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The Master of the Crossed Out

Memories of the Future

by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull, with Nikolai Formozov
New York Review Books, 228 pp., $15.95 (paper)
thirwell_1-062311.jpg
Russian State Archive of Literature and Art
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on vacation in Italy, summer 1912

1.

In December 1926 the German critic Walter Benjamin arrived in Moscow. Almost ten years after the Communist revolution, he was curious to see what revolution now looked like. It turned out, wrote Benjamin, that revolution was really renovation. Moscow was the city of Do-It-Yourself. Everywhere, he observed, there was this gusto for what the Russians called remont: an endlessly renewable, delighted, fussy passion for fixing, touching up, reupholstering, redecorating. “Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table.” He added: “The country is mobilized day and night.”1

Another inhabitant of this city was Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Ukrainian writer with a comically unpronounceable Polish name. Benjamin, of course, was a tourist. Krzhizhanovsky—whose occluded literary career coincided with the era of Stalinist repression—was not. Krzhizhanovsky also noted the mania in Moscow—“that gigantic flattened human hive”—for amateur renovation:

A milliner and a watchmaker had divided the tinplate sign above a mended shop window. At a crossroad, in a rusty cauldron under caracoling smoke, a new sidewalk was boiling. A street photographer was fastening a backdrop of blue-and-white mountains to a tired acacia.

But this is a momentary idyll of activity. Ultimately, Krzhizhanovsky’s Moscow was a city of relentless nullification. Revolutionary remont busied itself with the renovation of sidewalks; it also busied itself, famously, with the engineering of souls.

In his great book Main Currents of Marxism, Leszek Kołakowski describes the nature of the mobilizing politics of the USSR in the 1920s:

The totalitarian character of the regime—i.e. the progressive destruction of civil society and absorption of all forms of social life by the state—increased almost without interruption between 1924 and 1953….2

One aspect of this absorption was the meticulous censorship of literature, which was a uniquely organized invention—a malicious care for the interior lives of writers. No difference was allowed between the cultural and the ideological. Trotsky first sketched out the Communist principles of literature in a note on June 30, 1922, describing how “an attentive, cautious, and gentle attitude is essential toward those works and authors who, although they carry an abyss of all kinds of prejudices inside them, are clearly developing in a revolutionary direction.”3 Four days later, Stalin jotted a quick confirmation: “Joining Soviet-inclined poets into a single core and doing everything possible to support them in their struggle—this is our task.”4 In the same year, the main censorship bureau, known as Glavlit, was set up. The censor was envisaged as a benevolent ideological coach. This benevolence manifested itself, as Krhizhanovsky notes, in a stamp imposed on manuscripts, a “narrow rectangle with the ten letters inside: DO NOT PRINT.”

Literature in Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s was a delirium of close reading. The state and the writer were in febrile communication. Consider, for instance, the downfall of the great novelist Andrei Platonov.5 In 1931, after reading one of his stories in the magazine Red Virgin Soil, Stalin scribbled angry criticism in the margins. A letter was drafted to the magazine’s editor, and Platonov’s career was over. Yet there is grandeur in Platonov’s response, as recorded by Shivarov, an officer from the 4th Section of the Secret Political Department: “I don’t care what others say. I wrote that story for one person (for Comrade Stalin), he read the tale and in essence has given me his reply. The rest does not interest me.”6

The downfall of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, however, was slower, less theatrical, more anonymous. Krzhizhanovsky is almost unknown to readers in English. Until recently, he was almost unknown to readers of Russian, too. That, of course, is the point. The Communist Revolution specialized in erasure: in Krzhizhanovsky’s phrase, Moscow was a city inhabited by the “crossed-out.” The experience of Moscow for Krzhizhanovsky was one of absolute isolation. The city was a hive of constriction. It was almost impossible to read his censored contemporaries, like Bulgakov or Platonov. It was equally difficult to read his international contemporaries, like Kafka or Joyce. (The first Russian translation of Ulysses appeared in 1989. Kafka only appeared in Russian after Krzhizhanovsky’s death in 1950.) But then, censored and rejected himself, it was almost impossible to read Krzhizhanovsky.

2.

Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev to a Polish-speaking family on February 11, 1887. This date places him in the midst of the modernist generation. He was a little younger than Kafka and Joyce, a little older than Bulgakov and Pasternak. Another generation of Russian novelists—Yuri Olesha, Andrei Platonov, and Vladimir Nabokov—would be born twelve years later, in 1899.

