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2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…

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That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…

Russians

This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

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Outdoing the world’s greatest fabulist

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The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Translated by Joanne Turnbull

mde

I’ve written about Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on the Ramblings before; an author who was unpublishable under the Soviet regime, his works came to light after the collapse of the USSR and have been gradually published and then translated into English thanks to the great talents of Joanne Turnbull. Three of his works have been issued by NYRB, and I’ve read, loved and reviewed all of them. So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that NYRB would be bringing out another volume by SK, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen”. The book is out today and the publisher has kindly provided a review copy.

Every Baron has his flights of fancy… I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than any other barons of my right to flights of fancy.

Munchausen was in fact a real historical character, a German nobleman who fought for Russia in the Russo-Turkish war of 1735-39. He gained a reputation for his tall tales, and the German author Rudolf Raspe transmuted him into the fictional fabulist we know him as today, thanks to a fictionalised version of his life. Munchausen has become synonymous with lying, and the real character died back in 1797. However, SK resurrects him rather wonderfully to take on Soviet Russia – and the story is absolutely fascinating.

And in the third place, you are a bad poet, I swear by my pipe, if you do not know that books, if only they are books, may be commensurate with but never proportionate to reality!

Munchausen reappears after 200 years by dropping off the hands of time back into the Palace of Versailles. He makes a base in Berlin, where he spins more fabulous yarns, accompanied by occasional sidekick, the poet Ernst Unding (which translates as Earnest Nonsense). Amusingly enough, he’s announced as:

Baron
HIERONYMUS VON MUNCHAUSEN
Supplier of Phantasms and Sensations
In and Out of This World
Since 1720

Immediately, he’s courted by the great and good, and called upon to tell tales, solve problems and eventually to undertake a secret mission. The Baron is asked to visit Soviet Russia and report back, which he does. Munchausen’s visit to Russia is not relayed directly; instead we see it filtered through his eyes, as he relates his adventures to a rapt London audience. And it’s a fascinating story, as the Baron encounters poverty, twisted logic and a society which says one thing and does another. He even manages an audience with Lenin, who seems to be able to read Munchausen’s mind, and has strong opinions on writers:

A literary hero is naturally curious about literature. About ‘how life smells’. It smells of printer’s ink to the people who populate books or have emigrated to them. So then, all of our penmen are given a choice: feast or fast. Some work steadily; others starve.

Nothing usually fazes the Baron; however, in the nascent Soviet Union he has met his match. In the end, a reality full of such fabrication is too much for the Baron and he takes himself back to where he came from. His visit was in fact spurious, but the stories he invented were sometimes actually real, and the truth is more fantastic than his tales. Munchausen the fabulist is ultimately outdone by the Soviet state, which can create more outlandish untruths than he can deal with.

I swept a fact away with a phantasm, replaced the existent with the non-existent. Always and invariably my phantasms won – always and invariably, that is, until I chanced upon the country about which one cannot lie.

So where to begin talking about “The Return of Munchausen”? Obviously, you have suspend disbelief from the start and just go with the flow. The Baron himself, as presented by SK, is a fantastic creation; confident, convinced that his tales are better than truth, it’s wonderful watching him sail indomitably through the world, an elusive figure following his own agenda. And if there’s something he wants to avoid, he simply jumps back into the book he originally came from.

Then again, how hard could it be for a man who had slipped through the five beams of a star to elude five claws?

Sigizmund_Krzhizhanovsky

However, putting aside the humour, this a book with a serious heart and I would say more directly satirical than his other works. There is a recurring obsession with smoke which occurs throughout the book; of course, smoke and mirrors signify the trickery of politics (both Soviet and in the wider world), but this also brought to mind the book “Smoke” by Turgenev, a book which deals with the illusions existing in Russia during that author’s time. As with all SK’s books, the imagery is unusual and stunning; on the first page, almost the first lines, we read “Now he sprang up the length of a long runner; leaping after him, taking the stairs two at a time, came muddy footprints”. Some of the phrases take your breath away as you’re reading, and even if you weren’t aware of the underlying issues the book is wonderful to read. Its self-referential qualities make it feel almost post-modern at times, and I’ve seen it described as part roman a clef, although it’s not clear whether Munchausen, Unding or the unnamed person in the quote below is standing in for the author himself….

