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Fables for the Crossed-Out

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Fables for the Crossed-Out

Rescued from Stalinist oblivion, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s work brilliantly captures the devastation—and absurdity—of the Russian Revolution. Spring 2021
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

The works of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Russian fabulist who wrote in relative obscurity and died seven decades ago, had to be rescued from oblivion. Philosophical, satirical, registering like a seismograph the devastating “lifequake” of the Russian Revolution, they were written largely for and about the “crossed-out” of Soviet society, among whom the author numbered himself. Three times he sought to publish collections of his idiosyncratic tales; three times the censors shot him down. A fourth attempt was halted by World War II. For decades after his death, his stories languished in the state archives. After the Soviet Union fell, these strange, mostly unpublished, fictions, lying in manuscript, were hauled up from the memory hole where the Communists had left them. NYRB Classics has done a great service to English-language readers by publishing in translation three collections of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, the most recent of which, Unwitting Street, appeared last August, along with two novellas, The Letter Killers Club and The Return of Munchausen. That they were so long buried in silence is a further indictment, if we needed one, of the brutal regime that buried them. That they came to light again testifies to their enduring power, above and beyond the fractured spirit of place they embody and from which, unique and obsessional, they arose as allegory, social analysis, sarcastic protest, and myth.

Taken together, they form an oeuvre as distinctive as that of Borges or Kafka. The migrainous protagonist of a Krzhizhanovsky story dwells, more often than not, in a tiny, squalid Moscow apartment or single room, which he escapes for long walks about the city; often, through the clang and clamor, his steps tend toward a quiet graveyard. His commerce with the dead may or may not be one-sided. Piercingly introspective, he finds himself beset by strange thoughts and disturbing dreams, beside which his own existence may seem to him imaginary. He inhabits a spinning-away world of no fixed center or circumference, where language and reality are both in flux; where feathers sewn into pillows struggle to take flight, abused thoughts yearn for death, and a pair of pants can attain independent life. It is a world where consciousness has been made unnecessary, and an abundance of good health must be “cured” by starvation. His city is not, in fact, Moscow but “minus-Moscow.” Here logic is rationed and understanding forbidden.

Krzhizhanovsky masterfully delineates this phantasmagoric but harshly modern world. His images can astonish: a man unscrewing his head like a lightbulb; Stygian frogs croaking for mass deaths, provoking slaughter in the world above; gamblers playing cards for the Milky Way; a pack of cloud-hunters lassoing the billowing masses that drift overhead, “pull[ing] them down like harpooned whales, dead hulks heaving in the foaming waves.” It is Krzhizhanovsky’s genius to marry a feverish invention, in the mode of the fantastic, to a sober apprehension of his and his fellow citizens’ flattened lives. His feel for existence on the margins of a metropolis, among the forgotten poor, recalls Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in which the narrator wanders around Paris, “a city to die in,” encountering, as Rilke put it in a letter describing his own experience, “pieces of people, parts of animals, leftovers of things that have been.” Behind the official narrative papering over a ruptured reality, Krzhizhanovsky is alert to what wells forth from the cracks. The mood is variously one of lyric satire, bitter irony, and lugubrious disdain.

The central problem of these fictions is that of consciousness confronting what would crush it. Born in 1887 and well traveled in Europe, possessed of a law degree and half a dozen languages—in other words, an inheritor of the old world, a true cosmopolite—Krzhizhanovsky was inoculated in advance against the stupidity and cruelty of the Soviet order. The philosophies of Kant, Hegel, and Leibniz informed his fables, as did the latest discoveries in mathematics and physics. He had a contempt for “non-thinkers . . . expressing non-thoughts.” Outlandish as his plots can be—he doesn’t shy away from genre conceits, including time travel—the worst bugbears in his stories are generally those of real life, or what passes for it in the grip of Bolshevism, that “Russian sickness” (the words are those of Prince Lvov): brainless or bullying editors, the Remeasuring Commission, a questionnaire meant to disenfranchise anyone outside the working class, the Soviet justice system, midnight visits from the secret police.

