Evicted From His Own Head: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky | The Nation


Evicted From His Own Head: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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MOISEI NAPPELBAUMSigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, 1925

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Elaine Blair
Elaine Blair is the author of Literary St. Petersburg. Her writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, n+1...

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Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is a writer even most Russians knew nothing about until his work was resurrected from Soviet archives and published--most of it for the first time--in the late 1980s. He was ethnically Polish and grew up near Kiev. He studied law without much enthusiasm, worked for an attorney in that city for a few years and spent as much time as he could writing and lecturing on literature, drama and music. In 1922, when he was in his mid-30s, he moved to Moscow hoping to make a living from his writing.

His timing was not auspicious. Krzhizhanovsky became acquainted with other Moscow writers, gave private readings of his work and collaborated on scripts with experimental theater director Alexander Tairov. But publication eluded him. In the story "The Bookmark," he describes the situation of a writer who has arrived in Moscow just after the revolution with a collection of stories he's eager to publish. One editor after another rejects his manuscript: the style and subject do not fit with the new Soviet ways of thinking. "On one manuscript," the writer recalls, "I remember finding the penciled comment: Psychologizing." Another editor tells him:

You have talent.... [But] your stories are, well, how shall I put it? Untimely. Put them away--let them wait. In the meantime.... Have you ever tried writing criticism? A reappraisal, say, of reappraisals? You know what I mean. Do try.

Krzhizhanovsky did try, scratching out a living for decades writing criticism and entries for the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Friends helped him to obtain sinecures so that he would not be in danger of arrest for being unemployed. Some of his stories came close to being published in collections that were censored before they went to press. Many stories--including the seven in Memories of the Future, available for the first time in the United States--he never even showed to publishers. It's not hard to see why. His stories depict, with remarkable frankness--and with a mix of surrealism, fantasy and satire, all of which were falling out of favor with the Communist Party--the poverty and political repression of 1920s Russia.

The subject of the story "Quadraturin" is a Soviet city dweller, Sutulin, who lives in an apartment so tiny that when he hears a knock on his door one evening, he doesn't need to get out of bed to open it: he merely "threaded a toe through the door handle, and pulled." The stranger at the door persuades Sutulin to take a free sample of an experimental substance that is supposed to make rooms bigger. Sutulin begins to apply the Quadraturin to his walls as the instructions on the tube advise, but he accidentally spills the entire contents of the tube on his floor. He wakes up the next morning in a "faintly familiar, large, but ungainly room," where his furniture looks awkward and the angles of the walls are uneven. He enjoys the novel pleasure of strolling from one end of his room to the other, but he must enjoy it in secret, for like other citizens he is legally allotted only ninety-seven square feet of living space, and owning more than his share could mean losing his apartment. Sutulin is, like Akaky Akakievich, Raskolnikov and Joseph K, a bachelor whose quarters contain a secret--something at least obscurely embarrassing, perhaps criminal. As usual, there is a talkative landlady and neighbors to be avoided. Sutulin realizes he has to buy curtains to hide his apartment from the eyes of passers-by.

It only gets worse from there: every time Sutulin leaves the room, he returns to find that his apartment has grown still bigger. He realizes that he forgot to apply Quadraturin to the ceiling, so his apartment is only growing outward, not upward, the dimensions increasingly oppressive even as the room becomes larger. It outgrows its electric circuitry and Sutulin is trapped in the darkness. "He knew that there, behind his back, the dead, Quadraturinized space with its black corners was still spreading."

The scenario is a nightmare familiar to the Russian imagination: a vast expanse of space, terrifying in scope, its limits invisible, its territory inhospitable. And this is Sutulin's punishment for having wanted to escape the other Russian nightmare, the squalor of cramped urban quarters. "Quadraturin" is the story most obviously indebted to Gogol in this collection, Sutulin's apartment evoking both the windy square where Akakievich loses his prized possession in "The Overcoat" and the sprawling country itself that Gogol apostrophizes at the end of part one of Dead Souls. Its dark, expressionistic Moscow settings and flashes of paranoid humor also owe something to the Russian symbolists, in particular to Andrei Bely's novel Petersburg.

But "Quadraturin" is not particularly representative of the collection--no single story is. Krzhizhanovsky tried out different tones, framing devices and surreal and fantastical juxtapositions, many of which Western readers would later know better through his near-contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov, as well as Kafka, Borges and the French Surrealists. (According to translator Joanne Turnbull's introduction, Krzhizhanovsky did not read Kafka until 1939, and was "very surprised.") Krzhizhanovsky called his own work "experimental realism," and the second word applies as much as the first: his are not the experiments of the Russian futurists. 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. The difficulties of adjusting to Soviet society was a recurring subject among writers on the left through much of the 1920s, and some of them--including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Evgeny Zamyatin and Yuri Olesha--produced scathing depictions of smug party hacks and their attempts to regiment most aspects of daily life. But Krzhizhanovsky's pessimism about Soviet life seems to run deeper than theirs, unchecked by any hint of communist ideals.

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