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Memories of the Future Paperback – Oct 6 2009
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"For anyone enthralled by the satirical avant-garde that briefly shone on the fringes of Soviet culture in the 1920s, here’s a revelation. Krzhizhanovsky somehow scraped a living in post-revolution Moscow as he wrote stories infused by a disturbing surrealism. Joanne Turnbull’s fine translations of seven won the Rossica Prize, and this edition should gain them a flock of new fans." Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
"These dystopic Stalin-era stories...read like dream diaries..." --The New York Times
"Fantastically imaginative, darkly ironic and marvelously crafted, these seven tales written in the 1920s were unpublished during Krzhizhanovsky’s lifetime. Set mostly in Moscow, where the toilsome workdays sap spiritual strength, the stories are about the strange, wondrous and alarming things that can result from a chance encounter...Turnbull’s translation reads wonderfully, capturing the isolation and strangeness of Krzhizhanovsky’s startling stories." --Publishers Weekly
"A writer visionary, an unsung geniu..." --Georgy Shengeli
"Nightmarish visions and philosophical conundrums explored in highly entertaining, fleet-footed prose... Krzhizhanovsky's whimsical and self-reflexive tales are more likely to strike readers as harbingers of Borges or Calvino." -OLIVER READY, The Times Literary Supplement
"Like Platonov, Krzhizhanovsky is a poker-faced surrealist whose imagination is so radical it goes beyond political lampoon into the realms of metaphysical assault. But Krzhizhanovsky’s writing is more in the fantastical modernist mode of Jorge Luis Borges and Stanislaw Lem–he works out the eccentric premises of his plot with a relentless cogency..." --Bill Marx, WBUR.fm
"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
“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...His stories, like those of Jorge Luis Borges, are closer to poetry and philosophy than to the realistic novel...It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century.” –Robert Chandler, Financial Times
"Delightful to read, humorous, sad and meaningful...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'." –John Bayley, The Spectator
About the Author
SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY (1887–1950), the Ukrainian-born son of Catholic Poles, studied law and classical philology at Kiev University. After graduation and two summers spent exploring Europe, he was obliged to clerk for an attorney. A sinecure, the job allowed him to devote the bulk of his time to the study of literature and his own writing. In 1920, after a brief stint in the Red Army, Krzhizhanovsky began lecturing intensively in Kiev on the theater and music. The lectures continued in Moscow, where he moved in 1922, by then well known in literary circles. Lodged in a cell-like room on the Arbat, Krzhizhanovsky wrote steadily for close to two decades. His philosophical and satirical stories with fantastical plots ignored official injunctions to portray the new Soviet state in a positive light. Three separate efforts to print different collections were quashed by the censors, a fourth by World War II. Not until 1989 could these surreal fictions begin to be published. Like Poe, Krzhizhanovsky takes us to the edge of the abyss and forces us to look into it. “I am interested,” he said, “not in the arithmetic, but in the algebra of life.”
JOANNE TURNBULL has translated a number of books from Russian—including Andrei Sinyavsky’s Soviet Civilization and Ivan the Fool, Asar Eppel’s The Grassy Street, and Andrei Sergeyev’s Stamp Album, and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Seven Stories, winner of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize—all in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov. She lives in Moscow.
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One story, `Yellow Coal' (published not in this volume but in the earlier SEVEN STORIES), anticipates global warming. It is set in a time when we have run out of coal and oil and the sun is drying up our reserves of water. A scientist suggests harnessing the energy of human spite: 'On the long keyboard of feelings, you see, the black keys of spite have their own distinct, sharply differentiated tone.' Marriage, of course, is a good potential source of this energy: 'coldness and, wherever possible, repugnance multiplied by proximity would produce high-voltage spite...' But there are other sources: 'Mills could make do with workers' hatred alone; the workers themselves were no longer needed. Factories and mills began laying huge numbers of people off, keeping only skeleton crews to man the spite collectors.' In the end, however, it appears that even the seemingly infinite energy of spite can grant humanity only a brief respite.
