Despairing of the writer’s condition under the Soviet Union, Mikhail Bulgakov burned the first draft of “The Master and Margarita” in 1930. Today, with the newest Penguin edition safely tucked away on our bookshelves, we can look back and imagine what might have been. “Master” coined the revolutionary-era phrase “Manuscripts don’t burn,” a saying of which it is itself proof, and the anecdote is only one of near-loss, a shadow cast back in time by the reality of the novel that has been available since 1967. The difficulty is, in the case of true censorship, no sign marks the absence: there is no need to burn the manuscript, because it simply isn’t.
Such was the fate of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s work for much of the twentieth century, banished to “minus-Moscow,” that photo-negative of reality where the narrator in his story “Seams” resides. Luckily for Krzhizhanovsky, his description of this minus-Moscow as a place where “shadows cast things” is truer than he knew. Born in Kiev to a Polish-speaking family, Krzhizhanovsky studied law, traveled throughout Europe, and taught at the Kiev Conservatory before coming to Moscow at age 35. There he continued to lecture and write articles, all the time penning stories on the side. A string of ill-timed misfortunes – bankrupt publishers, Soviet censorship, and, finally, World War II – meant he never saw his fiction in print. He suffered a stroke in 1950 and died before the year was out.
Despite having published very little, Krzhizhanovsky was elected to the Writers’ Union in 1939. A commission examined his legacy in 1957, drafting a tentative publishing plan that was soon abandoned. He was rediscovered in 1976 by the poet Vadim Perelmuter, who then had to wait until 1988 for the full thaw of Perestroika. Perelmuter edited a five-volume collection printed between 2001 and 2010, and as of 2009 Krzhizhanovsky’s work has been available in English: a thing cast by a half-century-long shadow.
Laurence Sterne once said that writing “is but another name for conversation.” This dictum holds true for Krzhizhanovsky’s work. If anything ties the diverse tales that compose the newest collection of his stories, “Autobiography of a Corpse,” together, it is the human, or inhuman, voice. Everyone in Krzhizhanovsky’s world has something to say: the narrators who frequently engage in metafictional digressions, the recently deceased, the figments of a character’s imaginations, and even a literal Stygian frog, a creature that, as Juvenal wrote, even small children do not believe in – all have their own philosophical agendas. Krzhizhanovsky delights in relinquishing the narrative reins and letting them pontificate. The freedom this allows him is immediately apparent.
When philosophers talk of love it is generally somewhat dry: a question of who or what, subject or object, do we love someone as a pleasing totality of qualities common to all humanity or as a singular individual? In his story “In the Pupil,” Krzhizhanovsky posits love as a matter of miniature persons (literal manifestations of those reflections we see in the eyes of another) that leap between lovers’ eyes. While he still engages in (playfully) serious philosophical banter (“Now listen: You love A. But by the next day A is A1, and by next week A2. To keep up with this constantly recrystallizing being, you must constantly readjust the image that is, redirect the emotion from one recept to the next … And if this series of betrayals, caused by the lover’s changeability, proceeds at the same rate as the changes in the beloved, then everything is as it should be”), all the while you’re aware that this is being relayed by half-faded No. 6, the sixth in a series of twelve miniature, gradually-dematerializing suitors residing in the woman’s consciousness, all of whom are obliged to contribute their experiences to the compilation of “The Complete and Systematic History of One Enchantress.” The scene is so witty and poignant and right in the way great literature, under no obligation to be academically rigorous, can be, that you wonder why we bother reading Derrida at all.
Which is to say that Krzhizhanovsky’s true gift is to make the prosaic impactful again. “Thirty Pieces of Silver” begins with a biblical quotation: Judas casts away his blood money and hangs himself. Uneasy with the idea of putting the money back in the treasury, the chief priests finally decide to purchase a plot of land in which to bury foreigners: “wherefore the field was called, The field of blood, unto this day.” Of all things, Krzhizhanovsky decides to focus on the coins themselves, following their benighted circulation from purse to purse. The story is a concise homily, not unlike Tolstoy’s later painfully didactic work. The difference is that Krzhizhanovsky’s prose does not pretend to omnipotence. Nonetheless, his message is clear. By the end of the tale, the stigmatized silver has been spread to the four corners of the globe. One piece lands in a church collection box and sparks the Crusades, another slips into the pocket of a scholar-economist who conceives of a new economic theory: “Wealth was not in wealth, it turned out, but in the circulation speed of monetary units.”
This kind of moral currency, like Judas’ coins, has been worn by time, made common through over-circulation. To become potent again, it must be turned on its head. The poet Samuel Coleridge defined the art of defamiliarization, in the language of the Russian formalists “ostranenie,” as the retention of a childlike sense of wonder and awe, and the ability to bring it to bear on “appearances which every day for perhaps forty years [have] rendered familiar.” Krzhizhanovsky is proof that this art is indeed “the character and privilege of genius.”