Compounding these dangers are hunger, isolation, and the indifference of fellow human beings. Krzhizhanovsky improves on Plautus: “Man is to man a wolf. No, that’s not true, that’s sentimental, lighthearted. No, man is to man a ghost.” A corpse in one story escapes his coffin, becoming a burden to an old gravedigger. But the real horror show, in Krzhizhanovsky’s view, is the inferno of the living: men and women hurrying past “with their absent eyes,” who crowd into a tram with a corpse and don’t even realize that the man is deceased. The gravedigger props up the corpse in an employment line; returning later, he struggles to pick the dead man out of the mass: “all so rigid and stock-still you couldn’t tell which was dead and which was alive.”

A Hans Christian Andersen story tells of a shadow gaining weight and substance and gradually usurping the life of its master, putting him, as it were, into the shade. The Red Terror weighs on Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction like that shadow: an elephantine black mass, unavoidable yet indigestible. It can only be addressed obliquely. “Don’t wear your head out on your shoulders,” Thomas More advises one character. “First it gets an idea, then it gets the ax.” In Soviet Russia, it got worse. The torturers of Kharkov (to take one example from a library of atrocities) liked to perform the “glove trick,” boiling the victim’s hands until the skin could be peeled off, leaving behind raw burning tissue and a pair of “human gloves.” Krzhizhanovsky transmutes the black laughter of sadists into bracing gallows humor. The advantage of nightmares, we are told, is that “we can guarantee that they will come true. . . . Sweet dreams cannot withstand reality . . . whereas a heavy dream, a simple but well-made nightmare, is more easily assimilated by life.” The ghoulish pitchman goes on:

Speaking in more modern terms, our nightmares, weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one’s head: some of our customers call this “world history.” But that’s not the point. The point is the durability, unwakeability, high depressiveness, and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes, nighttime and daytime, moonlight and sunlight, closed eyes and open.

The brains from which these mass nightmares sprang were those of dyed-in-the-wool political animals. When one reads histories of the revolution, of the Bolshevik power grab and its bloody aftermath, the finger of blame finds no shortage of targets, including the clumsy and callous monarchy and the vapid Nicholas II himself. Again and again, however, it swings back to Vladimir Ulyanov, known to history as Lenin. “To an extent unusual even among that ilk who live and die for politics, Lenin’s blood and marrow are nothing else,” China Miéville writes of the radical’s early years in October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. Here is the illness that will lead to untold horrors. It is under Lenin, not Stalin, that the chief Soviet terror organ, the Cheka, morphs into a vast police state, complete with concentration camps. (Estimates put the number of people killed by the Cheka during the civil war at several hundred thousand.) There is a cramp in Lenin’s mind, a magnified myopia rendering a total but punishingly low-resolution picture of the world. Modeled by him and his ilk, the Soviet Union will be huge but airless, like a vast narrow hallway receding in the distance. The one-way movement of its people, toward glorious Progress, resembles that of the bread lines that shuffled their way through the predawn dark of Petrograd in 1917, the year of the revolution, all those moaning multitudes full of resentment against the czar.

Hunger makes one single-minded. It is, in fact, single-mindedness that the Soviets want to instill, and it is this desire that makes the regime, ineluctably, the enemy of art. In a famous letter to his brothers in 1817, a century earlier, Keats coined the term “negative capability,” which he defined as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He was seeking to describe a quality that he found praiseworthy in Shakespeare. The coffin-narrow soul of the ideologue—as Krzhizhanovsky, who read Shakespeare in translation, surely knew—admits of no uncertainties, no mysteries. The eternal problem for the central planner is that men and women live not in general but in particular, which is why, in the society that Krzhizhanovsky describes, “all manner of particularization is being abolished.” Reading accounts of the letters written to Felix Dzerzhinsky, director of the Cheka, by the families of people arrested on trumped-up charges, one glimpses a heartlessness beyond ordinary human scope—a lumping together, compacting, and crushing of individual lives.