And as for that poor scholar from the country about which one cannot lie, do not worry. I have sent him, by way of compensation, my rough drafts; if he possesses so much as a pair of scissors and a pot of glue, the resulting manuscript should help him on his literary way.

“The Return…” is an extended meditation on the nature of truth, something which must have been sharply relevant to an author living in Soviet Russia and refusing to produce Soviet Realism. The qualities in the Communist state which would be transformed by Orwell into concepts like Doublethink and Doublespeak were already in place; set in 1921, the book was written towards the end of the 1920s when the iron grip of Soviet rule was becoming established so it’s not surprising it was never published. Like so many other authors at the time, SK was most definitely writing for the drawer (the few attempts he made to get his works into print being crushed by the censor).

If you look at Moscow from a bird’s-eye view, you will see: a stone spider in the center – the Kremlin, peering out of four wide open archways at the web of streets it has woven, their gray threads, as in any web, stretching away radially, attaching themselves to distant gates…

moscow-1920s

I found myself profoundly affected by this book; it’s vivid and allusive (and fortunately provided with excellent notes and introduction by Turnbull), and the more I think about it, the more there is in it. SK seems to manage to comment on every aspect of Soviet life, even pulling in a sly reference to the theories of the Communist Manifesto when discussing the attraction of such opposites as a White Russian aristocrat and a Red Guard:

So it always was, so it will always be: antitheses will always trail after theses, but let them marry – and their old friend synthesis will be there like a shot.

If it seems that I’ve pulled out a lot of quotes that’s because the writing is so good and the imagery so outstanding. Although it’s a book with a message, “The Return of Munchausen” is a joy to read as well.

His listeners are all ears, and right away he begins to bend them; first around the edges, then along the auricular cartilage, inward and inward, until they curl up like autumn leaves and, ear by ear, softly and unrustlingly, flutter to the floor. But now his disciplined manservant, who has appeared behind the guests’ backs with dustpan and brush, quietly sweeps up the ears and carries them out.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the book here, as it’s rich with references, thoughts, aphorisms and wild imaginative humour. It’s certainly a work which I’ll return to and which will continue to resonate as I assimilate what it has to say. “The Return of Munchausen” is a deeply thoughtful and fascinating read, and I can’t recommend SK’s books enough,

A Book of Brilliant Things

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Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century compiled and translated by Muireann Maguire

I hadn’t realised quite how badly I’d been affected by my reading of “Grey Souls” until I came to try to pick up another book – and found it almost impossible to get into one! I’ve definitely been struggling a little with choosing my volumes recently, and nothing I touched appealed – I’ve just been putting everything aside after the first few pages.

redspectres

However, I finally got over my stumbling block (or reader’s block!) by pulling “Red Spectres” from my pile of Christmas gifts, and it turned out to be exactly the tonic I needed.

The book is a collection of short stories in the Gothic vein, all written under Soviet rule. Now, Russia under the Bolsheviks is perhaps not a place you would expect this type of writing to flourish, but it very obviously did – maybe because this was a good way to disguise political comment, or maybe because it was a way of writing that was so far removed from politics that it was safe.

Whatever the reason, there is a whole genre here, and translator Muireann Maguire has actually written a book on the subject as well as collecting and translating the stories in this volume. And what crackers they are!

It was the fact that there were stories by Bulgakov and Krzhizhanovsky in it that first attracted my eye to Red Spectres – and in fact all but two of the tales are translated for the first time. It’s a fascinating and collection of stories, ranging from tales of ghosts and mirrors, through science gone wrong to seances that only call up the NKVD! Bulgakov is represented by two works: The Red Crown, a civil story of haunting, and A Seance, a wry comment on the clash between superstition and modern ideology. And the new Krzhizhanovsky is a dark story about a medical dummy that comes to live in a quite unnerving manner and lives through the years of turmoil in Russia.