At the time of the abortive 1905 revolution, Krzhizhanovsky was eighteen. At university in Kiev, he studied law. From the evidence of his erudite stories, he seems to have studied everything else as well. In 1912, aged twenty-five, he traveled through Europe, visiting Paris, Heidelberg, Milan. After World War I and the 1917 Revolution, he returned to Kiev, where he taught at the Musical Institute and the Theatrical Conservatory. In 1922, aged thirty-five, he left Kiev for Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. He wrote articles and gave lectures, in particular at Alexander Tairov’s Drama Studio. Tairov was—with Vsevolod Meyerhold and Constantine Stanislavsky—one of the most important theater directors in Moscow. From 1922 Krzhizhanovsky worked as a consultant to Tairov’s Chamber Theater.

In 1924 a collection of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, Fairy Tales for Wunderkinder, was accepted for publication, but the publishing house went bankrupt before the book came out. And so begins the sad history of Krzhizhanovsky’s impossible publications. In 1928 and 1929 he wrote more stories, a screenplay, and a play. None of these appeared in public. On April 23, 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party created the Union of Soviet Writers, with Maxim Gorky appointed the first chairman. In the same year, Gorky stated that stories like Krzhizhanovsky’s “would hardly find a publisher,” and if they did, and managed to “dislocate a few young minds,” he added, would this really be desirable?

In effect, his opinion made Krzhizhanovsky definitively unpublishable. The next year, Krzhizhanovsky’s Academia edition of Shakespeare was canceled. In 1934, another play, The Priest and the Lieutenant, went unstaged. A collection of stories that was provisionally accepted by the State Publishing House was stopped by the censors. That year, the First Congress of the Writers’ Union set the terms of socialist realism. Gorky’s speech, “Soviet Literature,” contained this helpful sketch of future subject matter:

Life, as asserted by socialist realism, is deeds, creativeness, the aim of which is the uninterrupted development of the priceless individual faculties of man, with a view to his victory over the forces of nature, for the sake of his health and longevity, for the supreme joy of living on an earth which, in conformity with the steady growth of his requirements, he wishes to mould throughout into a beautiful dwelling place for mankind, united into a single family.7

The secret police report on the congress—August 31, 1934—contains this record of Isaak Babel’s suicidally bored, accurate back-row scorn: “All this is being done artificially, under the stick, the congress feels dead, like a tsarist parade, and naturally no one abroad believes this parade.”8

In 1937 the centenary of Alexander Pushkin’s death was to be celebrated in the Soviet Union by a jubilee. Preparations had begun in 1934. By July of that year, the first planning board of the jubilee was purged. An All-Union Pushkin Commission was set up—directly supervised, naturally, by Stalin. Among the contemplated celebrations was a performance at Tairov’s Chamber Theater of an adaptation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, with incidental music by the new Soviet star, the composer Sergey Prokofiev. Krzhizhanovsky was to write the stage adaptation.9 A first read-through occurred in early spring 1936.

That summer, the censors set to work, creating what Prokofiev called a “new plan.” In all, Krzhizhanovsky produced four versions of the script. By the end of the year, the production had been censured into silence for its “creative errors.” (The commission, in the end, preferred to celebrate Pushkin’s oeuvre through the safer media of plaques, postage stamps, and the renaming of streets, factories, and collective farms.)

A year later, another play written by Krzhizhanovsky, That Man, the Third, went unstaged. In 1941—Krzhizhanovsky was then fifty-four—he had a collection of stories scheduled for publication: The Unbitten Elbow. And then World War II intervened, preventing it from appearing. He went on to plan a final collection of stories: What Men Die By, its title a counterpart to Tolstoy’s parable What Men Live By. He had long since become an alcoholic—prompted, he said, by “a sober relationship to reality.” This seems reasonable. In May 1950 he suffered a stroke and lost the use of speech. He died at the end of the year.

His works—almost all of them unpublished—were stored by his lifelong companion, Anna Bovshek, in her apartment, in her clothes chest, under some brocade.

The afterlife of Krzhizhanovsky has a similarly uneven rhythm. In 1939 he had, despite his restricted publication history, been elected to the Writers’ Union. This meant that he was eligible for posthumous “immortalization.” In 1953 Stalin died, and three years later Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress instituted a revisionist anti-Stalinist thaw. In 1957—the same year as the publication of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago—a commission was set up to examine Krzhizhanovsky’s literary legacy. It lasted two years and was then disbanded, having drafted a publishing plan that was never implemented.

In 1976, Vadim Perelmuter, a poet, literary historian, and essayist, discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive. He had to wait until 1989 and the full thaw of perestroika before he could publish one of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. Between 2001 and 2010, Perelmuter finally edited a handsome five-volume edition of his writings.