Hunger makes one single-minded: a Soviet-era breadline (GRANGER)

From this constriction unto death, Krzhizhanovsky revolts. He cries out for breathing room, but the cry becomes, in his fiction, a caricature of nightmarish dimensions. The protagonist of his story “Quadraturin,” who resides in a cell of 86 square feet, is handed, gratis, an experimental substance “for biggerizing rooms.” He daubs it around his living quarters and, at first pleased with the extra space, is horrified when he sees that the room, “distended and monstrously misshapen,” will not stop growing. The walls recede from him in the night, time and again. Finally, he formulates an escape plan and begins to gather his things, but it’s too late; the overhead light has gone out and his few matches are used up, leaving him hopelessly marooned “in the middle of the four-cornered, inexorably growing, and proliferating darkness.”

In a real way, the plight was Krzhizhanovsky’s own. Active in Moscow literary circles, he saw the Soviet cultural diminuendo for what it was. Joanne Turnbull, his English translator, says that one Russian critic deemed him “a spy for European culture in the Bolshevik night.” The protagonist of Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Branch Line,” fetched up by mistake in the kingdom of dreams—not a gauzy fantasy realm but a place of heavy industry, where nightmares are manufactured and exported to millions of sleepers—is mistaken for a spy, a scout from the waking world. An attack is imminent. The dictatorship of dreams has successfully inverted the logic of day and night: reality, thanks to recent events, has lost its constancy, while the world behind people’s eyelids has attained the uniformity of life, as humanity is united in a totalizing dream: “that sweet million-brain dream of brotherhood.” As the dream realm prepares to launch the next terrifying phase of its plan, the hapless Quantin embraces his accidental role: “Yes, as a scout he would trace all the twists of their designs, he would burst the million black bonds even if it cost him his life, he would stop those accursed spools unwinding night.”

The 70-year darkness of the Soviet Union was not a foregone conclusion. As early as the spring of 1918, disillusioned workers were rising up against Lenin’s new regime. Moscow and Petrograd were racked by mass protests and strikes. By June, several hundred thousand workers had joined the Extraordinary Assemblies of Factory and Plant Representatives, a grassroots threat to the Bolshevik dictatorship, which they saw as having betrayed the promise of a “workers’ revolution.” Striking laborers at one factory declared: “The Soviet regime, having been established in our name, has become completely alien to us. It promised to bring the workers Socialism but has brought them empty factories and destitution.” The regime’s response: nationalize the factories, installing state-appointed managers to run them in place of the factory committees and trade unions, thereby transferring power to the party apparatus. The Bolsheviks embarked on a campaign of intimidation and violence, outlawing the Extraordinary Assemblies, arresting and executing strike organizers as “counter-revolutionaries,” shuttering any remaining opposition newspapers, and driving their former Left allies underground. An attempt on Lenin’s life, nearly successful, was followed by the Red Terror. “How can you make a revolution,” he had raged in the previous October, “without firing squads?”

What had emerged by 1922, when Krzhizhanovsky moved to Moscow, was a “country of nonexistences,” as he wrote in a story published a few years later; a war-torn land haunted by “former people”—the Bolshevik term for those who had outlived their time: Orthodox priests, aristocrats, businessmen, doubting intellectuals. Marx had envisioned “the true realm of freedom” as consisting of men and women liberated from their economic functions: “the development of human powers as an end in itself.” What grew from the Marxist agitating that overtook Russia like a fungal bloom in the late nineteenth century, spreading its spores from Saint Petersburg to Sebastopol, Kostroma to Krasnoyarsk, was instead a regime that reduced men and women to their basic material functions and that broke human beings down, ruthlessly and systematically, discarding everything inessential to the state.

People were discarded, too. In 1931, Krzhizhanovsky, unpublished for years and newly unemployed—he had quit his job as an editor of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia after falling out with its acting director, who also headed the censorship organ Glavlit—risked being kicked out of Moscow as a “nonworking element.” What saved him was the timely printing of a tiny monograph he had written on an uncontroversial subject: the poetics of book titles. To the extent that his literary powers developed, it was not in a realm of freedom but in one of harsh limits. Transgressing them meant heinous punishment or worse—a milieu where “one cannot be and be conscious at the same time,” in which even the church bells have had their tongues ripped out. His creativity was never permitted to be an end in itself.