It’s the speed of decline… Savages also love speed. What you seem to consider a sign of your unique refinement is simply atavism. All entertainments of this type – water sports, cycling, races of all kinds, skiing, funfairs, carousels, carriages, horse-racing – this is all a contagious enchantment with the dizzy sensation of free-fall. Speed has a limit beyond which movement along a horizontal plane becomes free-fall . And those who think like you want to create a motion that’s just like free-fall. What could be more primitive? And, one might say, pointlessly primitive? (Grin; The Grey Motor Car)

But the real revelation to me was the discovery of Aleksandr Chayanov; an agronomist by day, he also wrote 5 short stories and a novel. Maguire has translated three of these, and they’re a standout in the collection. “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin” tells of a man consumed by an obssession with the original woman who inspired a mannequin, one of a pair of Siamese twins, and his quest to track her down; “Venediktov” (which has the distinction of having inspired Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”), is a story of devilish possession and pursuit through Moscow; and “The Venetian Mirror” (one of two marvellous mirror stories in the collection) plays on our uneasiness with the reflected world and our fascination with the possibility of entering it. His writing is excellent and evocative, and the storytelling compelling.

I love the Moscow streets by night, gentle reader; I love to wander through them in solitude, without any goal in mind. The dozing houses might be made of cardboard. Neither the noise of my steps nor the bark of a wakeful guard dog disturbs the calm peace of the gardens and courtyards. The few lighted windows seem to be me to be full of peaceful life, of maidenly reveries, or solitary nocturnal thoughts. As one observed how the little churches dream their dreams, unexpected sights often loom up in the empty streets; now the gloomy colonnades of the Apraksin Palace, now the towering bulk of Pashkov House, or the stony shadows of Catherine’s great eagles. (Chayanov; Venediktov)

Each tale in the collection is a gem in its own right, and put together here they produce a most marvellous book; excellently translated and notated by Maguire, with an informative introduction, this is definitely one of my books of the year – I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s ideal reading if you have an interest in Russian literature, in the Gothic genre, in the development of writing under the Soviets, or simply if you love good short stories. A wonderful book, and just the thing to pull me out of my reading slump!

Dr. Muireann Maguire

Dr. Muireann Maguire

Red Spectres is published by Overlook, who have a history of producing Russian translation, and this is a lovely hardback edition too! For those interested in the subject Maguire has also published “Stalin’s Ghosts”, a study of supernatural fiction in early Soviet Russia, which sounds fascinating! Check out Russian Dinosaur for more about translating the stories for Red Spectres.

Shiny New Books goes Live!!

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Great excitement in the book blogging world, as Shiny New Books, the online book recommendation magazine goes live! Make sure you drop in here to have a look!

I’ve popped in briefly and there is an amazing and impressive amount of content – from reviews of new volumes, reprints, fiction and non-fiction, and a fascinating-looking Bookbuzz section with all sorts of literature-related items! Can’t wait to read it all!

I have been lucky enough to be involved, and have reviewed two very different volumes which I adored:

Autobiography-of-a-Corpse

“Autobiography of a Corpse” is the latest selection of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s stories to be collected by NYRB, and it’s a cracker – a wonderful book of strange and thought-provoking fables.

tamara-cover

“Born in Siberia” is a deeply personal memoir of Tamara Astafieva, a woman who’s lived through the Soviet era and into modern Russia, with stories stretching back to the revolution. It’s moving and fascinating and I was very glad to be given the chance to read and review it.

Shiny New Books promises to have a wealth of lovely bookish reading – so make sure you visit and sign up for the newsletter!

