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.
But though the stories in The Letter Killers Club show great strength, their diverse nature, plus the very light scaffolding that holds them all together, makes the book feel as diffuse as a collection of short stories. A reader must hunt for the novel’s core. This search is not helped by the book’s conceit for binding these stories into a larger work, which is given only flimsy support and at times feels contrived.
Krzhizhanovsky was at heart a short-story writer and his skill lies in the creation of wild ideas, which he props up just long enough to fill out a good 20 pages. His is the manic energy of creation, not the more subdued rhythms that come to the fore when an author develops a conceit with the nuances of characters and their interactions. None of Krzhizhanovsky’s letter killers grows into a lifelike individual – they blend together more than anything – and the interrelations among them are all but nonexistent. One wonders in vain what has inspired these men to join together into a club, what they get out of this weekly exercise and what they all think of one another.
Despite these deficiencies, the book manages to come together into a sort of allegory built around the impulse to write. It’s the one thing that all the characters share and their tenuous relationship to their creations is the one theme that Krzhizhanovsky explores most consistently and deeply here. He even manages to invest this idea with emotion: the narrator’s wide-eyed observations of these poor men straining toward a more meaningful relationship to their words carries enough pathos to wrench the book out from solipsism.
It is indeed the narrator that roots this exploration. After the first Saturday, he feels that the “evening seemed like a black wedge driven into my life”, an affirmation of narrative’s power to capture our imagination. Over the course of the following four Saturdays his scepticism towards these writers who have abandoned themselves to obscurity will turn to a fascination with their drive to smother their ideas, even as Krzhizhanovsky offers much evidence that the letter killers are not wholly at peace with this choice.
It is a lesson repeated several times throughout the novel: even at its most formalist, art’s power comes from its ability to elicit that base stuff of emotional response. For Krzhizhanovsky, these emotions are essential to literature’s ability to displace what he referred to as “the ‘I’,” substituting its thoughts in place of our own. Diverse as they are, the stories in The Letter Killers Club all come back to this question of why and how we let ideas take over our will and identity.
By the end of the novel the narrator has concluded that “words are spiteful and tenacious — anyone who tries to kill them will sooner be killed by them”.
It is a pat ending, a concluding homily similar to many that Krzhizhanovsky would graft on to tales that defy easy summation. As a writer he was what he called a “theme catcher”, and that is the real draw to The Letter Killers Club, the author’s ability to ensnare exotic ideas long enough for us to watch them do their thing.
If the novel’s thread and its conclusion don’t live up to the rich questions posed by the stories from which it is composed, chalk it up to another case of a writer being a bad interpreter of his own work.
The Letter Killers Club should still be enjoyed for Krzhizhanovsky’s particular way with language, rendered limpidly here by Joanne Turnbull, as well as the elegant conceptions that he, after 80 long years, has finally unleashed upon the minds of English-language readers.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation.