Month: December 2014

Autobiography of a Corpse

Autobiography of a Corpse - S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse – S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse is a collection of eleven stories written between 1922 and 1939 by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887 – 1950).  Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were mostly unpublished during his lifespan and nyrb has published several new translations and collections of his works.  Autobiography of a Corpse was published in 2013, but Memories of the Future was published in 2009.  Both collections were translated by Joanne Turnbull in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov.   Turnbull was the winner of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize for her translations of 7 Stories (seven stories by Krzhizhanovsky).  The publications received reviews from a number of literary sources.

Krzhizhanovsky, of Polish descent, was born in Kiev, where he attended University.  In 1922, he relocated to Moscow, where he more or less spent the rest of his life. Throughout his life, his writings did not get published for a variety of reasons including:  bankrupt publishers and Soviet censorship.  He was writing roughly around the same time as H. P. Lovecraft in America, but Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are much more cosmopolitan and urban.  Generally, he is compared to Borges, but Borges comes much later in history.  Kafka, too, couldn’t have had an impression on him.  Likely, influences were E. T. A. Hoffmann, Poe, Gogol, and the theatre director Alexander Yakovlevich Tairov.

Krzhizhanovsky is not afraid to philosophize in public. His stories are fatalistic, fantastic, and satirical.  These are stories that are full of shadows and trees and city streets.  Repeatedly, Krzhizhanovsky investigates “I” and “the other” (or the “not-I”); reminding readers of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (1923) and Levinas’ concept of alterity.  Krzhizhanovsky tries to explore the difference between the real and the not-real using architecture and personhood, etc.  He was a contemporary of Mayakovsky and it feels that way.More than anything, however, Krzhizhanovsky loves wordplay and language.  Lacanians and linguists might enjoy these stories for the wordplay.  Somehow Krzhizhanovsky is a master satirist, but without the savage bitterness that seeps through many satirists’ writings.

  • Autobiography of a Corpse – 3 stars – (1925)
  • In the Pupil – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Seams – 3 stars – (1928)
  • The Collector of Cracks – 2 stars – (1927)
  • The Land of Nots – 2 stars – (1922)
  • The Runaway Fingers – 4 stars – (1922)
  • The Unbitten Elbow – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Yellow Coal – 3 stars – (1939)
  • Bridge Over the Styx – 3 stars – (1931)
  • Thirty Pieces of Silver – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Postcard:  Moscow – 3 stars – (1925)

The title story (Autobiography of a Corpse) was an average read – honestly, I wanted more out of it.  My expectations were set fairly high because I had never read this author previously, so I did not know what to expect.  I actually re-read this story a few times before moving onward through this collection.  I admit that my appreciation increased after reading this story again.  Still, with this sort of title, a reader wants an awesome story, not one that is just average.

In the Pupil is my favorite story in this collection. I am giving it four stars, but truly, I could easily give this one five stars. I may have been feeling excessively critical to give it only four stars.  I think this is one of the most original and unique stories I have ever read.  It is also extremely heartfelt – and heart-rending – and also shows the depth of understanding that Krzhizhanovsky has regarding time and space.  This is a lover’s story, a philosopher’s story, and a rueful comic’s story. Excellent.

Seams, The Collector of Cracks, and The Land of Nots were all roughly of the same ilk.  These are a bit obscure and inaccessible.  “I” and “not-I” are used here, as well as being and not-being. But do these ideas come to fruition? Sometimes it feels like there is some interesting philosophical concept being investigated.  At other times, it feels like Krzhizhanovsky is just babbling in a stream of consciousness.  One is slightly reminded of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – but without all of the really bizarre Irish musicality.

The Runaway Fingers is another entirely fun and unique story.  It is macabre and thrilling and again shows Krzhizhanovsky’s familiarity with the physicality of cities and streets. I really liked this one and I would think that it is one of his most well-known.  If you are gonna read any of Krzhizhanovsky, I would definitely recommend this one.

The Unbitten Elbow is the most macabre and bizarre of the collection.  It is another unique and interesting read. The satire in it is extraordinary.  Krzhizhanovsky is definitely making some comments about contemporary society – trends and government involvement and, above all, profiteering.  He even tosses some of his scalding water on the academics like scientists and philosophers.  Yellow Coal, however, is even more satirical and sharper.  It is really well written and utilizes excellent concepts about society.  There is plenty of witty wordplay, particularly on “yellow” and the symbolism of it.  This story presents the downfall of society via the demand for economic and natural resources, which outweighs good morality. Moral turpitude seems to overcome society in a revaluation of matters.  People live better now that “love” is an archaic notion.  They live better right up until they become lazy, enfattened, and deadened. . . Hearts Versus Livers.

Thirty Pieces of Silver is also exceedingly satirical – but I feel this is less of a commentary on the greed and slime of mankind’s money-grubbing and more of a statement on how “schools” of writers in Krzhizhanovsky’s time adjudicate how/why works get published.  Soviet censorship and cliqueish writer-groups came to my mind while reading this.  Judas’ blood money is used under the guise of a writing prompt for this story. What is the silver itch – and are we all victims to it?

