Storytelling is a Deadly Business: Krzhizhanovsky's "The Letter Killers' Club" (The Millions)

Anyone who has ever strolled into a Barnes & Noble and felt a certain despair at the sight of all those books lying on tables and shelves, many of them not very good, all of them emitting that silent, deathly scream: please decipher our inky squiggles and bring our stories to life, will identify with the central conceit of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club. Set in Moscow in the 1920s, it features a series of tales told among the members of the mysterious, secretive eponymous organization. Each Saturday, seven individuals known to each other by nonsense sounds instead of names (Rar, Tyd, Zez, etc.) meet in an unfurnished room to spin yarns which they are forbidden to write down. Why? Well, says the group’s president:

Writers, in essence, are professional word tamers; if the words walking down the lines were living creatures, they would surely fear and hate the pen’s nib as tamed animals do the raised whip. Or a better analogy: do you know about the production of astrakhan fur? Suppliers have their own terminology: they track the patterns of the unborn lamb’s wool, wait for the necessary combination of curls, then kill the lamb – before birth: they call that “clinching the pattern.” That is exactly what we – trappers and killers – do with our conceptions.
The president of the club is a renowned author who has recently given up “flinging…fistfuls of letters” at the “outstretched palms” of his readers. Instead he sits in his room, meditating on the empty shelves, filling them with invisible texts which he hoards. In secrecy they bloom, and only a select few are granted access to his inner sanctum. If that seems perverse, he points out that no less a figure than Goethe argued that Shakespeare stifled the world of English letters for two centuries after his death – after which Goethe promptly smothered German literature. To abandon writing for the creation of pure conception is a noble thing: “word professionals,” says the president, cram shelves and crush the imagination. Letter Killers by contrast clear space, for “everyone has the right to a conception.” Strange, yes, outrageous, perhaps, ironic, definitely – but not entirely untrue either.

Almost every review of Krzhizhanovsky will at some point make reference to Borges and Kafka in order to convey to the uninitiated some vague sense of the nature of his philosophical phantasmagorias – and why should this one be any exception? Swift is also a frequent comparison, and while we’re at it, let’s toss in G.K. Chesterton, whose The Club of Queer Trades also featured a society of strange storytellers. But although Krzhizhanovsky was a great anglophile and confirmed admirer of Swift, he never read Borges and only stumbled upon Kafka late in life. His is a very original world, underpinned by its own logic, shaped and colored by its own unique strangeness.

Born in Kiev in 1887 to a family of Catholic Poles, Krzhizhanovsky was a polymath and polyglot (he knew 10 languages) who traveled in Europe and considered a career in music before moving to Moscow in 1922. This was a time of shortages and squalor but also great creativity, as the leaders of Russia’s avant-garde still dreamt that their art could somehow be put in service of the Revolution. Krzhizhanovsky immediately fell in love with Moscow’s bewildering, overwhelming labyrinth of crooked streets and lanes, churches and factories, and each day he would set out at 11:45am on “wanderings in search of the meanings of Moscow.” He eventually found work as an editor of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, but this was not a well-paid or especially prestigious position – the only living space he could acquire was a 65-square foot room in a mansion at 44 Arbat Street, which had recently been converted into a grimy warren of communal apartments. (Today it houses the Moscow branch of The Hard Rock Café: I ate a burger there, once, beneath a guitar designed by Eric Bloom of Blue Oyster Cult.)

Sequestered in his tiny room and loathed by his neighbors, Krzhizhanovsky wrote copiously and gave readings of his work to friends, but he rarely submitted any of it to the censors. When he did, it was almost never published. Written in 1925-27, The Letter Killers Club was one of the works he actually tried to get into print, but his novella was deemed insufficiently “contemporary” and thus unfit for purpose in the budding communist paradise – and this was before the already heavy hand of soviet censorship had clenched itself into a lethal Stalinist fist. Indeed, in 1928, when Krzhizhanovsky submitted his book, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s experimental Left Front of Arts was still active, and it would not be until 1932 that all writers’ organizations would be forcibly disbanded, their erstwhile members subsequently force-marched into the USSR Union of Writers (if they could gain entry, that is). That same year Maxim Gorky would effectively have the last word on Krzhizhanovsky for decades with the following dismissive judgment: “Most of mankind has no time for philosophy’.

