Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

autobiography of a corpse“Man is to man a ghost”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This is a collection of short stories written by surely the most difficult to spell author of all-time, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Writing under the Soviet regime in the early part of last century, most of his work didn’t get past the censors and remained unpublished until the period of Glasnost in the late ’80s. The stories are quirky and imaginative, sometimes fantastical, usually satirical, and often witty; and there are common themes of individual and social identity, reality and abstraction, life and death, space and time. Some of the stories are quite clearly political, concerning the submergence and alienation of the individual under Soviet rule – soul seepage, as he terms it. There is a good deal of word-play in the stories, so the excellent translation by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov is essential to letting the reader grasp the author’s intention.

“By morning many-hued military flags were hanging over building entrances and gateways. Men with newspapers held up to their eyes were walking down the sidewalks; men with rifles on their shoulders were walking down the roadways. Thus from the very first day newspapers and rifles divided us all into those who would die and those for whom they would die.”

Like most collections, this one is variable – some of the stories are interesting and enjoyable, while in others Krzhizhanovsky lets his philosophising tendencies run away with him, making them overly wordy while not being quite as profound as he presumably intended them to be. However, none of them are less than thought-provoking and they give an insight into the difficulties of plain-speaking in a time of censorship and worse.

There are 11 stories in the collection, plus a short introduction by Adam Thirlwell, giving brief biographical details of the author. There are fairly extensive notes at the back, and in some of the stories these are quite important as the people and institutions the author refers to are often no longer household names – at least, not in my household.

“A philosophizing Not once said, “Being cannot not be without becoming Nothing, while Nothing cannot be without becoming Being.” This is so very reasonable it’s hard to believe that a Not, a nonexistent being, could – in little more than a dozen words – have come so close to the truth.”

© RIA Novosti/TopFoto
© RIA Novosti/TopFoto

The title story sets the scene for much of what is to follow – through the letters of a man written in the three consecutive nights before committing suicide, Krzhizhanovsky introduces his main subject of identity as an individual within, or more often outside, society. The next story takes us straight to the fantastical as a man becomes fascinated by his own image reflected back to him from the eye of his lover – until one day the reflection disappears. We are told the story of this ‘little man’ who finds he has fallen into a space in the lover’s head where the ‘little men’ of all her former lovers are gathered, telling each other the story of their relationship with her. Humorous and quirky, but still with the theme of identity at the fore, we begin to get a feel for how Krzhizhanovsky uses the fantastic as a vehicle for philosophising and satire. This shows through strongly in another story, The Unbitten Elbow, where the author takes a sharply ironic look at politics, celebrity, the media and most of all the tendency of philosophers to try to read meaning into the meaningless – which is in itself ironic, since I felt Krzhizhanovsky wasn’t immune from falling into that trap himself.

“It turned out that the energy of a potential fistfight, if sucked promptly into the pores of a street absorberator, could heat an entire floor for twelve hours. Even without adopting any matrimoniological measures, simply by giving porous double beds to two million “happily married” couples, you could support the work of an enormous sawmill.”

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Overall I enjoyed most of the stories enough that they made up for the over-stuffed ones. I think my favourite is ‘Yellow Coal’ – a satire based on the idea that sources of energy are running out and, in response to a competition, an inventor suggests powering things with human spite – bile, known as yellow coal. This works amazingly well as supplies are inexhaustible, until gradually everyone becomes contented and well-fed… Unfortunately the last story, Postmark: Moscow, was the most incomprehensible to me, since it relied to some extent on the reader getting references to the ideas of many philosophers who were no more than names to me, if that. But even so, it rounded off the recurring theme throughout the book of ‘I’s and ‘Not’s – the alienation of the individual and the disconnect from society. A thought-provoking collection where the best of the stories are highly entertaining and the worst are still quite readable – recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYRB.

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35 thoughts on “Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

  1. FictionFan – Ooh, a new-to-me author – thank you. And I always think short stories are such a great way to get to know an author. They may be a bit uneven, but they give the reader a sampling. And they let one dip in and out. Glad you liked this.

    • I felt his style of writing was well suited to the short story format – I’m not sure if his particular brand of philosophical quirkiness would work in a full-length novel. But I enjoyed it enough to investigate what else of his has been published…

  2. It does seem like a fairly nice collection of stories, for sure. I like the idea about using human spite for an energy source. The author’s name would have proven a difficulty. The professor, I think, would have just copied and pasted it about.

    Finishing up KSM and really enjoying it! Have I told you that the professor wants to go on an adventure?

    • Yes, some of the stories were good fun – quite imaginative. 😆 I did just cut and paste the name – spelling it once was more than enough for me!

      Glad to hear it! What kind of adventure? You could be the first man to trek to the South Pole accompanied only by his cat…

      • Just finished it. The professor must say, I really did enjoy it. The novel shall be placed next to all my other favorite adventures. The professor might even be hunting for another AQ book. 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation, FEF!

        Oh, that does sound fun. I haven’t really decided what sort of adventure it will be, but trekking to the South Pole does sound cool!

        • 😀 I’m thrilled you enjoyed it! The only other AQ one I’ve read is ‘Allan Quatermain’ which I thoroughly enjoyed too. So does this mean there’s some space on your TBR now? 😉

          😆 Cool is an understatement! But now I think about it, are there any monsters to hunt at the South Pole? You might be better going after the Yeti…Bob could track its scent…

      • Tsk! It needs a soul well mired in Eastern European dumplings, borscht and devoted to samovars to appreciate these things. Now where is my Georgian choir CD. ,the Arvo Part, and the wodka…. not to mention my fake fur hat……

          • Now there’s a Phd project if ever i saw one. The influence of diet upon world literature : Russian literature and the search for the meaning of dumple – Russian nihilism, existentialism and the influence of beetroot

  3. This sounds like an interesting read and it’s good to know that at least some of what was written under the Soviet regime actually stands up as a good read. When I was young (and woolly mammoths roamed the Earth), it was regarded as almost heretical to criticise anything that came out of Russia, because of the difficulty and danger faced by the people who wrote it and got it out.

    • Yes, I’m glad I missed the worst of that. Solzhenitsyn was the one I most remember people going on about – I found him entirely unreadable and have never had the slightest wish to try him again.

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