Recent Reads: The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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“The Letter Killers Club” by SK is the last of his volumes currently available in English and the longest single piece so far published by NYRB or Glas – it’s novella length at just over 100 pages. I confess to approaching this one with great anticipation, but also a little trepidation as the subject is books – or rather, the absence of them!

letter-killers

The blurb for the novella on Amazon reads thus:

Writers are professional killers of conceptions. The logic of the Letter Killers Club, a secret society of “conceivers” who commit nothing to paper on principle, is strict and uncompromising. Every Saturday they meet in a fire-lit room hung with blank black bookshelves to present their “pure and unsubstantiated” conceptions: a rehearsal of Hamlet hijacked by an actor who vanishes with the role; the double life of a medieval merry cleric derailed by a costume change; a machine-run world that imprisons men’s minds while conscripting their bodies; a dead Roman scribe stranded this side of the River Acheron. The overarching scene of this short novel is set in Soviet Moscow, in the ominous 1920s. Known only by pseudonym, like Chesterton’s anarchists in fin-de-siècle London, the Letter Killers are as mistrustful of one another as they are mesmerized by their despotic president. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is at his philosophical and fantastical best in this extended meditation on madness and silence, the word and the soul unbound.

Hyperbole? I don’t think so, although I’m not sure I’m in the best position to do a rational, measured review of this book because I just came out of a bit boggled at the brilliance of the concepts and the writing. This is a book I need to read again in a more considered manner, now that I know what actually happens, in order to really judge it properly. But here goes anyway.

Our unnamed narrator is taken by an acquaintance to attend the Letter Killers Club meeting. The letters of the title are not items of correspondence but the actual building blocks of language itself – the alphabet. We never learn any real names in this book – the club’s attendees are known by nonsense aliases: Das, Tyd, Zez, Hig, Mov and Rar. The narrator’s acquaintance is the President and he has strong ideas about books:

“… if our letterizations stifle one another, if writers prevent each other from writing, they don’t allow readers even to form an idea. The reader hasn’t a chance to have ideas, the right to have them has been usurped by word professionals who are stronger and more experienced this matte: libraries have crushed the reader’s imagination, the professional writings of a small coterie of scribblers have crammed shelves and heads to bursting.”

The domineering president explains that pure stories do not exist as trapped by letters but only as verbal tales, and each week one of the attendees relates a story to the other members. There is a tension in the air during these meetings, as if not all the members approve of the lack of paper with symbols on it – in fact, one member actually has written notes which crackle and give him away, so they are burned. In Soviet Russia, the written word could kill you – so it is no surprise that the members of the Letter Killers Club refuse to commit their titles to paper.

“…no-one searching emptiness has ever managed to find anything.”

The narrator is intrigued by one particular member of the group, Rar, and attempts to talk to him outside the meeting, where Rar reveals the reason they have asked the observer to come along to the meetings. But the group implodes with the unexpected death of one of its members, which brings an end to the gatherings. It is left to the narrator to break the cardinal rule of the Club and commit his experiences to paper – but with what consequences is never revealed.

That’s just a superficial reading – but what of the stories-within-the-story? Well, there are actually five chapters with individual conceptions, and these are all excellent in their own right – tales which could have been expanded or presented as one of SK’s own short stories. The Hamlet story from Rar dips into the idea of the double (a regular theme in Russian literature) and also ponders on the authenticity or not of an actor’s rendition of a famous part – is each one creating a different version of the character? Tyd presents the merry olde cleric story which is actually two stories with similar character names but different plots and features a double of sorts. The centrepiece story is a long, fantastical tale by Das about “Exes” (i.e. external or ex-people), telling of a futuristic world where a scientific experiment has enabled the ruling class to detach people’s brains from the control of their muscles, isolating their thought processes and producing an army of automatons – the ultimate totalitarian state. It’s superbly written, mind-boggling and inventive, and very telling about the desire for control and power. The writing and sweeping imagination displayed in this particular story took my breath away – pages 62 and 63 are in particular wonderful pieces of prose, but too long to quote here. Firstly the madmen are “converted”, then the dissenters and finally everyone not of the ruling elite – a simple allegory of life under Soviet rule? Not quite – this could be any totalitarian state, not just Soviet Russia.

“One cannot force a person to live an alien, manufactured life. Man is a free being. Even madmen have a right to their madness. It is dangerous to entrust functions of will to a machine: we still don’t know what that mechanical will may want.”

