The stakes are wildly high in Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s fantastic and blackly comic philosophical fables, which abound in nested narratives and wild paradoxes. This new collection of eleven mind-bending and spellbinding tales includes some of Krzhizhanovsky’s most dazzling conceits: a provincial journalist who moves to Moscow finds his existence consumed by the autobiography of his room’s previous occupant; the fingers of a celebrated pianist’s right hand run away to spend a night alone on the city streets; a man’s lifelong quest to bite his own elbow inspires both a hugely popular circus act and a new refutation of Kant. Ordinary reality cracks open before our eyes in the pages of Autobiography of a Corpse, and the extraordinary spills out.
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About the Author
Joanne Turnbull’s translations from Russian in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov include Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club (both NYRB Classics).
Adam Thirlwell is the author of two novels, Politics and The Escape; a novella, Kapow!; an essay-book, The Delighted States, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; and a compendium of translations edited for McSweeney’s. He has twice been selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.
Read an Excerpt
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CORPSE
By SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY, JOANNE TURNBULL, NIKOLAI FORMOZOV
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Adam Thirlwell
All rights reserved.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CORPSE
Journalist Shtamm, whose "Letters from the Provinces" were signed "Etal," among other pseudonyms, had decided to set out—on the heels of his letters—for Moscow.
Shtamm believed in his elbows and in the ability of Etal to swap drops of ink for rubles, but the question of living space worried him. He knew that on the metropolitan chessboard, squares had not been set aside for all of the chessmen. People who had been to Moscow scared you; the buildings are all packed to the rafters. You have to camp in vestibules, on backstairs, on boulevard benches, in asphalt cauldrons, and in dustbins.
That is why Shtamm, as soon as he stepped off the train onto the Moscow station platform, began repeating into dead and living, human and telephonic ears one and the same words: a room ...
But the black telephonic ear, having heard him out, hung indifferently on its steel hook. The human ears hid under fur and astrakhan collars—the frost that day crackled underfoot—while the words, as though blanketed by layer upon layer of carbon paper, grew fainter with each repetition and broke up into softly knocking letters.
Citizen Shtamm was very nervous and impressionable; that evening when, spun out like a top on a string, he lay down on three hard chairs bent on forcing him to the floor with their backs, he clearly saw in his mind's eye the specter of the dustbin, its wooden lid thrown hospitably open.
But there's truth to the old adage: Morning is wiser than evening. And wilier too. Having risen with the dawn from his chairs, which went back to their corners to sulk, Shtamm apologized for the trouble, thanked them for the bed, and trudged off along the half-deserted streets of snow- and rime-clad Moscow. But before he had gone a hundred paces, at practically the first crossroad, he met a little man mincing along in a thin and threadbare overcoat. The little man's eyes were hidden under a cap, his lips closely muffled in a scarf. Nonetheless, the man saw Shtamm, stopped, and said, "Ah. And you too?"
"Where so early?"
"I'm looking for a room."
Shtamm did not catch the reply; the words stuck fast in the scarf's double whorls. But he saw the man thrust a hand inside his overcoat, feel about for something, and finally pull out a narrow notepad. He quickly wrote something down, blowing on his frozen fingers. An hour later, a three-by-four-inch slip of paper torn from the notepad had miraculously turned into lodgings measuring one hundred square feet.
The longed-for space had been found on the top floor of an enormous gray pile in one of the side streets that trace crooked zigzags between Povarskaya and Nikitskaya. The room struck Shtamm as somewhat narrow and dark, but once the electric light had been switched on, dark blue roses appeared, capering down the wallpaper in long verticals. Shtamm liked the sprightly blue roses. He went to the window; hundreds upon hundreds of roofs pulled low over more windows. Looking pleased, he turned round to the landlady—a quiet, elderly woman with a black shawl about her shoulders.
"Very good. I'll take it. May I have the key?"
There was no key. The landlady, looking down and drawing her shawl more closely about her, said the key was lost, but that ... Shtamm wasn't listening.