The pun on `spite' and `respite' is mine, but it is, I believe, in Krzhizhanovsky's spirit. He follows the play of thought and words wherever they take him. In his own words, `A thinker is not someone who thinks loyally, but someone who is loyal to his thoughts'. He also wrote, `I am not alone. Logic is with me'. This brings us to one of the finest stories, `Red Snow' (1929), the Russian text of which was discovered only a few years ago. In it a man is wandering around Moscow in search of work. Eventually he joins a line of people waiting on the street. They are hoping to obtain some logic, but they are afraid it will run out before they reach the front of the line...
Another story, `Quadraturin', takes as its starting point the shortage of living space in 1920s Moscow. The narrator, like Krzhizhanovsky himself, lives in what is little more than a cupboard. A mysterious stranger brings him a tube containing `an agent for biggerizing rooms: Quadraturin'. The narrator smears this substance around the walls - and from that moment they never stop moving apart. Many writers have described the boundlessness of the steppe; many have described the suffocating quality of a Soviet communal apartment. No one else has evoked both agoraphobia and claustrophobia in a single image. I had thought I understood this story well, but a friend has just written to me, `The enlarged room is a subtle metaphor for an inner revolution. The protagonist is an inverse image of Kafka's man who turns into a cockroach. His difficulty in dealing with the world derive from the magnification of his inner world, not its shrinkage.' This startled me; I had never read the story this way. Krzhizhanovsky's work, however, is subtle enough to bear many interpretations, and I am sure he will continue to startle me.
Krzhizhanovsky's work is remarkable both for its brilliance and for its breadth. The complete works - now being published in both Russian and French - amount to around 3000 pages. As well as both long and short stories, he wrote travel sketches, plays, opera librettos and essays about literature and the theatre. In the 1920s, when Meyerhold, Vakhtangov and other great directors were at the height of their fame, he criticized them for arrogating dictatorial powers; he argued that slave labour is never productive and that it is therefore a mistake to turn actors into slaves. He also wrote that the Revolution had turned the entire country into a theatre - one where improvisation was forbidden and only canonical texts could be performed.
The translator, Joanne Turnbull, conveys Krzhizhanovsky's intellectual vitality. She provides neat equivalents for the puns and neologisms, and her language is idomatically and rhythmically alive. One story begins with terse onomotopeia: 'The rail joints clacketed, rapping out the staccato of the route.' 'Red Snow' begins still more arrestingly: ' Resignation to one's fate takes practice. Like any art. Or so Citizen Shushashin maintains. He begins every day - after putting on his shoes and washing his face, before throwing on his jacket - with an exercise. Again, the expression is his. This exercise works like this: he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that's all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live.'
In one, a product allows for the continuing expansion of a once-tiny Moscow apartment. In another, an author creates a manifesto against Symps (sympathetics, i.e. members of the intelligentsia) and is terrified to be called a Symp himself.
This leads into the main theme of the stories, written in the late 1920s and until 1930, which is the impending destruction of the Russian intelligentsia. K. was a man of vision and was able to foresee Stalin's actions against the intelligentsia, realized in the 1930s. A sense of foreboding and doom is palpable throughout. In spite of this, the stories are very readable and worth reading.
In a self-described style of "experimental realism," Krzhizhanovsky mixes gritty details (dark rooms in concrete block buildings, frozen boulevard benches) with fantastical elements, including several extended dream sequences. In one story, the Eiffel Tower uproots itself and heads towards the revolution in the East, laying waste to everything in its path. In another, a sociable corpse manages to miss his funeral while trying to experience one more day of life. In the last story of the collection (Memories of the Future), Max Scherter is a man obsessed with the concept of time. He works to build a time machine only to be repeatedly interrupted by war and revolution. Despite the obstacles Max faces, his story is a hopeful one of the perseverance of a noble idea over mankind's tragedies.
Krzhizhanovsky died in 1950 before any of his stories were published. Now, for the first time, these seven stories are available to an English audience thanks to Joanne Turnbull's translation and the New York Review of Books. Memories of the Future, although sometimes confusing in its wild departures from reality, gives us a valuable and unique insider's view into a closed society.
I loved "The Bookmark" with the image of the Eiffel Tower getting bored and taking a stroll! Each story is a fascinating, orignal tale~ very brave messages and haunting images. "...they were always having to quickly forget one past and learn
another, while memorizing the present according to the latest editions of the papers." A courageous Russian writer!