In 2006, Joanne Turnbull published the first translations into English of Krzhizhanovsky’s work, a selection of seven stories.10 The earliest of these dated from 1922, the last from 1939. The remaining five were written between 1925 and 1927. Now, with this new collection, Memories of the Future, she has reprinted two of these stories—“Quadraturin” and “The Bookmark”—and added five more.

Krzhizhanovsky has been lucky in his translator: Turnbull’s translations patiently invent equivalents to his wordplay—“a metaphysics that had cast its ‘meta’ through the gloom into the brume”—and his prose’s playful precision—“stone angels with their penguin-like wings grazing the earth.” But the sample of his works available to the English-speaking reader is still limited. The newly translated stories were all written by Krzhizhanovsky between 1927 and 1930. His corpus in English therefore now comprises twelve stories. Ten of them date from a short five-year period in his career—beginning in 1925, when he was thirty-eight.

That, then, is one way of describing the story of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: through the limited history of his publications. It details one way a state absorbs all forms of social life.

But the state’s absorption of literature overwhelmed more than the mechanics of publication. In Moscow, in the regulated cube of one’s room, prose itself became subject to the state’s encroaching care. The fizzy nervous energy of Krzhizhanovsky’s writing is caused by the minute negotiations he made in it with the state’s rhetoric. He wanted to perform imaginary experiments with the nature of time and space. Outside, in the streets, the Communist state was busy performing such experiments for real. In response, Krzhizhanovsky’s prose has a recklessly unstable tone in which a delighted examination of impossible worlds, or of mutated versions of Moscow, can slip into ferocious political sarcasm. The reader is left unnerved, exhilarated, and melancholic, a confusion that is one proof, I think, of Krzhizhanovsky’s startling talent.

3.

Sutulin—the hero of Krzhizhanovsky’s 1926 story “Quadraturin”—lives in a cramped room of about eighty-six square feet. He receives a visit from a salesman who is offering samples of a new product called Quadraturin. Once applied to a room’s walls, says the salesman, that room’s size will be radically increased. It seems, thinks cramped Sutulin, at least worth trying. He applies the new product, goes to sleep, and wakes up to discover that he can no longer reach his bedside table:

thirwell_2-062311.jpg
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
El Lissitzky: Lenin Tribune, 1920. Illustration © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Everything was the same: the skimpy, threadbare rug that had trailed after the table somewhere up ahead of him, and the photographs, and the stool, and the yellow patterns on the wallpaper. But they were all strangely spread out inside the expanded room cube.

That morning, he goes out to the office—and returns, aghast, to discover that the Quadraturin has continued to work throughout the day. “The entire room, distended and monstrously misshapen, was beginning to frighten and torment him.” Meticulously, with the method of drab fantasy invented by Gogol, Krzhizhanovsky continues his nightmare with sad detachment. Sutulin goes to bed but—in the “proliferating darkness”—“an unpleasant sense of mooringlessness interfered with his sleep.” The next morning, Sutulin is startled by the visit of the Remeasuring Commission, whose remit was to ensure that no one lived in a room that exceeded the regulation ninety-seven square feet. To prevent them from seeing his newly exorbitant room, Sutulin smashes his light switch. In the darkness the commission reluctantly retreats.

Frightened, that night Sutulin simply decides to run away from the catastrophe. He tries to gather his things. In the dark vast room, he lights a match: “light crept in yellow radiuses through the black air.” He manages to reach the middle of the room before his matches run out. He is lost in the darkness, in the vastness of his miniature room. And so, as often at the end of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, the characters and the reader are left in a place of unexpected and irrevocable dislocation:

In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in the middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so—against all sense—he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.

This is the plot of “Quadraturin.” Its mechanics, however, are common to all Krzhizhanovsky’s fictions—an accretion of impossible particulars. The mechanics derive from a coherent set of philosophical preoccupations. His prose is a method for investigating how much unreality reality might bear.

His philosophy is something like this. David Hume once ventured that a dream is distinguished from reality simply by the greater “vivacity” of the impressions we receive from reality. Reality is a phenomenon of pure surface, a consistent series of sense impressions. In the logic of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, such materialism means that reality is therefore always fragile. In “Autobiography of a Corpse,” a bespectacled narrator states:

Sometimes, when I wipe my slightly dusty lenses with a piece of chamois, I have an odd feeling: what if along with the specks of dust that have settled on their glassy concavities I should wipe away all of space? Now you see it—now you don’t: like a sheen.11

Krzhizhanovsky’s sentences are precise observations of this sheen’s fluidity, always poised on the cusp of a metaphor. In “Red Snow,” a man pushes a door open: “His reflection, slippery on the slippery glass, stood aside at the push of his palm….”

