Memories of the Future
by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (2009)
NYRB Classics (2009)
Written in Moscow between 1926 and 1930, in the decade following the October Revolution, the seven pieces that make up Memories of the Future 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.