For our #ReadIndies a year ago, I was delighted to be able to revisit one of my favourite authors in translation, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I think I’ve written about everything of his which has been translated into English, mainly in volumes from NYRB Classics, translated by the wonderful Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov, and his writing is truly unique. However, in 2022 Columbia University Press took up the baton, bringing out a new collection of Krzhizhanovky’s non-fiction under their Russian Library umbrella. ‘Countries That Don’t Exist turned out to be a stupendous read, expertly rendered into English by a group of talented translators. So imagine my excitement when I learned that CUP were bringing out *another* Krzhizhanovky in time for this year’s #ReadIndies; and that it was going to be a collection of fictions entitled ‘Stravaging “Strange”‘, with Turnbull and Formazov at the helm!! The publisher kindly made a copy available for review and frankly I was so hyped that the book barely made it onto the TBR before I picked it up and started reading; and I’m happy to report that it lived up to my expectations!

Well done CUP for naming the translators on the cover!!! 😀

I won’t go over SK’s background again, but suffice to say he ‘wrote for the drawer’ pretty much all of his life and it’s only in recent decades, since the fall of the Soviet Union, that his work’s been discovered and has been reaching the audience it deserves. The bulk of his work which has been published in English is in the short story/novella format, and he excels in this. The new collection, with its unusual title, does include shorter works, and what treasures they are. The three fictions are the title work, plus Catastrophe and Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki. The first and last are substantial pieces, approaching novella length; the middle one a shorter, more overtly philosophical piece, which is quite haunting; and all are just marvellous.

I have a platform ticket to literature. I watch others seeing people off or departing. but I’m not meeting anyone or seeing anyone off. That’s how it is.

First, I’ll address that word ‘stravaging’; I had to look it up, and it comes from the Scots/Irish word ‘stravaig’ which can be defined as wandering about aimlessly or with no goal – so that’s my vocabulary expanded! The title story could be regarded as typical SK, as it has a fable like quality, drawing on the imagery and adventuring of a Gulliver. The story within a story (told to the narrator by his old magus) tells of that teacher’s adventures in pursuit of a woman he loves; his next door neighbour, married to a much older professor, she’s somewhat out of his reach. However, the teacher is provided, by his own tutor, with a liquid which will shrink him, Alice-like, to a size too small to be perceived. He pursues his adventures, where to travel next door is an epic quest, and because of his miniaturisation can cause havoc with his rival, the Professor. And indeed, when returned to full size, he pursues an affair with his neighbour. However, jealousy will cause him to drink another potion which will cause him to become even more microscopic…

Catastrophe, by contrast, explores what would happen to the universe if Kantian thought was taken to its ultimate end, resulting in time no longer existing – which would indeed be a catastrophe! I’ll say no more about this piece, but it was most entertaining and thought-provoking!

Here the outskirts of literature ended. I went as far as possible past the line of words, walked through wastelands, falling down and picking myself up, despairing and spurred by the power of my despair. Suddenly I saw – looming up through the nothingness – the verge of a forest of mysterious and ineffable images. I looked round – and realized: I would never make it back to words.

The final piece, Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki, relates a fictional biography of a remarkably unsettled man! Katafalaki is fated never to find a real home, constantly on the search for the perfect tutor, the perfect discipline to study, and plagued by bad luck. He travels from country to country, moving through Berlin, Paris and even London, desperately trying to find his place and his metier. Yet nothing he tries seems to work, he’s easily tricked by those more devious than him, and even his attempt to make his mark by literally walking every street of London over a number of years is ruined by WW1 and then life moving on while he somehow stands still whilst continuing to walk… It’s a mesmerising work of fiction, with an unforgettable protagonist.

That’s just a little of what the stories are about, but I have to mention again SK’s unique prose; I’ve commented in the past how he twists your expectations, having a most individual way of saying things, often allowing anything non-human to take on an existence of its own. That’s on show here, as well as his incredible imagination; the vivid descriptions in Stravaging are stunning, conjuring images of how the world would look from the viewpoint of something microscopic, and really I think his writings are quite visionary. The whole of Catastrophe, with its brilliant sequence of events showing how philosophy can literally affect the world, is stunning. And Katafalaki, with its hapless and peripatetic protagonist, surely is also some kind of wish-fulfilment for SK, who was never able to travel thanks to the Soviet regime. Just brilliant, all three pieces.

I live in such a distant future that my future seems to me past, spent, and turned to dust.

The three fictions on their own would make this a treasured volume in my collection of SK; however, there are other riches included. SK obviously kept extensive notebooks (as well as loose-leaf notes it seems), and some extracts of these were featured in ‘Countries That Don’t Exist’. Much to my delight, more are included here and these are wonderful; often short Krzhizhanovsky-ish aphorisms, but sometimes longer pieces; frankly, I loved these and I want all the SK I can get my hands on!

But the icing on the cake was the last section of the book; this contains extracts of the memoirs of SK’s partner (and eventual wife), Anna Bovshek, and these were just wonderful. Bovshek met SK in 1920 in Kiev, and they were together until his death in 1950; and these extracts give us a vivid pen portrait of the author. As there is no biography of him available as far as I’m aware (at least in English) this is incredibly important and to see SK spring to life through the eyes of someone close to him was the best thing. I devoured this section, witnessing his struggles to write and be published, his poverty and devotion to his art whatever the circumstances, and was terribly moved. Whoever decided to include this deserves immense thanks.

As you might have guessed from all the hyperbole, I utterly adored this book; it breaks my heart that SK could never be published in his lifetime, but maybe the world just wasn’t ready for him then. At least he’s found an audience and a readership in this messed up modern world, and I have say he’s up there with my favourite Russian authors (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov). I can’t praise or thank enough those who’ve brought SK’s work to the English-speaking world, especially the dynamic duo of Turnbull/Formozov. I’ve been having a wonderful reading year so far, and this is another book which is certainly going to make it onto my best of 2023 list. If you like quirky and thought-provoking, I do recommend SK – a marvellous, marvellous writer!