Yet Krzhizhanovsky kept writing. He penned essays and gave lectures to make ends meet. For decades, he kicked against the pricks of the censor’s pen. “Resignation to one’s fate takes practice,” he wrote. “Like any art.” His fictions were wordplay on the edge of the abyss. “If an ‘I’ should rise up against our ‘we,’ ” a villain in one story threatens, “we’ll hurl him down a well of nightmares headfirst.” His admission to the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1939 allowed his stories to survive, though not to be published. Shushashin, in “Red Snow”—a story so subversive that Krzhizhanovsky’s widow, Anna Bovshek, left it out when she delivered his writings to the state archives after his death in 1950—begins every day with an exercise in numbed passivity: “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.”

If inventive satire and social critique were all that Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction had to offer, time and translation would have blunted its cutting edge. (In the NYRB Classics editions, endnotes help the reader penetrate the density of local and historical references.) That the stories remain sharp is largely owing to what is universal in them, including their rampant black humor. “I’ve been evicted from my own head,” says one character, commiserating with another who has lost his apartment, “and I’m all right.” That qualification is practically a signature. Krzhizhanovsky’s fictions, like Kafka’s, glister like jewels in their historical settings, but they don’t depend on them for their glow. “The Bookmark,” one of many nesting-doll narratives, manages to set fantastic tales beside sentimental stories reminiscent of O. Henry. Admittedly, Krzhizhanovsky employs, perhaps too often, the now-cliché device of having his protagonist awake at the end of a bizarre tale to find that it was all a dream . . . or was it? But the sense of transport lingers beyond the final page.

Then, too, there are pleasures to be had not only in Krzhizhanovsky’s startling conceptions and narrative strategies, in the anarchic play of his mind, but in the stylistic brilliance of his prose. As rendered by Turnbull, a Krzhizhanovsky sentence or short passage is immediately recognizable. “The space inside the tower’s needlelike brain now began to vibrate, began to seep down through its muscular steel interlacements into the ground, whereupon the tower wrenched its iron soles free of the foundation, rocked back, and lunged off” (“The Bookmark”). “You walk in—first past a chaos of crosses, then past the inner wall—to the new crossless cemetery: gone are the monumental statics of the old human sepulchers, the massive family vaults and stone angels with their penguin-like wings grazing the earth: red metal stars on thin wire stems fidget nervously in the wind” (“The Thirteenth Category of Reason”). “Vityunin spent his days trying to keep his back to the window. His eyes searched for shadows and rounded corners. At night he was disturbed by strange moon dreams. He dreamed that streaming through him, as through one’s fingers, were blue moon threads” (“The Window”). I might have chosen any number of other remarkable examples.

Though he bears comparison with Calvino and Borges, Krzhizhanovsky has a still closer kinship with another author. In his uncanny prose, in his habit of breathing precarious life into inanimate things, in his sense of how thin is the membrane between this world and something beyond, he closely resembles the introverted Polish fabulist Bruno Schulz, whose deeply personal fictions won admirers in the interwar avant-garde but, later proscribed by the Communists, took decades to reach Anglophone readers. “The most fundamental function of the spirit is inventing fables,” Schulz wrote, a sentiment with which Krzhizhanovsky, raised in a Polish-speaking family, would surely have agreed. But where Schulz mines his Drohobych childhood for marvels, Krzhizhanovsky handles more grown-up material. Beneath all but his most whimsical tales can be heard “the hard theme that layers our entire life.” Unlike the Polish modernist, whose entire corpus predates the war—he was murdered by a Gestapo officer in 1942, and his reputed masterpiece, The Messiah, was lost in the upheaval of National Socialism—Krzhizhanovsky had to pass through cataclysm and then, mired in the “vast, lymphatically cold and slimy after,” grapple with it in his fiction.