Fev’s tale is a weird fable of three characters with a travelling dispute about why God created the mouth. And the final story, from Mov, deals with death and payment of dues, with the various members of the club offering alternate resolutions to the tale. This resonates with the fate of the members of the club and leads the reader on to wonder how much of each conceiver we should see in his story – and indeed how much of SK we should look for hidden away in his work.

So, putting these concepts aside, it’s worth considering what SK is actually trying to do with this novella. The subject of the art of storytelling is one which recurs often in his work (or at least that which is available so far in English!) and he’s featured the idea in at least two other stories I’ve read – “Someone Else’s Theme” and “The Bookmark”. In this novella hunting of themes and telling of stories and is taken to its logical conclusion – no story can be written down. Russia has a strong bardic tradition (as do most old countries) and using the written word to contain and set in stone stories is relatively recent – in fact, it could be argued that by imprisoning a story in a finalised form, a writer is actually killing what in the oral tradition would have been a living, breathing organism, expanded and improved upon and polished as the bard told it over and over again. Each of these tales has a message or moral of its own, but has the narrator damaged this by fixing the stories in a permanent form? SK was very much a theme-catcher himself, a conceiver, and many of his short stories are more like sketches or outlines than traditional stories. It is a form he seems to excel in and even this, notionally a novella, is more like a collection of briefer works. He had an astonishingly fertile mind and it must have caused him some hardship to simply stop writing stories in 1941 (SK had finally had a collection of stories approved for publication, when the German invasion put a halt to this and he never wrote another one).

The Arbat in the 1920s, where SK lived in a tiny room.

The Arbat in the 1920s, where SK lived in a tiny room.

Of course, there is also the aspect of storytelling in the Soviet world, something I’ve touched upon quite a lot recently on this blog, particularly in my comments on Bulgakov. The 1920s and 1930s in particular were a dangerous age to be an artist in Russia, and the real writing of the era was buried, hidden in drawers or sometimes even in minds. There are many recorded cases of writers memorising their work and destroying the paper copy (Akhmatova’s Requiem, for example), which leaves the chilling realization (after reading Das’s story) that if the mind was then separated from the rest of the body by sinister machines (“ether winds”), the stories would be lost forever. SK seems to have shared MB’s mistrust of science, although SK goes into much more depth with his fictional scientific concepts. Many seem to have a basis in real science or philosophy and they are sometimes hard to grasp, so the notes in this volume are very useful (if not essential!) Bulgakov’s attitude toward other writers in the Soviet system (see particularly “The Master and Margarita”) is very scathing. And they both share such superficial features as the housing problem and the ubiquitous appearance of the primus stove!

SK was just as much affected by the inability to publish as was Bulgakov – he described himself: “I am a crossed out person” which could well apply to B – but the work he produced in reaction to this is very different. SK’s stories look inward to the craft of storytelling itself, the hunting down of themes and the oral tradition. The world of dreams appears more than once, but these stories are perhaps more elusive than MB’s. Bulgakov’s fictions are also fantastical and surreal but in a more biting, obviously satirical way, and perhaps wider in range – particularly with “The Master and Margarita” – although I’ve only so far read a fraction of SK’s work so it might be too early to judge. Although there are superficial similarities and influences in these two Kievan writers, in the end there is no point in comparing them – both produce greatly individual works of genius which still speak to us down the decades. So is this SK’s main statement on the place of artists under totalitarian rule? That remains to be seen when more of his work is translated into English. I’ve been very mentally stimulated by the work of SK I’ve read so far, and enjoyed it very much – carry on producing these originals, please, NYRB!

Recent Reads: 7 Stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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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.”

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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!

Recent Reads: Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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I have to confess that this book has been one of my most anticipated reads of recent months. I’ve been eyeing it up for ages now, seduced by the rave reviews and the fact it’s a collection of long-lost Soviet satirical stories. I finally cracked and picked up a copy with some Christmas money, and dived in!

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Some quick facts about SK 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.”

