The Known Unknown: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
November 15, 2013 | by Adam Thirlwell
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev to a Polish-speaking family on February 11, 1887. At university, he studied law. In 1912, age twenty-five, he traveled through Europe, visiting Paris, Heidelberg, and Milan—for the young Krzhizhanovsky was the pure apprentice intellectual. After the First World War, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he returned to Kiev, where he taught at the Musical Institute and the Theatrical Conservatory. In 1922, age thirty-five, he left Kiev for Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. In Moscow, Krzhizhanovsky wrote articles and gave lectures, in particular at Alexander Tairov’s Drama Studio. He also worked as a consultant to Tairov’s Chamber Theater. Meanwhile, he wrote novellas and stories, which were never published—either due to economic problems (bankrupt publishers) or political problems (Soviet censors). Twenty years passed in this way until, in 1941, with Krzhizhanovsky now fifty-four, a collection of stories was finally scheduled for publication—but then the Second World War intervened, preventing even that collection from appearing. In May 1950 he suffered a stroke and lost the use of speech. He died at the end of the year. (His works—almost all of them unpublished—were stored by his lifelong companion, Anna Bovshek, in her apartment: in her clothes chest, under some brocade.)
Almost no one knew that Krzhizhanovsky was writing fiction, since the state never allowed its publication. They knew him in other guises—as a lecturer on theater, or essayist, or occasional playwright. In 1939, Krzhizhanovsky, despite his restricted publication history, was nevertheless elected to the Writers’ Union—which meant that posthumously he was eligible for the process of “immortalization.” In 1953, Stalin died, and three years later Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress instituted a revisionist anti-Stalinist thaw. In 1957—the same year as Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—a commission was set up to examine Krzhizhanovsky’s literary legacy. It lasted two years and was then disbanded, having drafted a publishing plan that was never implemented. Then, in 1976, Vadim Perelmuter, a poet, literary historian, and essayist, discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive. He had to wait until 1989 and the full thaw of perestroika before he could publish one of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. Between 2001 and 2008, Perelmuter finally edited a handsome five-volume edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s works.
Alone in the cube of his room, Krzhizhanovsky wrote stories where people invent time machines or drift onto a branch line to a republic of dreams. In other words, the fantastic is the genre in which Krzhizhanovsky worked. (In a story written in 1927, he mentions in passing his general scheme—a “projected cycle of “fantastic” stories.”) This was not, perhaps, so eccentric. Like the Soviet state, he liked to play with the nature of the real. For although his library could not contain the high-tech innovations of his contemporaries, like Borges or Platonov or Kafka, it could still contain the fictions of Poe and Pushkin and Stevenson and Gogol—these stories where noses could detach themselves from faces, or authors could run after their own characters. And if this term fantastic seems to imply a B-movie, lurid kind of aura, a downmarket mode with ghouls and ghosts, I think the reader should reconsider. Really, the fantastic was the most useful vehicle available for the most intricate philosophy…
For the anxiously prospective reader, it’s maybe useful to propose a miniature classification to the stories Krzhizhanovsky wrote. Roughly they can be divided into two modes. The first kind fit happily, like Lego, into the old fantastic tradition—like the early story “The Runaway Fingers,” where a pianist’s fingers detach themselves and make their escape. But in Krzhizhanovsky’s second mode the subject becomes more abstract: it is no longer a description of the fantastic, but a description of how the fantastic could be described at all. And his method for this investigation is to treat language very seriously and very flatly. Perhaps, for instance, you think you can distinguish between abstract nouns and proper nouns? Krzhizhanovsky democratically erases such a distinction, so that whereas in the old tradition things were personified that could not be really personified, like noses or fingers, in these extraordinary stories much smaller elements can now take on uncanny life—like “solitudes,” or literary terms … Or, in his great novella The Letter Killers Club, it is a role in a play that somehow acquires its own existence, separate both from a character and from its actor.
Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction is based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality. If there is a word for “role” and a word for “character,” then naturally, it follows, according to this method, that the two could possess separate existences. Or, to put this maybe more precisely, he investigated whether the distinction between what is possible in language and reality is even tenable at all. And so the central mechanism of this writing is metaphor (“a three-by-four-inch slip of paper torn out of the notebook had miraculously turned into lodgings measuring one hundred square feet”)—the hinge between animate and inanimate objects, which allows figures of speech to acquire a strange kind of life.
While this attention to the act of writing could, I suppose, be defined as metafiction, Krzhizhanovsky’s real subject is not the gap between fiction and reality so much as the gaps inside the real itself. The metafiction is really metaphysical. So that it should be no surprise if a corpse, in “Autobiography of a Corpse,” reasons in this manner, arguing that space “is absurdly vast and has expanded—with its orbits, stars and yawning parabolas—to infinity. But if one tucks it inside numbers and meanings, it will easily fit on two or three bookshelves.” It is just one more example of Krzhizhanovsky’s exploration of language’s tricks.
In this way, he maps one of the strangest and yet most logical topographies in literature: “I am neither ‘here’ nor ‘there,’ but in a between—in a seam.” And it’s in the story called “Seams” where Krzhizhanovsky gives the most complete account of his new domain.
People whom Moscow has tried in its courts and banished from the city are said to have been: sentenced to “minus 1.” No one has passed sentence on me: 0—1. I am still here, in the hotchpotch and hubbub of the capital. Yet I am fully and firmly aware: I have been banished forever and irrevocably from all things, from all joys, from all truths: though I walk, look and listen beside others settled in this city, I know: they are in Moscow and I am in minus-Moscow. I am permitted only the shadows of things.
In this inverted world, everything that seemed marginal is in fact revealed as central—the crack, the seam, the dream, the reflection, the shadow:
It will do me no good, you see, no good at all to repeat after others: things cast shadows. No, in my minus-city, in my ghostly, minusy little world, only minus-truths make sense—only facts that have fallen on their heads. Therefore: shadows cast things.
It is a fiction, therefore, devoted to what is most miniature and evanescent. (A philosophy that comes with its own inverted poetics, where everything that seems peripheral to a literary work—details, titles, epigraphs, stage directions—is what Krzhizhanovsky most likes to examine.)
And so, to perform a trick of retrospective history for a moment, it’s perhaps not outlandish to notice how Krzhizhanovsky can sometimes recall the writings of Marcel Duchamp—and in particular Duchamp’s idea of the infra mince. Duchamp’s list of what he wanted to express by this idea of the infra thin—the way the smell of tobacco smoke combines with the smell of the mouth which exhales it; the sound corduroy trousers make as one walks; the distance between the front and back of a thin sheet of paper—seems strangely reminiscent of Krzhizhanovsky’s oblique obsessions, always trying to track the gaps in one’s field of vision, or one’s momentary self-reflections in other people’s pupils. His stories are explorations of infra thin edges that are usually ignored. “A thought thought either no further than ‘I,’ or no closer than the ‘cosmos.’” On reaching the “threshold of consciousness,” the line between “I” and “we,” it would stop and either turn back or take a monstrous leap into “the starry beyond”—the transcendent—“other worlds.”
Adam Thirlwell’s most recent novel is The Escape.
Excerpted from Adam Thirlwell’s introduction to The Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a New York Review Books Classics Original that will be published December 3, 2013.