” (29:35)
- “Memories of the Future” (32:53)
- Co-Host Trevor Berrett
- Co-Host Brian Berrett
- Introduction Music — “Where We Fall We’ll Lie” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)
- Outro Music — “Promise Me That You Will Never Die” by Jeff Zentner, from his album Hymns to the Darkness (used with permission)
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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 (Klub ubiits bukv; tr. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbaull with Nikolai Formozov, 2011).
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
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.