"Doesn't matter. For now a padlock will do. I'll go and fetch my things."
In another hour the new lodger was tinkering with the door, screwing in the padlock's steel hasp. Elated as he was, one small detail did bother him: While securing the temporary bolt, he noticed that the old lock appeared to have been broken. Visible above its steel body were the marks of blows and deep scratches. A little higher up, on the wooden stock, ax marks were plain to see. Feeling not a little apprehensive, Shtamm lighted a match (the corridor connecting his room to the front hall was dark) and inspected the door. But nothing else—save the white number 24, clearly inscribed on the door's flat brown surface and, evidently, necessary for the house accounts—did he notice.
"Doesn't matter." Shtamm waved the thought away and set about unpacking his suitcase.
Over the next two days everything went as it was supposed to go. All day Shtamm went from door to door, from meeting to meeting, bowing, shaking hands, talking, listening, asking, demanding. At night, the briefcase under his elbow now strangely heavy and straining his arm, his steps shorter, slower, and less steady, Shtamm returned to his room, looked blearily round at the ranks of dark blue roses, and sank into a black, dreamless sleep. The third evening he managed to finish somewhat earlier. The minute hand on the street clockface jerked forward to show ten forty-five as Shtamm approached the entrance to his building. He climbed the stairs and, trying not to make any noise, turned the cam of the Yale lock on the outer door. Then he went down the unlighted corridor to room No. 24 and stopped, fumbling in his pocket for the key. The other rooms were dark and quiet, except for the hum—to the left, through three thin walls—of a Primus. He found the key, turned it inside the steel body, and gave the door a shove; in that same instant a white blur rustled by his fingers, slipped down, and flopped on the floor. Shtamm snapped on the light. On the floor by the threshold, having evidently fallen out of the crack in the door, lay a notebook in a broad label-band. Shtamm picked it up and read the address:
RESIDENT ROOM NO. 24
There was no name. Shtamm folded back a corner of the notebook: Angular jumping letters bunched in a nervous line looked up. Puzzled, Shtamm again read the strange address, but in that instant, as he was turning the manuscript over, it slipped out of its rather loose paper noose and smoothed out its paper body. Shtamm had only to turn to the first page, which bore only these words: Autobiography of a Corpse.
Whoever you, the person in room 24, may be, the manuscript began, you are the only person I shall ever manage to make happy: You see, had I not vacated my hundred square feet by hanging myself from a hook in the corner by the door, you would hardly have managed to find yourself a resting place so easily. I write about this in the past tense: an exactly calculated future may be seen as a fait accompli, that is, almost as the past.
We are not acquainted and it is too late for us ever to be so, but that in no way prevents my knowing you: You are from the provinces. Rooms like these, you see, are better rented to out-of-towners with no knowledge of local affairs and press reports. Naturally, you have come "to conquer Moscow"; you have the energy and will "to gain a foothold," "to make your way in the world." In short, you have that particular ability which I never had: the ability to be alive.
Well, I am certainly ready to cede you my square feet. Or rather, I, a corpse, agree to move over just a little. Go ahead and live: The room is dry, the neighbors are quiet and peaceful, and there's a view. True, the wallpaper was tattered and stained, but for you I had it replaced, and here I think I managed to guess your taste: dark blue roses flattened along silly verticals. People like you like that sort of thing. Isn't that true?
In exchange for the solicitude and consideration I have shown you, the person in room No. 24, I ask only for a simple readerly consideration of this manuscript. I do not need you, my successor and confessor, to be wise and subtle; no, I need from you only one extremely rare quality: that you be entirely alive.
For more than a month now I have been tormented by insomnias. Over the next three nights they will help me to tell you what I've never told anyone. After that, a neatly soaped noose may be applied as a radical cure for sleeplessness.
An old Indian folktale tells of a man forced to shoulder a corpse night after night—till the corpse, its dead but moving lips pressed to his ear, has finished telling the story of its long-finished life. Don't try to throw me to the ground. Like the man in the folktale, you will have to shoulder the burden of my three insomnias and listen patiently, till the corpse has finished its autobiography.