The more reality becomes a matter of pure appearance, the more it is therefore permeable to dreams. If vivacity is the only criterion of reality, then a new reality can be created if the dream is strong enough. At this point, Krzhizhanovsky’s philosophy of perception becomes a philosophy of politics.

In his great story “The Branch Line,” a man falls asleep on a train and dreams that he has ended up in a city where dreams are produced. In this dream city, he eavesdrops on a lecture. The lecturer quotes Pascal: “‘Reality,’ he asserted, ‘is constant, whereas dreams are flimsy and variable….’” That, says the lecturer, was Pascal’s view. But, he continues,

reality since Pascal’s time has lost much of its constancy and invariability, events of recent years are rocking it, the way the waves do a boat; nearly every day the morning papers give waking up a new reality, whereas dreams… Haven’t we managed to unify dreams? Haven’t we hoodwinked humanity with that sweet million-brain dream of brotherhood, a united dream about unity? Flags the color of poppy petals flutter above the crowds.

In this passage, a philosophical experiment mutates into a courageously direct satire of Communist utopia.

Krzhizhanovsky was fascinated by how a person’s—or revolution’s—idea of reality was always porously hospitable to fantasy. In another story, “The Thirteenth Category of Reason,” a narrator admiringly explains that those who are “out of their heads, evicted, so to speak, from all twelve Kantian categories of reason, must naturally seek refuge in a thirteenth category, a sort of logical lean-to slouched against objective obligatory thinking.” Krzhizhanovsky’s characters are often to be found in this lean-to: like Don Quixote, they are devoted to the unreal. But his stories also demonstrate the latent danger of Quixote’s apparently charming mania: such idealism can be deadly. In “The Bookmark,” written in 1927, a character summarizes an unpublishable article—“In Defense of Rosinante”:

History, I wrote, had divided people into two classes: those who are on top (in the saddle) and those who are underneath (under the saddle): the Don Quixotes and the Rosinantes. The Don Quixotes sally forth on their fantastically marvelous and distant quests, straight to the idea, the ideal and the Zukunftstaat; all eyes, beginning with Cervantes’s own, are on them and on them alone. No one cares about the winded and mercilessly lashed Rosinante….

Don Quixote and Rosinante, in Krzhizhanovsky’s fictions, are aspects of one another: utopians create a lashed underclass, and this underclass, in turn, responds with dreams of its own creation.

This isn’t a surprising logic, given Krzhizhanovsky’s milieu. In the incomprehensible present of Moscow, Krzhizhanovsky was surrounded by a rhetoric of futuristic hope. Moscow—the city of remont! In 1922, when Krzhizhanovsky moved from Kiev and Trotsky jotted his scheme for breeding Communist writers, the Bolshevik economist Evgeni Preobrazhensky defended the Soviet New Economic Policy (NEP) in a book that took the form of an imaginary series of lectures given in 1970 “on the history of the great Russian revolution.”12 In 1970, apparently, it was obvious that everything had turned out perfectly. Just as the artist El Lissitzky lectured to his slow public:

A sign is designed, much later it is given its name, and later still its meaning becomes clear. So we do not understand the signs, the shapes, which the artist created, because man’s brain has not yet reached the corresponding stage of development.13

In this setting, Krzhizhanovsky’s stories—which meticulously imagine, for example, what it might mean for time to be abolished, as in the novella “Memories of the Future”—acquire a sardonic empirical precision. They test the revolutionary rhetoric in the trap of his style. Lissitzky had called his paintings “expaintings,” while Malevich had called his own works “non-paintings.” This was meant to be exuberantly new. Dryly, irrefutably, Krzhizhanovsky describes the creations of the “crossed-out.”

But the apparent satire of utopian politics, although sometimes deliberately and garishly exploited by Krzhizhanovsky himself, is also in part a retrospective effect of history. Really, Moscow was momentary. In the absence of any revolution, Krzhizhanovsky’s style would still have been revolutionary. After all, his experiments possess a deep consistency. In his notes to his 1936 adaptation of Eugene Onegin, Krzhizhanovsky emphasized the need to preserve the “scenic cube” of the proscenium stage.14 The word “cube” is important. It relates his work in theater to his fictions, so many of which are trapped in the “room cube” of a Moscow apartment. The cube is the central unit of his style. By taking the cube as the primary, given form, he investigates what can be done with the elastic limitations of reality.

