Evicted From His Own Head: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Evicted From His Own Head: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Evicted From His Own Head: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

In the stories of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, the landscape of the Russian revolution is hostile territory, and terrifying in its scope.


MOISEI NAPPELBAUMSigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, 1925

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.

Sutulin’s name presumably comes from the word sutuliy, which means slouched–a posture that Krzhizhanovsky’s Soviet citizens have much reason and opportunity to assume. In the story “Red Snow” (1930) a Moscow bachelor, Shushashin, begins every day with an unusual exercise regimen: “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.” Shushashin is unemployed and spends part of his day following fruitless job leads, then idly wanders the streets. On his walks through the fog-shrouded city, he overhears his fellow citizens’ guarded discussions of the new political and economic realities of the country. One man says to another, “Oh, dear sir, from your apartment you say…. But I’ve been evicted from my own head.” Shushashin sits down on a bench where, at the other end, a couple abruptly stop talking, then resume their conversation in murmurs. “Haven’t you noticed how in the last few years our life has been permeated by nonexistence?” the man asks his companion. “We’re still immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long since been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others.”

Shushashin is no eavesdropper–he does not want to hear these conversations and even fears looking the interlocutors in the eye, such is his general meekness and sense of unease. But there are people everywhere, looming suddenly out of the fog before he can avoid them, and he helplessly catches bits of their dialogue. A man is telling a story to two friends: “So then, he was nearing his building…. It was late at night and all the windows were dark, but in his a light was burning. You know why. And whether he went up or he didn’t: either way he was done for.” The possibility of a light at his own window–that is, a visit from the secret police–haunts Shushashin as he hurries home. To his relief, “his window was dark.” But in his own bed, in his “almost restful” room in a noisy communal apartment, his actual nightmare begins: he dreams of terrifying encounters in the streets of a familiar but darker Moscow:

Facing him was a man of an exceedingly peaceable, if slightly hunched appearance: having set his briefcase down beside his left overshoe, he took hold of his head and began–using the even, circular motion one does with an electric light bulb–to unscrew it from his collar. Shushashin tried to glimpse the hunched man’s face, but his head flipped so fast–nose-nape-nose-nape–it couldn’t be apperceived. Twist, one more twist, and the hunched man’s hand was holding out his head to the shocked Shushashin, exactly as a beggar does his wooden bowl for a well-meaning coin.

During the day, Shushashin’s fellow Muscovites dare only to speak elliptically about the arrests and denunciations that are multiplying around them. At night he dreams grotesque fantasies through which he seems to apprehend the violence of the postrevolutionary state. History gets revised, ideological ground shifts, people disappear, facts are elusive and no one can attempt to talk or write directly about what’s happening. Only the illogic of dreams can adequately convey the experience of Soviet life, and Krzhizhanovsky’s characters do a lot of dreaming.

In “The Branch Line,” a commuter named Quantin falls asleep on a train, using his briefcase as a pillow. He dreams that the train has dropped him off in an otherworldly city where he sees crowds of people marching with placards (Glory to the Unwakeable). Quantin stumbles into an auditorium where a speaker is exhorting “the kingdom of dreams” to revolt against reality.

Reality since Pascal’s time has lost much of its constancy and invariability, events of recent years are rocking it, the way the waves do a boat; nearly every day the morning papers give waking up a new reality, whereas dreams…. Haven’t we hoodwinked humanity with that sweet million-brain dream of brotherhood, a united dream about unity?… We’ll break the backs of facts.

Krzhizhanovsky realizes that the Soviet revolution not only overturned government, economic and social status, religious practice and traditional means of employment; it was an assault on one’s very perception of reality. The rules of logic might be violated by the press, the most obvious lies passed off as truths. But the extent of this assault became clear, for Krzhizhanovsky and most Russians, only in retrospect, years after the revolution, as Stalin expanded the list of forbidden subjects while publishing ever more false denunciations and revisionist interpretations of the recent past.

The longest piece in this collection, a sort of science fiction novella called “Memories of the Future,” is suffused with regret, in hindsight, about the events of 1917. Its hero, Max Shterer, born before the revolution to a provincial landowning family, spends decades developing a time travel machine. Cataclysmic political events are little more to Shterer than obstacles to his time travel plans. He’s nearly finished building the device when he gets drafted into the war. He takes the first opportunity to be captured and gives “himself up to the Germans for safe-keeping”: this gives him ample time to think about his machine while pacing the grounds of the prison camp, and protects him from premature death by a bullet before he can carry out his scheme.

Meanwhile, back in Russia, the Bolsheviks stage a coup. For Shterer, this is a nuisance: he can’t collect the inheritance his father recently left him, which Shterer planned to invest in his machine. When he returns to Russia from the German prison, his country’s poverty and chaos register merely as further impediments to his work. Shterer finally gets money to complete his machine when he pitches his invention to some formerly rich Muscovites desperate to get back to prerevolutionary years. “To at least 1861, or ten years before that,” requests a former czarist general, referring to the year that serfs were freed. Shterer takes the last of their money and finishes his machine, but the white Russians never get a return on their investment. Shterer takes the maiden–and only–voyage alone.

He makes it all the way to 1957, but what exactly he sees there Krzhizhanovsky pointedly leaves out of the story. All we know is that Shterer sees something shockingly bleak. Something that makes him reflect, for the first time, about the events of the past. He turns his time machine around and heads back toward the years of revolution and civil war–years that he paid so little attention to when he was living through them. On his way to the past, however, his machine is destroyed, and he finds himself deposited back in the late 1920s, not long after he originally departed. He returns to his own era to walk the streets of Moscow in a daze, wandering toward a bench where a prostitute is sitting. She assumes–incorrectly–that “the approaching male shape” must be a potential customer.