Having read down to this line, Shtamm again examined the broad paper label-band: There were no postage stamps, no postmarks.
"I can't understand it," he muttered, walking to the door and standing there plunged in thought. The hum of the Primus had long since faded. Through the walls, not a sound. Shtamm glanced over at the notebook: It lay open on the table, waiting. He delayed a minute, then went obediently back, sat down, and found the lost line with his eyes.
I have worn lenses over my pupils for a long time. Every year I have to increase their strength: my vision is now 8.5. That means that 55 percent of the sunlight does not exist for me. I have only to poke my biconcave ovals back into their case, and space, as if it too had been thrown into that dark and cramped compartment, suddenly contracts and grows dim. I see only gray blurs, murk, and long threads of transparent dots. 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 were to wipe away all of space? Here and gone: like a sheen.
I am always keenly aware of this glassy adjunct that has crept up to my eyes on bent wiry legs. One day I discovered that it could break more than just the rays falling inside its ovals. The absurdity of what I am about to relate occurred some years ago: several chance meetings with a girl I half knew had created a strange bond between us. I remember she was young, her face a delicate oval. We were reading the same books, and so used similar words. After our first meeting I noticed that her myopically dilated pupils inside fine light blue rims, hidden (like mine) behind the lenses of a pince-nez, were affectionately but relentlessly following me. One day we were left alone together; I touched her hands; they responded with a light pressure. Our lips moved closer together—and at that very moment the absurdity occurred: In my clumsiness I jostled her lenses with mine; caught in a wiry embrace, they slipped off and landed on the carpet with a high, thin tinkle. I bent down to pick them up. In my hands I held two strange glass creatures, their crooked metal legs so entangled as to form one hideous four-eyed creature. Quivering glints, jumping from lens to lens, vibrated voluptuously inside the ovals. I pulled them apart: With a thin tinkle, the coupling lenses came unhooked.
A knock sounded at the door.
My last image was of the girl trying with trembling fingers to press the recalcitrant lenses back against her eyes.
A minute later I was on my way down the stairs. I felt as though I had tripped over a corpse in the dark.
I left. Forever. In vain did she try to overtake me with a letter; its jumping lines begged me to forget something and promised with a naïve simplicity to "always remember." Yes, remembering me always in my new corpse-like condition could prove useful, but ... as I searched her letter, word by word, I knew that the glassily transparent cold in me would not abate.
With particular care I examined my name on the envelope. Yes, nine letters, all calling to me. I heard them. But I would not answer.
It was then, I remember, that the period of dead, empty days began. They had come before. And gone. But now I knew: They had come forever.
This was not a source of pain or even uneasiness. Only boredom. Or rather: boredoms. A late-eighteenth-century book I once read mentioned "Earthly Boredoms." That's just it. There are many of them: There is the spring boredom when identical people love identical people, when the ground is covered with puddles, the trees with green pustules. And a series of tedious autumn boredoms when the sky sheds stars, clouds shed rain, trees shed leaves, and "I's" shed themselves.
At the time I was living not in your, forgive me, our room 24 but in an unnumbered roomlet in a small five-windowed annex in the provinces. The panes were spattered with rain. But even through the spatters I could see the trees in the garden tossing in time to the wind's blows like people tormented by toothache. I ordinarily sat in a splayed armchair, among my books and boredoms. The boredoms were many: I had only to close my eyes and cock an ear—and I could hear them sliding lazily across the creaky floorboards, dragging their felt-shod feet.
For days on end, from dusk to dusk, I thought of myself as a biconcave creature inaccessible both outwardly and inwardly, from within and from without: Both were equally forbidden. Beyond reach.
Sometimes I too, like a tree tormented by the wind, would toss between the oak arms of my chair in time to the tedious tossing of an idea: The dead, the idea glimmered, are to be envied. Barely stiff, and down goes the lid; on top of the lid goes damp earth; on top of the damp earth, sod. And that's that. But here, as soon as you begin bumping along in a dray, they cart you on and on like that, from pothole to pothole, through spring and winter, from one decade to the next, unmourned and unneeded.
