Portrait of a Ghost

January 22, 2014   •   By Diego Báez

Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY may be the best-known unknown writer of his generation. Since the discovery of his manuscripts in the late 1970s, his fiction has appeared in multiple editions in Russian, French, and English, with New York Review Books releasing Autobiography of a Corpse this December. Critics have praised Krzhizhanovsky’s stories as early works of experimental modernism, akin to Borges and Bulgakov, macabre and absurd as Poe or Gogol, on par with contemporaries like Nikolai Leskov and Andrei Platonov, comparable even to Flann O’Brien, Angela Carter, and Thomas Pynchon (of all people). And yet, almost every review of his work includes biographical recap, as if any discussion of this fantasist’s corpus must begin by reintroducing its subject.

Born in Kiev to Polish folks in 1887, Krzhizhanovsky studied law and philology at the University of Kiev, traveled abroad and took in the world, published a few poems and scattershot travelogues in Ukrainian newspapers, migrated with his wife to Moscow in 1922, befriended Aleksander Tairov, a big shot Muscovite director, delivered lectures and worked as an editor, but faced delays, disinterest, and outright rejection of his literary criticism and fiction: editions of Shakespeare were canceled, plays went unstaged, stories suffered heavy censorship, a stage adaptation of Eugene Onegin was first censored and then cancelled, and World War II halted publication of a story collection finally given the proverbial green light.

Frustrated by his failure to secure literary success, Krzhizhanovsky stopped writing, started drinking, survived a stroke, but died soon after, unceremoniously, almost exactly mid-century. It took poet and Pushkinist Vadim Perel’muter’s putzing around in the Russian State Archives a quarter century later, in 1976, to stumble upon a thickly outlined entry in Soviet scholar Georgij Šengeli’s notebook dated December 28, 1950, which read: "Today Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky died, a writer-visionary, an unsung genius." His work wouldn’t surface until the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Éditions Verdier began to translate Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction into French, beginning with The Bookmark (1991), The Letter Killers Club (1993), and Postmark: Moscow (1996). New York Review Books bought English language rights to the work and has now published nearly the full run of EV’s catalog, including the celebrated collection of inventive short fiction, Memories of the Future (2009), and seven loosely affiliated, metafictional chapters masquerading as a novel, The Letter Killers Club (2011).

In his instructive introduction to Autobiography of a Corpse, Adam Thirwell organizes Krzhizhanovsky’s aesthetic tendencies into two discernable threads: typically fantastic tales, where everyday haunts grow to allegorical proportions (think Gogol’s “The Nose,” Kafka’s best-read work, pretty much Poe’s entire oeuvre); and those with more ambitious, metaphysical aims, concerned with the strange divots and inexplicable slippages in reality. Krzhizhanovsky, Thirwell says, likes most to examine “everything that seems peripheral to a literary work—details, titles, epigraphs, stage directions.” From these overlooked minutiae arises the connective tissue of signification, as his fiction “refracts the semiotic debates over the resurrection of the word as thing,” a conversation with deep roots in Russian literary theory.

In the only extant monograph on its subject, Hunter of Themes: The Interplay of Word and Thing in the Works of Sigizmund Križižanovskij, linguistic scholar Karen Link Rosenflanz expands Thirwell’s notion by reading Krzhizhanovsky against the framework of 20th-century Russian formalism. Writers like Roman Jakobson, Jurij Tynjanov, and Boris Èjxenbaum stressed the importance of wordplay and semantic association in the production of meaningful themes. This approach privileges the acoustic and physical similarities of signifiers, and examines the techniques authors use to exploit these structural resemblances, like antanaclasis (repeating a word with slight changes in meaning), asteismus (a word used in one sense by one speaker and reinterpreted in another sense by another speaker), and paronomasia (transposition of letters within two words). In one instance of Krzhizhanovsky’s characteristically complex punning, a deceased speaker tells the reader, “Между ‘я’ и ‘мы’ – ‘ямы’,” which Rosenflanz translates as “Between ‘I’ and ‘we’ lie chasms.” Even non-Russophones will recognize the formal continuity, easily appreciated when printed as a kind of alphabetical algebra: “я" + "мы" = “ямы.” Here, “the actual space created within the word echoes the figurative space described between people,” Rosenflanz suggests. In these and other ways, Krzhizhanovsky’s stories seek to enact processes of cognition, per se.

