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.