Now, when I think back on my state then, I cannot understand how an absurd trifle to do with some pieces of glass could have so wounded and discombobulated me. I cannot understand how my soul, if indeed I still had one, could have been crushed and desoulerated by such a speck of dust. But at the time, I took that trifle as an object lesson to me from my "glassy adjunct." Even before, my attempts to penetrate the world on the far side of my biconcave ovals had been few and fearful. If the formula natura abhorret vacuum has been disproved, I now know why its converse—vacuum abhorret naturam—has yet to come under attack. I think it will prevail.
Be that as it may, I ceased all attempts to enter my outside. All those passes at friendship, experiments with another person's "I," endeavors to give or take love—I must, I thought, forget and renounce them once and for all. For some time I had been mentally constructing a flattened little world in which everything would be in my here—a little world that one could lock away inside one's room.
Space, I reasoned while still in earliest youth, is absurdly vast and has expanded—with its orbits, stars, and yawning parabolas—to infinity. But if one tucks it inside numbers and meanings, it will easily fit on two or three bookshelves. I have long preferred the narrow margins of books to the monotonous miles of earthly fields; the spine of a book has always seemed more intelligent to me than confused lectures about "the roots of things"; the sheer accumulation of those things, everywhere one looks, strikes me as crude and meaningless compared to the wise and subtle concatenations of letters and symbols hidden in books. Though the lines in books deprived me of half of my eyesight (55 percent), I never resented them: They knew too well how to be meek and dead. Only they, those silent black signs, could deliver me, however briefly, from my importunate, listless, and sleepy boredoms. It was then, while finishing up at the Institute of Oriental Studies, that I became completely absorbed in the painstaking work of my dissertation: The Letter "T" in Turkic Languages.
I still feel deeply indebted to that little two-handled "T" for the trouble it took and the help it gave me during that black lightless time. That "T" led my eyes from lexicon to lexicon, down long columns of words, never letting me sink for even a second into oblivion; that tiny, black-bodied letter stirred up the dust on my books, showed me tangled paragraphs in old glossaries and collections of syntagms. Sometimes, in an effort to amuse me, it would play hide-and-seek: I would hunt for that tiny sign, twirling my pencil along the lines and down the margins of a book, until I found it hidden in among other letters and symbols. Sometimes I even smiled at this. That's right, I smiled. But the companion of my leisure could be of greater comfort still. "You see, 'I' is just a letter," the "T" would say, "just like me. That's all it is. Is it worth grieving over? Here and gone."
I remember that then, between things, on a lark, I took up the philology of "I." My notes—if only they aren't lost—must still be in a folder somewhere. But I haven't time to look for them now. I quote from memory (inaccurately, I'm afraid): "'I' has a changeable root, but always a short phoneme. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. One can hypothesize the process of its shortening, or 'contraction.' Most likely, it is the result of ordinary speech patterns. Phonetically, however, much remains unclear. Incidentally, a count of the word 'ich' in Stirner showed that nearly z5 percent of the text consists of 'ich' (and its derivatives). Keep that up, and soon the whole text will be one continuous 'I.' Yet if one searches life, is there much 'I' in it?"
Come dusk the bustling "T" would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark, while I, so as not to disturb it, would pace from corner to corner in the dark. And every time, I distinctly heard my soul—with a high thin tinkle, drop by drop—dissolving in the emptiness. The drops were rhythmic and ringing, they had that same familiar glassy sound. This may have been a pseudo-hallucination, I don't know: It's all the same to me. But at the time I gave this phenomenon a special name: psychorrhea. Meaning "soul seepage."
Sometimes that measured flight—drop by drop—into the emptiness even frightened me. I would turn on the light and shoo both the dusk and the pseudo-sound away. The dusk, the boredoms, the "T," and the hallucinations would all disappear: It was then that that ultimate loneliness, known to only a few of the living, would begin, when you are left not only without others but without yourself.
