I first came across Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky in 2011 when The Letter Killers Club was released by NYRB. It had a promising premise, but I think it came up short. But I still wanted to give Krzhizhanovsky’s short story collection a go when it was released this past fall.
It has taken me quite a while to write about this book, my copy always just right out of my side view. Based on the two books I’ve read of Krzhizhanovsky’s, I’ve concluded that I like his writing 50% of the time. For all of the weird and wonderful he has to offer, there is a whole mass of stodgy pseudo-philosophy and ruminations that exhausts me when trying to penetrate it (let me assure you that I do enjoy philosophical literature–I’m a big fan of Maurice Blanchot, for Pete’s sake). When I could get past this latter 50%, I enjoyed the strange tales that Krzhizhanovsky offers, which include the fingers of a concert pianist making their escape during a performance, a series of lovers who end up living in a young woman’s pupil, to the story I shall detail below about a man who is intent on biting his own elbow.
In the book’s introduction, Adam Thirwell details that there were three different efforts to have Krzhizhanovsky’s work published during his lifetime, which also shared years with the Soviet regime. He was not published until 1989 and now only recently translated into English. The stories that I was drawn to were the more fantastical and were crafted, as Thirwell writes, “based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” In one of the stories, the narration concedes that “these jottings will work like that: sandwich — metaphysics — sandwich — metaphysics.” Krzhizhanovsky seems quite aware that he has a 50/50 split, yet, the metaphysics, as he puts it, doesn’t need to be so thick and unmoving. I’m curious if this is the translation or Krzhizhanovsky original language manifesting in this way.
The story that most stood out was “The Unbitten Elbow.” When the Weekly Review sends out a questionnaire to all of their subscribers, they are perplexed by only one form amongst the thousands. The person, when asked what their Goal in Life is, wrote in “clear round letters, ‘To bite my elbow.’” The form is forwarded to many departments within the Weekly Review before it is finally brought to the public’s attention. The man and his unbitten albow become a cause célèbre as he is recruited by a circus as their closing act where a “professional philosopher” sees the performance and catches “the elbow-eater’s metaphysical meaning right off the bat.” What ensues is an article titled, “The Principles of Unbitability” and a philosophy known as elbowism. Elbow biting even becomes so popular that clothing styles have changed to incorporate detachable elbow patches and the like.
The writing is quite funny and vivid, and this story alone puts Krzhizhanovsky right up there with the other Slavic and central European writers who flourish with this sort of writing. The absurdity reminded me so much of how we regard celebrity. If you flip through the television at any part of the day, there are people there yelling at each other and giving insincere “confessions” to cameras (why are these people on TV?!). The snowballing effect of the elbow biter is also so poignant when it comes to how news is delivered to us today and how we react to it. Regardless of all that, however, this story can still be enjoyed for what it is. In this instance, the above-mentioned incorporation of philosophical tendencies served Krzhizhanovsky well; often, as elbowism flourishes, new thinkers are trying to sort the endeavor and have “concluded that the elbow was, in theory, bitable.” I feel very much the same way about this collection. There was a lot of teeth gnashing on my part, but some of the struggle, although not completely pain-free, led to a few peculiar delights.