3 stars

Castle Skull

Castle Skull - John Dickson Carr; 1960 Berkley

Castle Skull – John Dickson Carr; 1960 Berkley

 I finished John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull this evening.  It is the second Carr novel that I’ve read and also the second in the series starring Henri Bencolin.  It was originally published in 1931; I read the April 1960 Berkley edition with the super-awesome cover artwork.

The previous Bencolin novel that I read was a “locked-room” mystery.  It was decent; I gave it three stars.  I liked a lot about the novel, but it had some sections that did not work so well.  I really wanted to get to this novel sooner, but I ended up waiting until late in December to get to it.  The cover artwork really makes me happy and I am glad I have this edition. It reminds me of the first Three Investigators novel and also Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat.  I like haunted house mysteries and stories. I would probably get a kick out of those haunted dinner party events.  Anyway, I made sure I did not raise my expectations too high prior to reading this novel, so I was ready for anything.

This novel surprised me with how good it ended up being.  Two things stand out for me:  the juxtaposition of characters is top notch excellent work and the macabre ambiance of the setting is great.  The basic storyline is a brutal murder that takes place on the bank of the Rhine River.

The novel begins masterfully:  our star characters, Bencolin and Marle, are at a restaurant on the Champs Elysées drinking Vichy water and other things.  The first line of the novel is:

D’Aunay talked of murder, castles, and magic.

That is how you start an interesting novel!  It seems a bit obvious, I suppose, but on the other hand – the reader must read the next line, just to see what follows that opener. And so on.  And through this novel, I have decided that John Dickson Carr certainly knew how to write for his audience.  Throughout the novel, there are dozens of paragraphs and lines that jump out at the reader as just really nice pieces of prose. Really effective writing bits. Witty and interesting sentences that make this novel worth every cent.

I really do not want to give away a single tidbit or spoiler or detail that might ruin the reading experience for another reader.  So, I am being somewhat careful in what I write in this review.  Nevertheless, I can share some basic things.  Once again, the story is narrated by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s pal from the first novel.  Bencolin himself is aloof, mysterious, and rather arrogant.  He’s described by characters as somewhat sinister – but definitely a man’s man. He’s a bigger fellow who can drink folks under the table, match wits in chess, gunplay, and poker.  Reminiscent of Christie’s Poirot, Bencolin can be disdainful and he purposely leaves the other characters (and, therefore, the reader) out of his deductive processes.  Marle seems a bit more intelligent in this novel than he did in the first.  But by no means is he a simpleton in either novel.

The plot pits the murdered character, an actor, against his neighbor and nemesis, a very sinister magician.  As Bencolin and Marle arrive at the scene to investigate, another official from the locale arrives. This is a German official who has a long-standing (not always friendly) competition with Bencolin.  So, the juxtaposition of these sets of characters is presented and the reader should really appreciate this.  At the nearby home of the murdered actor, a group of people is present – kept there by the police during the investigation.  These people are a variety of socialite-types who ran in somewhat of the same circle as the actor and his heirs.

There is a flavor, there is an old, dangerous, twilight charm, about the warrior Rhine when it leaves its lush wideness at Bingen.  Thence it seems to grow darker.  The green deepens almost to black, grey rock replaces vineyards, on the hills which close it in.  Narrow and widening now, a frothy olive-green, it rushes through a world of ghosts. – pg 12, Chapter 2

I’ve mentioned that the setting is awesome in this novel. And I mean so, even if I think it could have been utilized even more.  Maybe this is the sort of thing we expect Orson Welles and Hitchcock to collaborate on.  A castle that looks like a skull – on the deep-rooted heritage of the Rhine river – amidst difficult and steep terrain – with tumultuous weather patterns…  this novel has setting galore.  But it is not just dark and evil – there is also the brilliant juxtaposition of the two “houses.”  Like the actor vs. magician and detective vs. inspector, there is also the  house vs. house conflict.

All of the characters have intense personalities.  Sometimes, I did think that they may all be too melodramatic – but then, that’s why I read novels – not for banal and mundane characters!  There is a character in this novel, though, that is one of those super-memorable characters that the reader won’t forget anytime soon.  It is a little significant to remember this novel was published in 1931 and then to place these characters in that time period.  I say this because one of the characters would have an overwhelmingly potent personality in contemporary society – back then, this character would have been shocking. Literally: a real scream! A hoot! An undeniably hysterical classic! A cigar-smoking, Poker-playing, cocktail-drinking larger than life character! Reading just to meet this character (if not also for the mystery) is worthwhile.

I like the overall plot and throughout the novel there are a number of red herrings, diversions, and intrigues subsidiary to the actual crime that bulk out the plot. Some of these are interesting, some are a bit stereotypical.  But all in all, they are interesting and valuable to an entertaining story.  The “active” parts of the investigation are well written and the macabre setting is not overdone.  Marle is a good narrator. The reveal of the deduction is shocking and graphic (a bit gory, even). It’s really not for the tame.  But the last chapter of the story is also surprising and left me with a “ha! how about that!” sort of feeling.