“From out of town?”
 The figure nodded. The woman whistled….
 ”What do you want from Moscow? The good old days?”
 The figure turned toward the question.
 ”Yes.” And after a second’s pause: “The good old years. Since I didn’t understand, I’ll have to go through them again and again until…”
 The man’s voice and intonation were exceedingly serious and intent. The woman peered at him uneasily: could be a lunatic.
 A slight wind came up. In an effort to redirect the conversation, she said, “The night’s nearly gone.”
 The man, his outline becoming gradually clearer in the half-light, leaned lower to the ground.
 ”I know a night about which you could never say that.”
 This bore little resemblance to an offer to go to bed.

The novella’s mix of science and satire takes unusual form. Like the hero of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Shterer narrates his experience of time travel to a group of rapt fellow intellectuals; he lingers on the mechanics of his machine but unlike Wells’s hero doesn’t actually get around to telling his listeners about what he’s seen in the future. Krzhizhanovsky, an admirer of Wells, seems curiously uninterested in using the premise of time travel to imagine the world of the future. The novella is clearly not the kind of Russian utopian science fiction that was popular in the years before and just after the revolution, when leftist writers like the Bolshevik revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov, the author of Red Star (1908), projected their ideal of a technologically advanced communist society into the distant future. But neither is it a futuristic satire in the vein of Zamyatin’s We. Krzhizhanovsky does not intend “Memories of the Future” as a corrective to the problems he observes in Bolshevik society; there are no satirical extrapolations from the present, no details about what exactly awaits his countrymen. It is an expression of pure pessimism that suggests correctives are useless.

The story is dated 1929, by which time Krzhizhanovsky, along with most other writers, would have had intimations of the unprecedented brutality and philistinism of Stalin’s reign, even if the show trials and terror were still to come. Until the end of the 1920s there was a good deal of literary ferment among writers on the left. These writers could still openly argue with one another over how–if at all–they should be serving the socialist state, and they debated both how to write (realism? fantasy? abstraction?) and how to live (like a regimented factory worker or a nineteenth-century bohemian?). But at the end of the decade new party directives swiftly changed literary culture. The range of permissible art forms narrowed to the kind of conservative, ideologically driven parables that would later be called socialist realism; the great Modernist experiments of the revolutionary era came to an end. The militant writers’ union RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) harassed, fired and censored anyone whose writing was experimental or satirical or frank about Soviet society. In 1929 RAPP declared the new Five Year Plan the only acceptable subject for writers.

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are full of metaphorical reminders of the silence imposed on writers and artists. Shterer is befriended by a writer in his building who persuades him to write a memoir about his time travels to earn money for the materials he needs to rebuild the machine. But an astounded publisher tells Shterer he can’t possibly publish this dark vision–it would at the very least cost him his job. Nonetheless, the manuscript takes on a life of its own, secretly copied and circulated, presumably with the assistance of the publisher himself. People start whispering about it; it has admirers but also, apparently, critics. Not long after the meeting with the publisher, Shterer disappears. His neighbor goes to look for him one morning only to find that Shterer’s tiny apartment–which had been made out of a closet–has been put to another purpose: “the entire under-stairs closet, right up to the ceiling, was stacked with sticks of stovewood; pressed snugly together, their flat ends protruded from the throat of the cage like a tight damp gag.”

Krzhizhanovsky knew his stories and his associations with prominent Moscow writers put him in a precarious position; he hid his work at the houses of friends during the terror in the hope of preserving it should he get arrested. Some of his acquaintances were arrested and killed. Like some of the characters in his stories, he worried that he would come home to find the secret police in his apartment. The worry did not, however, keep him from writing through the 1930s. Perhaps he had a prescient sense of the arbitrary nature of the purges. If loyal Bolsheviks could get arrested and killed for no apparent reason, why not write critically about Soviet conditions? He stopped writing fiction in the early 1940s, possibly because he was drinking heavily and in poor health, though he continued to make a modest living from literary criticism and lectures until he died in 1950.

The fascination of Krzhizhanovsky’s work today is also its limitation: the blatant criticism of the Soviet regime that makes itself felt, in different ways, in every one of the stories. Each is about a man and his private reckoning with the political, economic and social conditions of post-revolutionary Russia. There seems to be no room for any kind of struggle but the one between citizen and state. For Krzhizhanovsky’s characters this struggle is silent and inward rather than confrontational, and the need for secrecy creates an atmosphere of intense loneliness and isolation. There is a kind of aridity in these stories when it comes to human relations. The family drama, friendship, love, marriage–none play any significant role. Sex is a little joke well out on the margins of life. As for the pointless humiliations of existence and the baser human impulses, these are, for Krzhizhanovsky, bound up with the new regime and culture, which, of course, offers no shortage of examples.

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. Even knowing that they would not be published, Krzhizhanovsky continued to write his stories for the drawer (as the Soviet saying about dissident writing goes), hoping, presumably, that one day someone other than his friends and family would read them. From that drawer Krzhizhanovsky’s work mutely skewered and censured the regime for fifty-some years. His stories are full of insight into official Soviet culture–insight that proved both prescient and useless. By the time his work was finally published in 1989, the millions who would be killed were already dead, and his countrymen needed no convincing about the corruption and violence of the Soviet state.

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