As Adam Thirlwell’s introduction to “Autobiography of a Corpse” informs us, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in 1887 and lived in Moscow and Kiev. Although he wrote fiction throughout his life, none of it was published — it was, in fact, censored by the Soviet state.
His first published story appeared in 1988, almost 40 years after his death. Since then, a seven-volume edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s collected works has been published in Russian. “Autobiography of a Corpse” is the third of his books and second story collection NYRB Classics has published in English; the very small publisher GLAS New Russian Writing put out a third story collection six years ago.
By the middle of the first page of “Autobiography of a Corpse” it becomes apparent why Krzhizhanovsky’s work has won the attention of the English-speaking world: Something very strange is afoot. A journalist named Shtamm, who has found success writing under various pseudonyms, decides to seek his fortune in Moscow at an indeterminate point in time just after the Revolution.
Krzhizhanovsky’s writing, with the help of Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov’s graceful translation, conveys a stressful and confusing time by creating a phantasmagoric world in which objects are just as alive as the people who deploy them. Telephone receivers become indifferent ears; human ears have a will of their own and hide under fur collars. Shtamm has a despairing and vivid vision of “the specter of the dustbin, its wooden lid thrown hospitably open.”
But it isn’t until the second page that things get really out there. Shtamm encounters “a little man mincing along in a thin and threadbare coat” who hands him a slip of paper that “miraculously” transmogrifies into lodging. The room, a paltry 100 square feet, has a broken lock and a lost key: In less than a page, Krzhizhanovsky transports the reader from sheer fantasy to Freudian metaphor.
Soon after, paper transforms the story once again when Shtamm finds a notebook belonging to a previous tenant — the corpse of the title — a man driven to suicide by his intellectual and spiritual confusion over philology, demographics, and the difference between the individual and society; the rest of the story consists of his disjointed first-person musings.
The narrative left turns, supernatural occurrences, object fetishism, philosophical reflections, and outright hallucinations are all characteristic of the tales in the collection. Sometimes Krzhizhanovsky loosely follows Edgar Allan Poe, casting his protagonist into a discomfiting fable, like the classical pianist in “The Runaway Fingers” who loses the digits from his right hand. But Krzhizhanovsky is more outlandish than his forebear, funnier, and entirely more self-aware. As often as not, he winks at the reader when his symbolism becomes too thick with import.
Take “In the Pupil,” a story about a lover who befriends the tiny doppelganger living inside his beloved’s eye. When the small man absconds from his ocular abode and arrives on the doorstep of his Brobdingnagian double, he recounts his time among other small men discarded by their fickle mistresses. When one of the mini-men begins pontificating on the female nature, he pauses:
“ ‘You didn’t hit your head, did you?’ ‘Against the wall?’ ‘No, against the meaning.’ ”
In “The Unbitten Elbow,” a story about a man’s mission to bite his own elbow, a reporter breaks the fourth wall. “[T]here’s no symbolism here, is there? . . . And I suppose romantic irony has nothing to do with it either.”
These moments, in context, are a complete delight. It’s as though Krzhizhanovsky knows when the reader will become too mired in her quest to figure out what he’s getting at, stops her, and reminds her to enjoy herself. How generous! Unlike the bleak Russian fables of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Krzhizhanovsky’s know how to ease up.
In Thirlwell’s thoughtful introduction, the British novelist declares that Krzhizhanovsky’s mode is “the most useful vehicle available for the most intricate philosophy.” This vehicle is also among the most palatable: If Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are intricately philosophic, they’re delivered in such an entertaining manner that the medicine goes down quite pleasantly indeed.