I definitely recommend this novel.  It is not a speedy read, but it is not laborious.  Readers of vintage things, mystery fans, and fans of Clue should all enjoy this one.

5 stars

The Haunted Looking Glass

nyrb, 2001

nyrb, 2001

The Haunted Looking Glass is a collection of short stories that was published by the New York Review of Books (nyrb) in 2001. The collection purports to be artist/writer Edward Gorey’s (1925 – 2000) favorite horror stories. Well, I see no evidence of these being Gorey’s actual favorites, but I do think these stories were some that he selected to illustrate during his career.  The collection has twelve stories, one of which I had read previously and therefore skipped this time around.  I believe there is an “earlier version” of this collection and the artwork, but I do not have any information on that.

One of the things lacking in this book by nyrb is the lack of Introduction and other informational things. There is a brief paragraph about each of the authors at the end of the book, but that is all.  I feel like someone somewhere would have been willing to write an essay or something for this text.

The stories contained within are:

  • “The Empty House” – Algernon Blackwood  (1906) – 4 stars
  • “August Heat” – William F. Harvey  (1910) – 2 stars
  • “The Signalman” – Charles Dickens  (1866) – 4 stars
  • “A Visitor From Down Under” – L. P. Hartley  – 2 stars
  • “The Thirteenth Tree” – Richard H. Malden – (1942) – 2 stars
  • “The Body-Snatcher” – Robert Louis Stevenson – (1884) – 4 stars
  • “Man-Size in Marble” – Edith Nesbit – (1893) – 4 stars
  • “The Judge’s House” – Bram Stoker – (1891) -4 stars
  • “The Shadow of a Shade” – Tom Hood – 3 stars
  • “The Monkey’s Paw” – W. W. Jacobs  (rated previously) – 4 stars
  • “The Dream Woman” – Wilkie Collins – (1874) – 3 stars
  • “Casting the Runes” – Montague R. James – (1911) –  3 stars

All of these stories are rather famous and well-known examples of horror/occult/supernatural stories.  Almost every one of those authors is probably known to most readers. If I had to pick my favorite stories of this small collection, I would choose the Blackwood and the Dickens.  However, those other stories that I also rated four stars are really good as well.

There are a few things I need to admit to you before I go further in this entry.  The first admission is that I am not a seasoned reader of horror or the occult. This is because that genre tends to disgust me or scare me – effects I do not equate with entertainment.  The second admission is that I rated the stories based a bit on the plot and quite a lot on the “thrills/chills” factor.  The final admission is that I read these in the dead of night. I will also share that at one point my black cat pounced on me and I had a near cardiac emergency. (I did not read any further that night.)

The first story in the book is the Blackwood story and it scared the living tar out of me. I am sure this is because I read it very late with only a dim lamp on in the whole house. Setting and ambiance is very crucial, I think, to reading such genres.  Anyway, I jumped and sweat and yelped my way through this whole story. I will be honest, I think most of the people I know probably wouldn’t even be slightly spooked by this story. Anyway, the whole “this is a vintage Ghost Hunters episode” sure got my pulse racing.

The second story, “August Heat,” was really the only bomb of the book. It was obvious, really contrived, and not interesting.  However, I needed the break from the first story!   I have never been a fan of Dickens. I basically dislike his novels, so I did not come to this third story, “The Signalman,” expecting anything much. It does not start out with clarity and sense. I think some of the setting is tough to get because I am not in England in the mid-1800s.  Once I got a handle on the setting though, I began to feel the creepy factor.  After I read it, I felt the story was a little bit of a letdown.  Then I let it stew and I read sections again – and then I realized that this is a very well done bit of writing.  I looked up some biographical stuff on Dickens and apparently he had a few experiences with trains that may have influenced this story.

The Edith Nesbit story was probably the next scariest story for me.  Maybe because I was able to really visualize this cottage near the church.  There are also elements of slight humor besides all the terrifying things. The narrator is a very doting and compassionate husband.  The fact that his young wife is so put out over a little housework is ridiculous! This story builds up as it goes, it becomes obvious what will happen – but it is still disturbing when it occurs!

The thing is, I do not like really gory, graphic so-called horror. I do not think blood and guts is scary, per se. I am in it for the thrills and chills. I want to be spooked by the little things. I want the ambiance and the setting to pull me in. I want the descriptions to be something I can imagine.  Not all ghost stories or stories of the macabre can accomplish a good scare. Blackwood’s scared me. Dickens’ left me with an eerie feeling. Nesbit’s was humorous and shocking all at once.  Stoker’s was probably the closest to the edge of this genre that I will read.  Stoker’s was the most graphic and violent of these stories, but even so, it was very well written.

Therefore, 3 stars for twelve stories seems correct. The average came out a solid average, let’s say.  I am taking away a few good titles that I will hope to share with fellow readers in the future, I am going to forget a few others. For the two-day read that it was, this was a good collection. Recommend to readers of vintage things and “horror rookies.”

3 stars