There was high excitement at the Ramblings when I learned that Columbia University Press was bringing out a collection of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky‘s non-fiction writings under their Russian Library umbrella. SK is a massive favourite with me, and I’ve reviewed all of the marvellous NYRB editions of his work, along with an early collection from Glas. So it was a given that I’d want to read this, and CUP were kind enough to provide an ARC which was a marvellous treat!

Back in 2013, when I first read and wrote about SK, I quoted this from Wikipedia: “Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky (11 February [O.S. 30 January] 1887 – 28 December 1950) was a Russian and Soviet short-story writer who described himself as being “known for being unknown”; the bulk of his writings were published posthumously. In 1976, scholar Vadim Perelmuter discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive and in 1989 published one of his short stories. As the five volumes of his collected works followed, Krzhizhanovsky emerged from obscurity as a remarkable Soviet writer, who polished his prose to the verge of poetry. His short parables, written with an abundance of poetic detail and wonderful fertility of invention – though occasionally bordering on the whimsical – are sometimes compared to the ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges. Quadraturin (1926), the best known of such phantasmagoric stories, is a Kafkaesque novella in which allegory meets existentialism.” If ever a Soviet author was “writing for the drawer” it was SK, as so little of his work appeared in his lifetime. But intriguingly, as this new collection reveals, there was much more to him than short stories and it was often his non-fiction which managed to make it into print.

“Countries That Don’t Exist” is edited by Jacob Emery and Alexander Spektor, containing fourteen pieces which span SK’s writing career. The earliest, ‘Love as a Method of Cognition” dates from 1912; the final piece with a confirmed date is 1949; and each piece is presented with an introduction by its translator, whose name is given at the end of the piece together with the date if known. The amount of care which has gone into the presentation of the book is impressive, with a marvellous array of translators featured, and I feel I must name-check them all:

Anthony Anenome
Caryl Emerson
Jacob Emery
Anne O. Fisher
Elizabeth F. Geballe
Reed Johnson
Alisa Ballard Lin
Tim Langen
Muireann Maguire
Benjamin Paloff
Karen Link Rosenflanz
Alexander Spektor
Joanne Turnbull

Most of these are names new to me, although Maguire and Turnbull are familiar and favourite translators; all, however, seem to me to have done a magnificent job as there is a consistency of tone in the works which makes them all sound like SK to me! The book comes with an excellent introduction and supporting notes, so there’s all you could need to make this a rewarding reading experience.

But what is SK actually writing *about*, I hear you ask? Well, all manner of things really, and probably as hard to define as his fictions are! His early essays are philosophical, rooted perhaps in the symbolist tradition and exploring the inner and outer worlds, and how we use words to define and explore them. Then there’s literary criticism, as SK explores Shaw and Poe, perhaps unlikely bedfellows, particularly for writers in Soviet-era Russia (though Shaw was very popular there at the time).

Our world is too visible, eye and brain are over strained by a superabundance of vision, by an overdazzlingness of apprehensions – and so they ask that the thing be removed from its visible and tangible place, that it be excluded from time and space; that the realness of reality be less.

This being SK, there are any number of pieces which defy categorisation and straddle the line between essay and fantasy: the title essay explores exactly what it states, countries in fiction such as those in Gulliver’s adventures or (intriguingly enough) the stories of Baron Munchausen, who ended up in one of SK’s own fictions. Chess makes an appearance (as it did in the “Unwitting Street” collection); “A Collections of Seconds” riffs on photography’s ability to pin down a moment; and “The Poetics of Titles” is a particularly interesting piece which explores the naming of a piece of writing and its importance in defining what that piece of writing will be. As always, words and what you can do with them are at the heart of SK’s writing and it’s clear how important linguistics were to him. His wordplay is often dazzling and it’s a tribute to the translators that they’ve captured and conveyed this so vividly.

Needless to say, all of these writings feature SK’s quirky, individual way of looking at, and writing about things. Objects have a life force of their own; the lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred; and SK’s view on what he’s writing about really is unique. Even something like “Moscow in the First Year of the War”, which could just be a stark memoir of the hardships of living during a conflict, is given the SK treatment and he presents what translator Paloff describes as a ‘slice of life’ – an impressionistic look at something as specific as windows, for example, where SK lets their appearance ‘speak’ as to the effect that war is having on them.

Art needs people who rather than acquainting us with the unknown, can disacquaint us with the known, who can take this thing that has become a mind-sore, this trifle right here, and raise it to the power of a dream or mystery.

The book closes with a series of excerpts from SK’s writer’s notebooks, presented in roughly chronological fashion, which share thoughts, aphorisms, and autobiograpical notes. As translator Muireann Maguire mention in her introduction to this, it’s possible to read an increasing sense of despair into the fragments as you get closer to the end, and this did remind me of how heartbreaking it must have been for a gifted author like SK to be pouring his heart and soul into his art, with no outlet to publish it or find a readership. Authors write to be read, to have that dialogue with the reader, and to be forbidden that must be the greatest punishment.

Well, I could go on and on about how brilliant this book is – and you can see by the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy what an effect it had on me! But I’ll stop here and just record my thanks to all involved in bringing SK’s work to a wider audience. I guess initial gratitude is to Vadim Perelmuter for discovering the archive and then eventually producing a complete set of his works; and then of course to NYRB and Joanne Turnbull, in particular, for championing his writing. SK was a completely original author, brimming with ideas and concepts and ways of looking at things which completely upend your viewpoint; and we can only be grateful that he kept on writing, with faith in the power of words to transcend his lifespan. This volume is a real triumph and I can ony hope that more SK makes it into English!