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A startling rediscovery,
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This review is from: Memories of the Future (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887--1950) used to say that he was `known for being unknown'. For the main part, Soviet editors rejected his work; often they dismissed it as `untimely' or `not contemporary', by which they meant: `This is not what we need during our new socialist epoch.' Curiously, one of the most startling qualities of his stories is the directness with which they address our twenty-first century concerns. It is as if the Soviet editors were right; Krzhizhanovsky now seems more our contemporary than theirs.
One story, `Yellow Coal' (published not in this volume but in the earlier SEVEN STORIES), 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. A scientist suggests harnessing the energy of human spite: 'On the long keyboard of feelings, you see, the black keys of spite have their own distinct, sharply differentiated tone.' Marriage, of course, is a good potential source of this energy: 'coldness and, wherever possible, repugnance multiplied by proximity would produce high-voltage spite...' But there are other sources: 'Mills could make do with workers' hatred alone; the workers themselves were no longer needed. Factories and mills began laying huge numbers of people off, keeping only skeleton crews to man the spite collectors.' In the end, however, it appears that even the seemingly infinite energy of spite can grant humanity only a brief respite.
The pun on `spite' and `respite' is mine, but it is, I believe, in Krzhizhanovsky's spirit. He follows the play of thought and words wherever they take him. In his own words, `A thinker is not someone who thinks loyally, but someone who is loyal to his thoughts'. He also wrote, `I am not alone. Logic is with me'. This brings us to one of the finest stories, `Red Snow' (1929), the Russian text of which was discovered only a few years ago. In it a man is wandering around Moscow in search of work. Eventually he joins a line of people waiting on the street. They are hoping to obtain some logic, but they are afraid it will run out before they reach the front of the line...
Another story, `Quadraturin', takes as its starting point the shortage of living space in 1920s Moscow. The narrator, like Krzhizhanovsky himself, lives in what is little more than a cupboard. A mysterious stranger brings him a tube containing `an agent for biggerizing rooms: Quadraturin'. The narrator smears this substance around the walls - and from that moment they never stop moving apart. Many writers have described the boundlessness of the steppe; many have described the suffocating quality of a Soviet communal apartment. No one else has evoked both agoraphobia and claustrophobia in a single image. I had thought I understood this story well, but a friend has just written to me, `The enlarged room is a subtle metaphor for an inner revolution. The protagonist is an inverse image of Kafka's man who turns into a cockroach. His difficulty in dealing with the world derive from the magnification of his inner world, not its shrinkage.' This startled me; I had never read the story this way. Krzhizhanovsky's work, however, is subtle enough to bear many interpretations, and I am sure he will continue to startle me.
Krzhizhanovsky's work is remarkable both for its brilliance and for its breadth. The complete works - now being published in both Russian and French - amount to around 3000 pages. As well as both long and short stories, he wrote travel sketches, plays, opera librettos and essays about literature and the theatre. In the 1920s, when Meyerhold, Vakhtangov and other great directors were at the height of their fame, he criticized them for arrogating dictatorial powers; he argued that slave labour is never productive and that it is therefore a mistake to turn actors into slaves. He also wrote that the Revolution had turned the entire country into a theatre - one where improvisation was forbidden and only canonical texts could be performed.
The translator, Joanne Turnbull, conveys Krzhizhanovsky's intellectual vitality. She provides neat equivalents for the puns and neologisms, and her language is idomatically and rhythmically alive. One story begins with terse onomotopeia: 'The rail joints clacketed, rapping out the staccato of the route.' 'Red Snow' begins still more arrestingly: ' Resignation to one's fate takes practice. Like any art. Or so Citizen Shushashin maintains. He begins every day - after putting on his shoes and washing his face, before throwing on his jacket - with an exercise. Again, the expression is his. This exercise works like this: he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that's all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live.'
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 19, 2012 1:50:30 PM PST
MARTHA GRAHAM says:
Your review is remarkable! There is no way I could not order and read this book after reading what you wrote here. I studied Russian language for six years in school. Now, even is late middle age, I return again and again to the Russian writers. I am elated to have discovered this one.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 19, 2012 10:38:28 PM PST
R. H. Chandler says:
Thank you, Martha! "Quadraturin" is a wonderful story. Like Vasily Grossman's last stories (our translations are in THE ROAD) and some of Platonov's stories (e.g. "The Return" and "Fro"), it is as fine as the best of Chekhov.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 8, 2012 10:53:18 AM PDT
Can you please tell me if/how much the stories in 7 Stories and Memories of the Future overlap? Thank you!
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 8, 2012 11:10:26 AM PDT
R. H. Chandler says:
There is one story, "Quadraturin", that appears in both books. So it is well worth getting both!
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 11, 2012 6:31:05 PM PDT
Thanks for responding, I will do just that!
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