Certainly Krzhizhanovsky’s stories do precisely, majestically, nothing to advance the cause of the international proletariat. His narrative framework is strange and unsettling, and the stories his characters tell roam freely through space and time and genre, displaying an awesome disregard for the necessity of bolstering/distorting Soviet reality and raising proletarian consciousness, at least in the manner that Gorky, the “Father of Socialist Realism” demanded of Soviet writers.

The first story, recounted by “Rar,” is a meta-playlet about the relationship between an actor and his role, only in this instance the actor is already a figure within the play in question, or at least one half of that figure – Stern, who has been separated from Guilden, and who now wishes to embody Hamlet. The reader/listener thus encounters a disquisition on the theory of theater, an erudite history of actors who have played Hamlet, philosophical digressions, and a descent into madness – all of which is punctuated by antagonistic critiques of the playlet by members of the Letter Killer’s Club itself – all in the space of around 18 pages. If that sounds dense, complex, and multi-layered, that’s because it is: Krzhizhanovsky was not coy about making demands of his readers, or (as was largely the case in his own lifetime) listeners. There can be no slacking, no skimming; concentration is required.

The next tale, narrated by “Tyd,” is “The Feast of the Ass”: a folk style narrative set in medieval France, a love story unfolding against a backdrop of “sacrilege and debauchery.” His semi-hostile audience then challenges Tyd to reassemble the components of his tale again, and then again. As was revealed by the reactions to Rar’s tale, The Letter Killer’s Club is adversarial: its members are harsh critics, who prey on error and pounce on structural weakness, thematic banality, and woe unto anyone who resorts to notes for help! Indeed, there is something so unnerving about the club that each week our proxy, the unnamed listener through whose ears we experience the tales, almost decides not to return…before changing his mind, lured on by some unresolved mystery.
Via this device of repeated critique and attack and revision, Krzhizhanovsky thus imparts on his meticulously constructed written tales a seemingly unstable, oral quality, as if the stories are being invented or modified on the spot, with entire sections omitted by the narrators who explain what would be there – if they believed in the act of writing, that is. The book is thus highly playful, but also serious: indeed, at one point Krzhizhanovsky indicates that storytelling is so deadly a business that it can even result in death. Or so it seems: there is something half-hidden in his stories, a logic underpinning the phantasmagoria that is at once ruthless and cunning and mathematical. These tales are harder than the grotesques of Gogol, and also those of his great contemporary, the soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms. Borges, too, you suspect, is up to something relatively straightforward compared to Krzhizhanovsky. Perhaps, if English readers had access to his complete works, it would be easier to identify these patterns via cross comparison of themes, structure, and obsessions. As it is, the ruthless, systematic quality of his logic is most overt in Das’ story, a dystopian narrative in which a scientist develops a system for manipulating the bodies of entire populations as if they were meat puppets – before the flesh revolts and civilization erodes inevitably and totally. There is a whiff of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in Krzhizhanovsky’s mini-dystopia, and like Dostoesvky, Krzhizhanovsky is guilty of considerable prescience – although whether or not he was aiming for that is anybody’s guess.

Speaking of prescience, in many cultures great care is taken over the act of naming, as if it is by taking a name that we acknowledge our own identity and declare to the world the essence of what we are and will be. Krzhizhanovsky knew this: one of the few things he ever published, and indeed the text that gained him entry into the Soviet Writer’s Union (and thus saved his body of work from total death) was a 34-page treatment on The Art of Titles. When he wrote The Letter Killers Club, then, surely he was aware of what he was doing to his tale, to himself? Or did he believe he was somehow exempt?

In his lifetime he only ever had nine stories published. Four times collections of his work made it to the presses only for those letters to be killed at the last minute. In 1941 he gave up, and from that moment forward composed narratives in his head only, conceptions which he gave away for free to friends. The rest is tragedy: he succumbed to drink, and in 1949 he suffered a stroke which left him unable to read. Krzhizhanovsky died a year later. His writings were lost until a chance discovery in the archives in 1965, but even then Gorky’s damning judgment caused them to remain unpublished until 1989. Now his collected works fill five fat volumes that you can find in the bookshops of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and his stories are slowly creeping into English in the USA, courtesy of translator Joanne Turnbull and NYRB classics.

“Would our conceptions withstand the light, would they be as effective outside our black room?” asks one of the storytellers in the book. Eighty years after the question was posed, it has finally been answered: yes.

From The Millions, Dec 27th 2011