The Letter Killers Club: you are what you write - Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Those who doubt that literary experimentation and a good, engaging story can exist in the same space should have a look at the work of the Soviet author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Krzhizhanovsky, who wrote mostly from the 1920s to the 1940s, saw almost all the fruits of his fantastic imagination censored by the Soviet government. His strange fables of Soviet life were much too original for socialist realism and his lonely, vaguely disaffected intellectuals were certainly not the kind of citizen-artist the Soviet state wanted to exhibit. It was only in the 1980s that he become known in Russian, three decades after his death, and his English debut came even later, with the 2009 story collection Memories of the Future.

For all Krzhizhanovsky’s avant-garde bona fides, few authors speak more honestly about the power great literature can exert on a reader and on its creator. 

The writing that has reached English thus far is pervaded by bookworms and their customs, these trappings of bibliophilia launching metaphysical investigations into authors’ relationships to their work, as well as the moral and emotional questions tied up in the act of creation.
Someone Else’s Theme, from Memories of the Future, makes a good example: Krzhizhanovsky tells the story of a writer who gradually becomes lost in another author’s fiction, concluding “in literature, however, it has yet to be established on what page the ‘I’ that has passed from author to character becomes the personal property of the latter”. The import of the story is to unravel how an author’s creations become free, and how these ideas then find new homes in a reader’s identity. Here, as usual, the mode of transmission for ideas is books.
The notion of how authors dissolve into their creations forms the backbone of the latest of Krzhizhanovsky’s books to be translated, The Letter Killers Club, another successful synthesis of his passions for experimental narratives and traditional literary pleasures. It begins with the narrator visiting the house of a successful Russian author, who tells him his parable-like story of how he achieved success only after emptying his bookshelves, in effect freeing himself from the influence of others.
But success rings hollow. “Writers, in essence, are professional word tamers,” he declares. “I knew that I was turning into a professional killer of conceptions.”
As his fame broadens he once again fills his shelves, but the oppressive weight of all these books surrounding him suffocates his inspiration. At length, books lose all their pleasure: “I felt that both I and my literature had been trampled and made meaningless.”
His response is to flee from literary culture at large by refusing written literature for oral. He fills a room with empty bookshelves and invites in only authors who will work without paper and pen. Thus each Saturday Zez and his fellow pseudonymous “conception-killers” gather to tell their unwritten stories to one another, following their themes wherever they will take them.
From this outstanding opening fable – easily the book’s strongest stretch – The Letter Killers Club proceeds to the seven stories these men tell one another over the course of five Saturdays. The tellings are interspersed with the combative interjections of the letter killers, lending the book a fragmented, somewhat experimental feel. This fragmentation extends to the stories; the first, for instance, involves a deconstruction of Hamlet in which Guildenstern is split into two characters – Guilden and Stern – who then compete for the role of Hamlet, even visiting an asylum-like shadow world housing the shades of actors who have formerly interpreted the role.
Krzhizhanovsky’s range here is impressive. While the metafictional Hamlet exudes whiffs of the structuralist ideas that would not become widespread for decades, other stories here include a carnivalesque medieval tale about three men searching for the proper use of one’s mouth (to eat, to speak, or to kiss?) and a dystopian tale about government mind control via bacteria and gigantic radio towers. Each of these stories is never less than engaging and, even as they range into the esoteric, Krzhizhanovsky never loses sight of pathos. The author’s own phrase for his literature, “experimental realism”, is apt.
More here.


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