As such, Rosenflanz likens Krzhizhanovsky’s work to Die Philosophie des Als-Ob, a “treatise on fiction as the basis of thought,” by 20th-century Neo-Kantian Hans Vaihinger. This “Philosophy of As If” should function as an unwritten subtitle to Krzhizhanovsky’s entire fantastical oeuvre, since so many of his fictions explore metaphysical questions through playful threads of semantic association. Rosenflanz attributes this notion of “associative threads” to Russian psychologist Alexander Bain, an author Krzhizhanovksy would have known. Indeed, the phrase appears verbatim in the story, “Autobiography of a Corpse,” in which citizen Shtamm, a journalist, discovers the notebook of his tiny apartment’s previous tenant, a man who had hanged himself inside the very room. Rosenflanz translates the closing lines of the suicide’s manuscript:

I am counting on the most prosaic law of association of ideas and images. Already, everything from the flat blue dots on the wallpaper to the last letter on these very pages has entered your brain. I am already sufficiently tenaciously entangled in your so-called “associative threads.” I’ve already managed to permeate your “I”. I warn you: it’s been scientifically proven that attempts to untangle associative threads and remove the alien image woven into them only fixes it more certainly in the consciousness.

The dead man asserts his presence, collapsing the chasm between recipient and speaker, in this case both Krzhizhanovsky’s characters — the dead man and Shtamm — but also between the author himself and his 21st-century audience. In both instances, the words persist as fixed objects on the page, both the “flat blue dots,” a description of the wallpaper’s pattern, and the “last letter of these very pages.” Krzhizhanovsky’s oddest, most engrossing stories exhibit this brand of ambitious metafiction, a grasping at reality that entices the margin and cascades beyond the spine. But the difficulty in preserving the playful idiosyncrasies of Krzhizhanovsky’s original Russian may explain his perpetually low profile, despite continual interest in English language publication.

A case in point, Autobiography of a Corpse is Joanne Turnbull’s third translation for NYRB, with Nikolai Formozov (about whom a quick Google query yields almost zip). About half the stories collected in Autobiography first appeared in 7 Stories, an edition released in 2006 by Moscow-based translation house Glas. In 7 Stories, Turnbull translates the aforementioned passage from “Autobiography” as follows:

I’m counting instead on that exceedingly prosaic law: the of association of ideas and images. Even now, everything — from the flat blue blots on the wallpaper to the last letters on these pages — has entered your brain. I’m already fairly well entangled in your “associative threads”; I’ve already seeped into your “I”. Now you too have a figment.

Be warned: science has proven that attempts to disentangle associative threads and excise the foreign image only embed that image more firmly in one’s consciousness.

Unlike Rosenflanz, Turnbull has no trouble with contractions, prefers dashes to commas, adds italics and a paragraph break, and alters a few words and phrases, some minor (“dots” to “blots”), others more noticeable (“remove the alien image” to “excise the foreign image”). Turnbull also appends one tiny sentence about an intimate “figment,” a thorny relic of imagination and an improvement to this passage. Yet she decides to render “tenaciously entangled” instead as “fairly well entangled,” which strikes one reader as less emphatic by a measure of several magnitudes. Perhaps at the recondite Formozov’s prodding, “Autobiography,” as it appears in Autobiography, ditches italics and dashes, settling instead on standard US formatting, and includes a phrase omitted by Turnbull in 7 Stories (“entwined in them will”):

I’m counting instead on that exceedingly prosaic law: the association of ideas and images. Even now, everything, from the dark blue blots on the wallpaper to the last letters on these pages, has entered your brain. I’m already fairly well entangled in your “associative threads”; I’ve already seeped into your “I.” Now you too have your own figment.

Be warned: science has proven that attempts to disentangle associative threads and excise the foreign image entwined in them will only embed that image more deeply in one’s consciousness.

While “fairly well” survives, Turnbull and Formozov deserve praise for their subtle shifts and smart choices, favoring the open vowels and alliterative pops of “dark blue blots,” and the delayed action in “will only embed,” which shifts the threat of inevitable further entanglement to a foreboding future tense.

