The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (trans. Joanne Turnbull). NYRB Classics, 144 pp., $14.00.
Only in 1976—after near fifty years of censure and oblivion—were the mislaid works of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky recovered from amid the Soviet Archives. Scholar Vadim Perelmuter, chancing upon a brief epitaph in the writer Chengueli’s journals, went in search of them: “Today, December 28, 1950, Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky died, a writer-visionary, an unsung genius. Of whom, in life, not one line was ever published.”
The first English-language publication of Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction would not follow until 2006, three quarters of a century after its conception. His extensive repertory consists principally of short stories, of which there are more than one hundred, as well as five novels. The first of these novels selected for English translation (by Joanne Turnbull) and publication this year through NYRB Classics is The Letter Killers Club.
Of course, all new light cast upon such unloved fictions is kind, soft, and humane. Consequently, certain reviews of Krzhizhanovsky’s work read like the gentle, penitent congratulations of friends for the one just come out a coma after a great many years. This is to say that joy and wonder are touched with regret, distraction, and even private indifference. The inconvenience of such late revelations is practical: how to consider a fiction in the context of a literary conference from which it has been precluded, all of its thoughts, its purposes, pertaining to a history to which it does not fairly belong. Appropriate respects are paid: comparisons to Borges, Beckett, Kafka; Krzhizhanovsky’s writings are, with so many compliments and decorations, wedged in upon their same, full shelf.
Yet, Krzhizhanovsky’s project is positively contemporary, and ingenious. His work expresses a deep and committed science, an “algebra” (as he describes his own project) of language. It is a sharply methodical literature, absorbed by both technical and figurative experiment. It should not be—yet again—shelved. Even dead sixty-two years, Krzhizhanovsky is, by all rights, a new writer and The Letter Killers Club new fiction.
In the novel, a “pure reader” is invited to sit in on the weekly meetings of a secret society of which all members are “ex-writers.” The club’s guiding principle is the renunciation and prohibition of the printed word, all following an incident years prior in which the club’s president was made to give away his library. During meetings, members are known only by nonsense syllables—Tyd, Rar, Das, etc. Every Saturday evening one member, or “conceiver,” takes his turn at telling a story and so demonstrating a “theme.” The novel records in quick and sharp-cut language the “minutes” of meetings attended by the reader. Members’ stories, irregular in both length and density (three pages or forty), make up the better part of the novel. They are systematically punctuated by discussion, dispute, brief and troubled reflection.
Krzhizhanovsky’s intention seems the demonstration of a very particular literary impossibility, which is best expressed in the story “The Bookmark” (gathered in the collection Memories of the Future, also published by NYRB Classics). Therein, the “theme catcher” remembers a “caricature” from an English magazine:
In the first picture, the girl (she’s carrying a basket) has caught up with the receding stagecoach; but to climb up onto the high footboard, she must put her basket down; having scrambled up onto the step, the girl turns around to collect her basket, but the stagecoach has already driven off; in the second picture, the poor girl jumps down, dashes back for her basket then runs after the lumbering stagecoach. She again reaches the step and this time settles her basket on it first; but while she is doing this, the stagecoach picks up speed, and the girl—in the third and last picture—exhausted and out of breath, plumps down in the middle of the road and bursts into bitter tears. . . . The literary stagecoach will not wait, which is why the poet with poetry in hand, given the conditions today, cannot possibly gain the elusive step: if the poet jumps into literature—then poetry is left behind, left out of literature; if poetry manages to attain the step, to attain an artistic level—then the poet, excluded and rejected, is left completely out.
So essential to the character of Krzhizhanovsky’s writing is his early and abiding commitment to music. A musician himself, Krzhizhanovsky identifies a conflict between literature and poetry, where poetry expresses the spontaneous and particular color of the letter, the word; and literature, the systems and structures that exploit words as strict units, in the service of “themes.” The distinction then is between the deliberate structures, which convey themes, and the words that such structures control and extinguish.
In Russian, as in English, Тема (theme) refers, independently, to a theory of musical analysis developed by Rudolph Reti during the early twentieth century. It is a melodic or harmonic sequence—the “material” which iterates throughout a work, giving structure, though undergoing modulations, variations, and evolutions. Reti writes specifically of “the thematic process.” He insists upon the importance of a deep and certain unity, “homogeneity in the inner essence,” that still allows for “variety in the outer appearance,” such that a composer “changes the surface but maintains the substance of his shapes.” Reti writes of thematic transformation, compression, dispersion, the “thinning” and ”filling” of themes, as well as “polythematism.”
Given his musical education, Krzhizhanovsky was almost certainly familiar, if only somewhat, with this very concentrated and particular notion of theme. Das’s story, the longest in The Letter Killers Club, demonstrates more explicitly the extent of Krzhizhanovsky’s interpretation.
A scientist concocts a species of parasitic microorganisms or “vibrophags,” which, infiltrating the brain, feed upon “vibrations, on the energy-producing discharge of nerve cells.” The same scientist then develops a strain of vibrophags that parasitizes “only the motor nerves, insinuating itself between will and muscle,” such that affected persons lose control over their own musculature.
Finally, this discovery is brought to bear, first on mental patients, and then upon the population at large. An engineer imagines a “single, central innervator” or “ex,” which might control and direct, collectively, a population’s muscles. Eventually, all persons, save a few politicians and scientists, are made into ‘ex-persons.’ Their bodies are controlled by “exes,” which compel them to work, as automatons, in factories. The ex has its “precise, musical score.” Ex-persons walk with “a jerky yet metronomic gait, rapping out exactly two steps per second.”
Despite their total, physical subjugation, the minds of such automatons remain intact. Yet, when two or three are finally emancipated from the ex, they fall to pieces, sobbing and convulsive. Just so, it is the Theme that instructs and compels words, that necessarily suppresses their specific, internal energies and momentums. They are put to work, made to serve a “single, central” thematic mechanism, its “score.”
Fev’s later story is of a peculiar vision in Venice, wherein the teller, seated on a restaurant terrace, imagines himself surrounded by all the thousands of persons to have died the same day:
. . . thousands upon thousands of agonies prevented me from seeing the day: the thousands of suns tumbled down into darkness; I saw a multitude of wax-like, sharp-featured faces with bulging white eyes; a sweetish decay threading my nostrils to my brain would not let me think or live. I remember it pierced me almost physically. I sat down at a little sidewalk table, the waiter brought me a place setting and at just that moment I saw thousands of them—lying on tables, mouths slack, slowly growing cold, helpless and frightening, banished from today to never. I did not eat my slowly cooling minestrone; my mind was feverishly trying to step out of that accursed black square. Then suddenly to the rescue came my theme. It flooded me all at once. In its grip, I remember, I rose mechanically quickly paid the . . .
Then, it is the same, notorious “theme” that flashes upon him, in order that he should forget his horror, only to rise “mechanically” from his chair. It is this briefest story that will decide the novel’s troubled end.
Krzhizhanovsky’s works are brave and imaginative experiments in structure, in the fictional potentialities of structure. There is in his writing the Dostoevskian tendency to put themes in the mouths of his characters, and of his characters’ characters, such that a finished fiction consists, essentially, of durations, proportions, and internal harmonies, of deep thematic and linguistic polyphonies.
As to the particular structure of The Letter Killers Club, it would seem driven by a dark and telling pleasure: the slow and meticulous cultivation of pure possibilities, raised only to die on the vine. Indeed, all stories told therein die quick and natural deaths precisely because not put down in words.
Christiane Craig is an American student of literature living in Paris. She has worked as a proofreader and assistant on several of The Cahier Series’projects.
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