After my recent read of SK’s “Memories of the Future” (review here) I did a bit of digging about on the Interweb and found that his work was first published in English by Glas with their collection “7 Stories”, published in 2006. The stories are also translated by Joanne Turnbull, who is shaping up to be the dedicated translator of SK, in much the same way as Robert Chandler is connected with Platonov’s writings. The introduction is useful and informative (though it isn’t stated who wrote it).

seven-stories-sigizmund-krzhizhanovsky-paperback-cover-art

The seven stories in this volume are:

Quadraturin
In the Pupil *
The Runaway Fingers *
Autobiography of a Corpse
The Unbitten Elbow *
The Bookmark
Yellow Coal *

The asterisked ones are new to me, as the others feature in “Memories…”, and these four are corkers! “In the Pupil” is a strange tale of the narrator’s love for a woman and as he falls for her and she for him, he spots a little man in her eye – a reflected image of himself who seems to have an existence of his own. The narrator becomes fixated upon this little man, always looking to see him when he meets his love, until one day he mentions it to her. She dismisses his comment scornfully, and the little man is seen waving goodbye and walking away. The affair continues unconvincingly until suddenly the little man manages to escape one day and tells his tale to the narrator, of how all the images of all the women’s previous lovers live inside her head, jockeying for position, but with the certainty that the first love will also take priority. The narrator tries to pop the little man back into his eye, with tragic consequences.The story is apparently representative of SK’s views on relations between men and women, as he lived separately from his long-term partner, Anna Bovshek, until his last illness forced him to move in with her.

“For the real love object is constantly changing, and to love you today is to betray the person you were yesterday.” (“In the Pupil”)

“The Runaway Fingers” tells the tale of a pianist’s hand that makes its escape from the owner and runs off into the streets, where it finds that freedom comes at a price. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a citizen who is trying to bite his own elbow becomes a media sensation, spawning philosophical systems, lotteries and political machinations.

“Yellow Coal” is a remarkable story. As R.H. (presumably translator Robert?) Chandler has pointed out in his review of “Memories of the Future” on Amazon.com, this tale “anticipates global warming. It is set in a time when we have run out of coal and oil and the sun is drying up our reserves of water”, which is remarkable when you think when SK was writing. The authorities offer a reward for a solution and one scientist, after stumbling one day from his protective motor car out into the real world of rushing, bustling people, recognises the human emotion of spite as a source of energy which can be exploited. SK goes on to spin an imaginative and fanciful yarn about the rise and fall of this energy source, which eventually self-destructs by lulling humans into a bland, self-satisfied comfortable state where they are no longer spiteful.

SK’s writing is wonderfully inventive and fantastic. These stories are allegorical, obviously – there is no way they can be taken literally but this does not detract from their power when we realise which systems they are parodying. SK stated:

 “I’m not alone. Logic is with me.”

schillinger-190

The world around him was illogical and one of the ways to fight it was with logic and the absurd. It is really not surprising that the Soviet authorities could not deal with them and in fact two of the pieces in this collection (TRF and TUE) are the only two works of SK’s published during his lifetime. Like his fellow Kievan author, Mikhail Bulgakov (who died the same year as SK), Krzhizhanovsky’s brand of surreal writing was a world away from socialist realism and both were well aware that the kind of literature that was allowed in Soviet Russia was basically a dead art form.

“Now nowhere could one find – not for a seven-, eight- or even nine-figure sum –  the old embittered minds, the furious inspirations, the pens sharp as stingers and dripped in bile. Today’s insipid ink, devoid of blood and bile, pure and unfermented, produced nothing but silly scribbles and vague, blot-like thoughts. The culture was dying – in disgrace and silence.”

The unpublishable Russians have had to bide their time and save their work for an era that wants more than just bland, mass-produced pap (although there is plenty of that still out there nowadays). I’m mightily glad that SK’s works survived until the thaw which has allowed them to make their way out into the wider world – I believe there are more volumes to come from NYRB which is excellent news!