Indeed, the best stories in Autobiography are reworked, slightly modified versions of Turnbull’s previous translations. Take, for instance, “The Runaway Fingers,” in which a famous pianist’s right hand wrenches free mid-performance, scuttling down a Turkish runner, fleeing the shocked concert hall. As the detached hand scrambles down the cobblestone streets, it evokes an upset, Soviet Thing T. Thing and, of course, the symbolic beak of Major Kovalyov, Gogol’s anosmiac protagonist of “The Nose.” But unlike Gogol’s distraught assessor, who awakens to find his face disfigured, Krzhizhanovsky’s pianist witnesses the actual departure of his wayward body part. Absent any blood, gore, or curdling, the absurd scene is both canny and uncanny, at once invoking and inverting “The Nose.” Whereas Kovalyov spots his organ strutting around St. Petersburg, outranking the owner of its former face, the pianist’s fingers find themselves cast out in the rain, downtrodden, stripped of a diamond ring, and cowering beneath wrinkled currency inside a tin collection box. When the fingers emerge and must scurry from a curious horde of street urchins, they escape in a glittering sentence of frantic urgency, a testament to the author’s expert prose stylings and the translators’ deft adaptation:

Only an unparalleled pianistic fluency saved the fleeing fingers: spraying spatters, tearing their tender epidermis on sharp-edged stones, they scampered at the speed of Beethoven’s Appassionata, and, had there been under them not rough cobbles but ivory keys, all the greatest masters of passage-work and glissando would have been outdone and put to shame.

In another odd gem of anatomic fixation, “The Unbitten Elbow,” a reporter for the town’s weekly paper (a role that appears to have preoccupied Krzhizhanovsky: the journalist, the paid writer, the daily recorder) tracks down a man who has vowed to bite his own elbow. During his first interview, the reporter spouts a line of hilariously heavy-handed meta-commentary: “You seem to be in earnest. That is, I mean to say, there’s no symbolism here, is there?” The prepossessed “elbow-eater” attracts the attention of a famous philosopher with an unsubtle surname, Eustace Kint, who recognizes an opportunity to rebuke Kant, and does so through analogy:

The immanent-transcendent is always in the “here,” extremely close to the comprehending and almost part of the apperceiving apparatus, just as one’s elbow is almost within reach of one’s grasping jaws. But the elbow is “so near and yet so far,” and the “thing-in-itself” is in every self, yet ungraspable.

According to Kint, Kant doesn’t “understand that the transcendent is also immanent,” that boundaries between the possible and impossible — between “I” and “we” — are not defined necessarily by some uncanny chasm, but may in fact be only an offhand calembour or stray catch of witty wordplay away from actualization. In these passages, Krzhizhanovsky approaches the chatty, inelegant tendencies that seem to alienate readers, to paraphrase Jacob Silverman’s astute observations, in a review of The Letter Killers Club (2012). But the elbow-eater’s plight reminds at least one avid fanboy of the kid who resolves to kiss every part of his body in §36 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Like DFW’s incomplete, posthumous novel, Krzhizhanovsky’s stories read like disconnected sketches and glimpses of a larger vision. Many adopt a mediated or hovering POV, dependent on an embedded storyteller or mythical character, plus a good measure of metaphysical speculation. But not every story succeeds as well as “The Runaway Fingers” or “The Unbitten Elbow.”

I’m inclined to agree with Elaine Blair, who says “the fascination of Krzhizhanovsky's work today is also its limitation,” but I disagree that he’s “not interested in picking apart the sense-making mechanisms of language that readers take for granted.” In Autobiography, the exact opposite’s the case: stories like “Collector of Cracks” and “Seams,” new in translation, preoccupy themselves so extensively with fiction’s periphery and the apperceptive gaps in sensory experience that narrative tension and character development suffer in service to experimental excess. But, for the most part, the book offers wonderfully unreal takes on typical fairy tale fare, like “Bridge Over the Styx,” featuring a loquacious Stygian toad, and “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” in which Judas hangs himself in the first sentence (another recurrent role: the suicide). Likewise, “The Land of Nots,” composed of theatrical fragments of an imagined land’s mythology, and the epistolary “Postmark: Moscow,” about which not enough has been written.

With luck, the publication of Autobiography of a Corpse will mark another notch in the continued translation of an important Soviet modernist. To my knowledge, NYRB has yet to release only a novel, The Return of Münchausen (2002), a satirical account of the eponymous protagonist, and “The Phantom,” a super strange tale of fetal vigilance, available in Red Spectres (2012), an anthology of 20th-century Russian Gothic fantasy. But there’s much yet to read: in her extensive bibliography, Karen Rosenflanz lists over four dozen works still to be translated into English, among these critical studies of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, plus Poėtika zaglavij, a treatise on the poetics of titles. And contrary to current accounts of Krzhizhanovsky’s life, most of these were published during his lifetime. Let’s hope that greater exposure to this prolific writer’s mad analects will afford his work the agency at least to begin to rewrite the record of its own coming into existence.


Diego Báez’s reviews have appeared most recently in Kweli, Treehouse, and The Review of Higher Education. He lives and teaches in Chicago.