As anyone with a mountainous TBR knows, it’s often hard to keep track of what’s arrived, what’s to be read next and, actually, what book you’re really in the mood to pick up. A case in point is the book featuring on the Ramblings today; the most recent release from NYRB Classics by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, “Unwitting Street” ( translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov). I bought it as soon as it came out and was so excited about the fact there was a new collection of his very individual and idiosyncratic writings available. Why, therefore, has it languished unread for so long???

There’s no good reason apart from the usual ‘so many books, so little time’; but suddenly, for no apparent reason, I realised this was the book I HAD to read right now – and it was a wonderful experience from start to finish. SK is an author with whom I’m very familiar, having read the four other books NYRB have issued, all wonderfully translated by the same team, as well as an earlier collection. SK was an author who languished in obscurity for much of his lifely, so his rediscovery is a joy. His stories are quirky, unusual and very individual; his take on life idiosyncratic; and his voice distinctive.

The grass of oblivion likes to be watered with tears: this helps it to grow.

“Unwitting…” collects together 18 short works, set in the Soviet world of the early 20th century, and they’re surreal, moving and memorable. The blurb on the back indicates that these stories are perhaps more playful than his other works in translation; well, yes, sometimes – SK is always playful, I feel, but there are dark and quite profound themes in some of these stories which really do take the breath away…

The first story in the collection, “Comrade Punt”, perhaps sets the scene for the rest of the book, with its tale of a pair of trousers able to take on a life of their own when their usual occupier dies – pretty much because of Soviet beauracracy. Short fables like “The Flyelephant” and “A Page of History” play with our preconceptions; and “The Slightly-Slightlies” starts as a tale of illusions but moves into darker territory when the illusions are dropped. “Journey of a Cage” uses the device of a parrot in a cage being passed from hand to hand to show the dramatic changes taking place in Russia of the time. In a similar fashion, “The Grey Fedora” follows the titular hat on its journey from head to head, ecountering all sorts of people on the way. “Death of an Elf” explores musical inspiration, as does “The Mute Keybord”, and chess turns up in a number of the stories. Then there’s “The Life and Opinions of a Thought” in which a philosopher’s idea fights against being written down.

But the dusk – for now – was otherwise engaged: unbidden, slipping into the hall unheard, it first gingerly touched all the corners, contours, and edges of things. Quietly pressing its gray fingers to window ledges and sills, the corners of the table, the sinuous outlines of men and chessman, the dusk tried to unsettle them. But the things, sealing up their edges, lines, and corners, resisted. Then the dusk’s gray muscles tensed and contracted, its fine cindery fingers clutched at contours and edges more fiercely and tenaciously. And the fastenings gave way: dropping lines, ledges, and planes, the shapes of things loomed up, contours swayed, corners came apart, freeing lines: things began to stream and quietly seep into one another. They were not: as of old.

All of the stories are clever, funny, quirky and so wonderfully written; and SK has a most individual way of saying things, often allowing anything non-human to take on an existence of its own. That particular element always gives his writing a completely individual voice as far as I’m concerned – I’m not sure I’ve ever read prose like this. I’ve seen SK compared with Kafka, Borges and Calvino, and I would certainly agree that he’s a one-off as they are, taking the reader into uncharted territory and twisting their expectations. The blurb describes these stories as ‘philosophical and phantasmagorical’, a description with which I’d agree, but despite that playful element highlighted above there are most definitely dark themes running through the book. I was particularly hit by the story “God is Dead” which explores what actually happens to humanity when they cease to believe in God and so in effect that entity *does* die. It’s a breathtaking piece of fiction delving into human futility and left me quite stunned at the end. I think ‘philosophical’ is definitely the word to apply to SK’s works because you come away from them pondering deeply and with your thoughts and perspectives on life quite changed – well at least, I always do….

SK, via Wikimedia Commons

In some ways I wish I hadn’t waited so long to pick up this wonderful collection, although I’m a firm believer in the right book at the right time – and maybe this was just its time! Whatever – “Unwitting…” was a wonderful, engrossing and entertaining read from start to finish, and a thought provoking one at that. Thank you whoever rescued SK’s writings from the archives, thank you Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formazov for giving him a voice in English, and thank you NYRB for publishing them – my life is enriched by SK’s books!