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 Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were mostly unpublished during his lifespan and nyrb has published several new translations and collections of his works.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?