Krzhizhanovsky once praised Alexander Tairov’s Chamber Theater for its repertory that was “almost always a play about a play, which meant that it became a theater of the highest theatricality, or more precisely—theater raised to the ‘theater’ degree (TT).”15 His admiration for this reflexiveness is explained more precisely in his short 1923 text “Philosopheme on the Theatre.”16 In it, he describes his theory that reality is in fact a hierarchy: “Bytiye, byt’, bi, 0,” which can be roughly translated, without his diminishing wordplay, as “Being, life, as if, 0.” Bytiye is pure immanence: it is the ground of Being itself. Byt’ is everyday life: and this life, states Krzhizhanovsky, is make-believe. For a man in everyday life believes in the reality of his wife, his job, his room: but these are just contingent, not permanent. So byt’ is the “make-believe, not wanting to be make-believe.”17

The insistent italics are Krzhizhanovsky’s. And since everyday life doesn’t want to be exposed as make-believe, it therefore fears theater—since theater, precisely through its precise imitation of it, exposes the imaginary nature of everyday life. True theater, therefore, argues Krzhizhanovsky, the realm of the “as if,” will extend this reflexiveness one stage further, continuing to play with the diminishing levels of reality.

This unreality, in the end, is the lesson of Krzhizhanovsky’s work. His stories move through minute renovations of perspective—like, say, this lovely sidestep:

For a minute the story stopped. Wasteland and kitchen gardens stretched all about us. Along a distant embankment, shavings of white locomotive smoke curled up into the air in elongated rings.

But then, this pattern of occlusion structured his own history. And so the new selection from his work leaves the ambivalent reader astonished, admiring, and unsatisfied. Krzhizhanovsky still remains, with this small selection, a silhouette in literary history. And yet he was prepared for this precarious position. He knew that, logically, a fluid reality will be hospitable to history’s repression. Or even that nothing exists without deletions. A record of one of his seminar series from 1919 in Kiev survives. On Monday, March 12, 1919, he lectured on “the draft, an analysis of deletions.”

Three years later, this master of the crossed-out moved to Moscow.

  1. 1

    Walter Benjamin, “Moscow” (1927), reprinted in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, translated by Rodney Livingstone and others, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 28–29. 

  2. 2

    Leszek Kołakowski, Main Currents in Marxism, translated from the Polish by P.S. Falla (Norton, 2005), p. 794. 

  3. 3

    Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents, 1917–1953, edited by Katerina Clark and Evgeny Dobrenko, with Andrei Artizov and Oleg Naumov (Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 34–35. 

  4. 4

    Clark and Dobrenko, Soviet Culture and Power, p. 37. 

  5. 5

    See Orlando Figes, ” A Great Russian Writer in the Communist Cauldron,” The New York Review, April 29, 2010. 

  6. 6

    Vitaly Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive (London: Harvill, 1995), p. 211. 

  7. 7

    A. Zhdanov, Maxim Gorky, N. Bukharin, K. Radek, A. Stetsky, Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress, edited by H.G. Scott (Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR/International Publishers, 1934), pp. 65–66. 

  8. 8

    Clark and Dobrenko, Soviet Culture and Power, p. 169.  

  9. 9

    An excellent account of this collaboration, from which the following details are taken, can be found in Caryl Emerson, “The Krzhizhanovsky-Prokofiev Collaboration on Eugene Onegin, 1936,” in Sergey Prokofiev and His World, edited by Simon Morrison (Princeton University Press, 2008). 

  10. 10

    Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Seven Stories, translated by Joanne Turnbull (Glas, 2006). 

  11. 11

    Krzhizhanovsky, Seven Stories, p. 87. 

  12. 12

    E.A. Preobrazhensky, From New Economic Policy to Socialism: A Glance into the Future of Russia and Europe, translated by Brian Pearce (New Park, 1973), p. xv. 

  13. 13

    El Lissitzky, “New Russian Art: A Lecture,” in El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts, edited by Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers (Thames and Hudson, 1968) p. 339. 

  14. 14

    Quoted by Emerson, “The Krzhizhanovsky-Prokofiev Collaboration on Eugene Onegin, 1936,” p. 90. 

  15. 15

    Quoted by Emerson, “The Krzhizhanovsky-Prokofiev Collaboration on Eugene Onegin, 1936,” p. 91. 

  16. 16

    A summary of the text is given by Emerson in “The Krzhizhanovsky-Prokofiev Collaboration on Eugene Onegin, 1936.” The text—”Philosophema o teatre”—appears in the fourth volume of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Sobranie Sochinenii v pyati tomakh, edited by Vadim Perelmuter (St. Petersburg: Symposium, 2006). 

  17. 17

    Philosophema o teatre,” p. 54. 

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