Excerpted from AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CORPSE by SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY, JOANNE TURNBULL, NIKOLAI FORMOZOV. Copyright © 2013 Adam Thirlwell. Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Autobiography of a Corpse.................... 1
In the Pupil.................... 31
The Collector of Cracks.................... 87
The Land of Nots.................... 107
The Runaway Fingers.................... 117
The Unbitten Elbow.................... 125
Yellow Coal.................... 136
Bridge over the Styx.................... 151
Thirty Pieces of Silver.................... 162
Postmark: Moscow.................... 170
What People are Saying About This
“There is no blackness in this author’s humour, not even in such a story as ‘Autobiography of a Corpse,’ which in its mild and amiable way, gives the impression of being what the title says it is. For a writer Krzhizhanovsky himself sounds an unusually nice man. His work, subtly subversive, as his editor rightly calls it, only started to be published as a whole in 1989, when what might be described as all the usual suspects, Kafka and Borges, Swift, Gogol and of course Samuel Beckett, were promptly trotted out by way of comparison. Krzhizhanovsky has certainly much in common with them, but the flavour and personality of his writing is all his own, as if it were a subdued and friendly personal conversation. His method, as he put it, was not to borrow from reality, but to ‘ask reality for permission to use his own imagination.’ ” —The Spectator
“Curiously, one of the most startling qualities of his work is the directness with which it addresses our 21st-century concerns. It’s as if the Soviet editors were right: Krzhizhanovsky now seems more our contemporary than theirs.... It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century.” —Robert Chandler, Financial Times
“Krzhizhanovsky 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 delighted examination of impossible worlds can slip into ferocious political sarcasm.... It is a method for investigating how much unreality reality can bear.” —Adam Thirlwell, The New York Review of Books
“A Russian writer whose morbidly satiric imagination forms the wild (missing) link between the futuristic dream tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the postwar scientific nightmares of Stanislaw Lem...an impish master of the fatalistically fantastic.” —Bill Marx, The World
“Krzhizhanovsky is often compared to Borges, Swift, Poe, Gogol, Kafka, and Beckett, yet his fiction relies on its own special mixture of heresy and logic...phantasmagoric.” —Natasha Randall, Bookforum
“Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are more like dream diaries than fiction. Quite intentionally, he blurs the line between sleep and waking, real and unreal, life and death. While his translators admirably convey the whirligigging quality of his narratives, Krzhizhanovsky’s peregrinations demand unstinting focus and frequent compass checks. His characters often seem half, or wholly, asleep.... In Krzhizhanovsky’s tales, relics of a future past, he transports readers back to the present he renounced, to a life that’s ‘not-life, a gap in existence’—a place from which he sought refuge in fiction and dreams.” —Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
“There was probably no worse time and place to be a postmodernist sage than in 1920s Russia. Still, bibliophiles like to believe that genius makes itself known, regardless of social pressures, and in the case of Ukraine-born Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, they may have a point—only it took about six decades for anyone else to catch on.... For all the cemetery...Krzhizhanovsky is also hilarious, and one wonders whether that might have troubled the Bolsheviks as much as anything in his work. Krzhizhanovsky understood the potency of juxtaposing wit with terror and the sacred with the profane.” —Los Angeles Times
“Krzhizhanovsky is not interested in picking apart the sense-making mechanisms of language that readers take for granted. Instead he is feeling out ways of conveying both the quotidian dreariness and the horrifying threat of violence of 1920s Soviet life.... Turnbull writes in the introduction that a Soviet editor dismissed Krzhizhanovsky’s work as “untimely,” a common shorthand for fiction that was not politically correct. But of course Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are exactly and deliberately timely: they observe the follies and cruelties of early Soviet life.” —Elaine Blair, The Nation
“[A]n awareness has grown that Krzhizhanovsky belongs with the best of the Russian prose writers who came to maturity in the post-Revolutionary decade. Like them, he sought and developed a new aesthetic in an altered world; and like them, he was soon thrown back on himself.” —Oliver Ready, Times Literary Supplement