December 2013

Molly O'Brien


Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull

I did not read the introduction to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy's Autobiography of a Corpse before I read the stories that followed. I find that introductions, especially to works whose author is no longer living, serve better as a postscript, a way to reorganize my mind after it has been jolted through a maze of fiction. First I like to read the artful words, then I read the practical words to set the artful words properly in their historical and literary place, the way Jell-O sets in a mold after having been briskly whisked.

I was right to do this for Autobiography, which is a collection of masterful, lyrical, and slightly off-kilter fantasy stories, preceded by the realization that none of them were published even remotely in Krzhizhanovksy's lifetime. Krzhizhanovksy was a respected theater lecturer in Moscow in the early twentieth century, but he wrote stories and novellas in secret. Soviet censors first prevented his fiction from being published, then World War II did the same. Krzhizhanovksy died in 1950 without the world having ever read his fiction. It wasn't until Perestroika in 1989 that his words, safeguarded by a female friend and rediscovered by a literary historian, found the world.

The New York Review of Books has taken care to exhume and revive Krzhizhanovksy's literary corpse, reviewing Memories of the Future two years ago, then publishing Autobiography this month. After reading Autobiography, I fully support a campaign to make the name Krzhizhanovksy as much a part of the sci-fi pantheon as Borges, Poe and Calvino -- so what if it might not be as easy to pronounce?

The collection begins with the title story: a man moves into a tiny room in Moscow and comes upon a letter from the previous tenant, a suicided "corpse" who documented his madness to leave for whomever moved in next. The tenant describes how difficult it is to remain an "I" and maintain one's identity; he writes about figments that haunt him, like an image called "0.6 person... not a ghost, a vision, or a sleepy reverie... no, it was just that: a figment." Later on in the letter the corpse clarifies his goal: "I've already seeped into your 'I.' Now you too have your own figment." Ghost story as communicable disease -- the corpse, haunted by figments, becomes the haunter. Only, in a last sentence far too subtle to be called a twist ending, the newly haunted tenant might actually be happy to be haunted. He'll do "whatever it takes" to stay in the room. End scene.

It's the perfect story to begin Autobiography: it is morbid, it thrives in confined space, it analyzes the nature of language down to the very shape and sound of individual letters, and it evokes fantastical imagery both precise and deliciously open-ended. Take the "0.6 person" the corpse referred to -- what does he look like to you? For some reason I pictured a silhouette of a person, black and white, not fully filled in, but with at least one distinguishing feature like a hat or glasses or a prominent nose, kind of like Elijah Wood's creepy character in Sin City. Others will think of something different. This is what Krzhizhanovksy does: he puts a remarkable amount of care into describing his vision without taking the overbearing sci-fi writer route of controlling what the reader sees. You get the sense that he trusted his reader to fill in the blanks, even if, not being published, he didn't know who his reader was.

The other stories combine fantasy hypotheticals with explorations of existence and identity. In "The Runaway Fingers," a famous pianist sits down to play for a packed concert hall only to have the fingers of his right hand make an escape. A absurd mad dash follows. Two little boys try to catch the fingers as they run down a city street: "Only an unparalleled pianistic fluency saved the fleeing fingers: Spraying spatters, tearing their tender epidermis on sharp-edged stones, they scampered at the speed of Beethoven's Appasionata, and had there been under them not rough cobbles but ivory keys, all the greatest masters of passage-work and glissando would have been outdone and put to shame." (If it's not obvious from that passage, Joanne Turnbull has done a fantastic job with the translation from the Russian.) The story ends in heartbreak, but not the kind you'd expect from losing one set of digits to the world.

What else? A man looks into the eyes of his beloved, only to see a tiny man waving from her pupil; he's the one she loved before him. A scientist discovers that the planet, depleted of natural resources, can be powered by human spite; the more crowded and uncomfortable trains are, the more angry passengers get, and the more houses are able to be heated and lit. Judas betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of silver; Krzhizhanovksy follows each piece of currency toward their ultimate destination.

In the best story of the bunch, "The Elbow Biter," a newspaper survey unearths a man who is on a simple mission to bite his own elbow. Krzhizhanovksy whips the story into a frenzy, turning the elbow biter's quest into a literal circus performance. Will the man bite his elbow, or won't he? There is gambling. There are philosophers who weigh in with essays on "The Principles of Unbitability." There are growing factions of elbowists and anti-elbowists. Men's clothing stores start "selling jackets with detachable elbow patches." A quirk becomes a school of thought becomes a capitalistic pursuit becomes a... well, I don't want to give it away.

Beside the obvious pleasure one gets from reading this kind of lovingly crafted fiction -- fantasy supported by a solid philosophical scaffolding -- there is a secondary pleasure knowing that Krzhizhanovksy wrote all of this at a fairly hopeless time in literary history, and kept writing more. I cannot imagine the creative frustration of writing during totalitarianism, but maybe when you know that no one will get to read what you write, not in your lifetime and perhaps not ever, you write with a better sense of freedom -- a better sense of possibility.

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy, translated by Joanne Turnbull
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590176702
256 pages