For all his efforts, his tales of 1920s and 1930s Russia were deemed unpublishable. An editor figure in one story brushes off a Krzhizhanovsky stand-in: “Your stories are, well, how shall I put it? Untimely. Put them away. Let them wait.” They could hardly have spoken more trenchantly to his time. If they now feel at home in English, it is due in no small part to their heightened relevance for America today. Mindless conformity, the split—officially reinforced—between language and reality, the arts lamed by censorship and self-censorship: these, deplorably, are no longer foreign themes. At a time when public life is so often ruled by unreason, Krzhizhanovsky’s acute inwardness is salutary. If his stories have heroes, they are those who, amid “clockwork days,” raise up over the rubble of revolution a resounding no. In the squeeze of his room, he cultivated a private anti-Bolshevism, a counterrevolution of the mind. His civil war was interior. “A persecuted and half-dead pauper, I cannot overturn all things, the houses that have sunk into the ground, all the lived-in-to-death lives, but I can do this: Overturn the meanings. Let the rest remain. Let it.”

A few years ago, the writer Lauren Groff sent a viral tweet, later deleted, in which she opined that all writing is political. “Novels are political. Ad copy is political. Tweets are political. The first bloody handprint on a cave wall was political. And to pretend otherwise is political, too.” If this is “super-elementary political theory,” as she claimed, it is of an especially reductive and enervating kind. Like an animist who believes that all creation is fired with a spiritual essence, Groff and her comrades define the scope of the political such that nothing escapes it. From this assertion, it is no great leap to say that all thought, too, is political (even the inchoate longing encoded in a Cro-Magnon handprint), whereupon one might conclude that both writing and thought should be made to reinforce the proper politics. “As a matter of fact, writers’ craniums ought to be searched. We need to know what you’ve got in there,” barks a character in one of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. “Good gracious, absolutely nothing!” his target pleads.

“Communication is always an assertion of power,” Groff went on, “no matter what you believe you’re communicating. Assertions of power are always political.” A worldview in which no effort to reach another human being is anything more than thrust or parry in political combat dissolves the liberal order. The past few years have seen the rise in America of mass movements (though some are more like moods) that have sought, among other aims, to discard due process and enshrine collective guilt as a social fact—embracing the essence of Lenin’s principle that it is better to arrest 100 innocents than to risk letting a single political enemy go free. They have done this in the name of combating rape culture and structural racism, fascism and white supremacy, capitalism and male privilege.

For many of these activists, it is increasingly clear, the true motive is power, just as Groff claims. As Orwell knew, the “deceptively short road to totalitarianism” begins with the belief that political victory is all-important and that one’s enemies “pose such a grave threat that defeating them takes precedence over truth, consistency, or common sense.” Too many would-be architects of society and the human soul are content to walk a red carpet of corpses toward their preferred utopia. “Hatred and indifference to human suffering were to varying degrees ingrained in the minds of all the Bolshevik leaders,” the historian Orlando Figes writes in A People’s Tragedy. The Terror was not a betrayal of their ideals: “It was implicit in the regime from the start.” People who believe that everything is reducible to power behave accordingly. In this sense, at least, we should take them at their word.

The rest of us are called to reclaim and rebuild. Not only in this embattled moment but always and everywhere it is a defeat for free people to accept the fundamental premise of totalitarianism: that politics is the whole of life; that what is most important about people are their political beliefs, professions of dogma, and loyalty or disloyalty to party or state. To do so is to fight the battle on enemy ground, or worse, to surrender from the start.

“Who speaks of victory?” asks Rilke in one of his poems. “To endure is all.” While the commissars plotted victory, Krzhizhanovsky endured. The labor was lifelong. “To live,” he wrote, “is to put a spoke in the wheel of the hearse in which I am being carried.” Even at the end, any sort of political triumph remained a pipe dream. Stalin outlived him by more than two years. The germ of Stalinism was in Bolshevism from the beginning, as even the anarchist Bolshevik Victor Serge admitted. He insisted, in 1939, that the movement had contained within it also “many other germs, a mass of other germs,” but it was Stalinism that went pandemic. The lesson that Krzhizhanovsky teaches, in all his untimely timeliness, is that writers and artists should be not advocates of illness, and not accelerants, but antibodies.

Top Photo: GRANGER

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