The fact that SK’s work is only just emerging is remarkable in itself and it’s a little frightening to think that such works have been buried for years under the Soviet machine – as Robert Chandler puts it in his introduction to the excellent anthology “Russian Short Stories From Pushkin to Buida” (which features “Quadraturin”) SK was “writing for the drawer” (as were other writers like Bulgakov). I have in fact read “From Pushkin….” some years ago which means I have read “Quadraturin”! This was a surprise to me, and is, incidentally, is one of the reasons I started this blog – to try to record my feelings about what I read and fix my memories of books more firmly!

However, on to this collection. The book consists of seven short pieces, translated by Joanne Turnbull and with some excellent notes by her:

Quadraturin
The Bookmark
Someone else’s Theme
The Branch Line
Red Snow
the Thirteenth Category of Reason
Memories of the Future

of which the title story is the longest. The writing is individual, unusual and singular, and in some ways reminds me of Platonov with its dream-like, haunting quality. The first story *is* a little Kafka-like, dealing with a scientific invention to expand the inside of someone’s room (in a TARDIS-like way) to solve the housing problem (ah, the eternal Soviet housing problem!) But things go wrong, and the protagonist actually ends up lost in his own room! “The Bookmark” and “Someone Else’s Theme” are very much concerned with the telling of tales. The Soviet demand for only Socialist Realism in fiction was very much on the rise, at the expense of true tale tellers, and it was impossible to get something with a fantastic theme published. The Theme Catcher in the first story endlessly spins tales, with only the slightest stimulation needed from life around him to set him off. It is difficult to see these stories as anything else than the reaction of a spinner of romances to the authorities’ demands. “The Branch Line” and “Red Snow” both feature dream sequences and landscapes, beautifully written and entrancing. “TBL” is particularly wonderful, with a traveller apparently taking the wrong train and ending up in the world of dreams where night and day are inverted, and scary dreams are about to take over the real world (another veiled critique of the Soviet dream, perhaps?). The fantasy sequence is wonderfully written, with all the qualities of the best dreams (and nightmares!). Likewise in “Red Snow”, the protagonist encounters regularly a strange character called Saul Straight, while he is struggling to find food and work in a Russia is always cold and snowy (as in most of these stories). He ends up living through a very scary nightmare where he encounters the Russian people queueing implacably (as they do for everything) – this time, for logic! “The Thirteenth Category of Reason” features a corpse who is late for his own funeral – ’nuff said!

The title story is a masterpiece – it tells the story of Max Shterer, who is obsessed by time from childhood and spends the rest of his life trying to conquer and supersede it. His quest to build a time machine spreads over many years, the first world war, the Russian revolution and civil war, plus the early days of the Soviet bureacracy. There is obviously some influence from Wells’ “The Time Machine” here – SK drops mention of the book into the text, and when Max finally gets to set off, he appears to move through time but not space in the same way as Wells’ hero. But there is a political subtext here not present in a straight sci-fi story – and what Schterer sees in the Soviet future is deemed too dangerous to let out (we do not even hear ourselves what it is) and after he is visited by a mysterious personage (Stalin???), he and his tale vanish.

 

Sigizmund_KrzhizhanovskyRunning through these tales is a sense of suspension of real life, which presumably reflects how SK (and many others) felt during the revolution which turned a world upside down, shook it a lot, and set it down in a very different configuration. There are also comments on the effects of Soviet bureaucracy, like this one, which are beautifully written:

“Haven’t you noticed how in the last few years our life has been permeated by non-existence? Little by little on the sly. We’re still  immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long since been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others. This wristwatch with its pulsating minute hand is still mine, but time is not, it belongs to someone else who will not let you or me into a single one of its seconds. What is death, after all? A special case of hopelessness.” (Red Snow)

These are amazing stories from an amazing writer, and I am just so glad that he was rescued from obscurity. I can’t wait to read “The Letter Killers Club”, and I hope that more of his work will appear in English translation. I do agree with Robert Chandler when he says: “It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century.”

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