Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Munchausen's Return, or Krzhizhanovsky in Bloom(ington)

Halloween again: that time of year when one's thoughts creep around nostalgically to pumpkins, serial killers, and obscure Russian writers. Two of the most ghoulish of the latter are Mikhail Bulgakov (remember the vampires in Master and Margarita? Not to mention its heroine-into-witch subplot) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (more anon). It's surprising that these two aren't more frequently twinned by scholars, given that they were born around the same time in Kiev, and that both moved (in 1921 and 1922 respectively) to Moscow, where they maintained a friendly acquaintance, moving in the same circles, reading their work in the same writers' groups and suffering the same privations.* Both young writers created extended grotesque allegories of the Revolution, and specifically of the consequences for intellectuals who attempt to co-exist with it, in the shape of Krzhizhanovsky's gruesome 1926 short story "The Phantom" and Bulgakov's much better-known 1925 novella Heart of a Dog. "The Phantom" is Krzhizhanovsky's riff on the Frankenstein motif, applied to the Russian Revolution: in this darkling tale, a burned-out doctor hero (just like so many Bulgakov characters) is pursued by a grotesque relic from his medical school, an alcohol-embalmed foetus used for obstetric demonstrations. The technical term for these genuinely is a 'phantom' (check the OED). Accidentally 'born' during the fledgling medic's final exam, the undead infant grows up secretly in Moscow basements before finding romantic love with a shop mannequin. It tracks down its unwitting 'father' to quote Kantian philosophy at him (that, for me, would be the scariest part), as a prelude to explaining that for it to live, he must die. A metaphor for non-party intellectuals' implication in revolutionary violence? A thought experiment elaborating Krzhizhanovsky's obsession with life lived numbly and indirectly, 'in the dative case'?  Who knows? Dedicated readers of this blog will recall that six years ago (gosh) I translated "The Phantom" for Red Spectres. I still think it's an astonishing story, and I recall it as my most challenging translation project to date. Krzhizhanovsky's puns, alliteration, assonance, metonymy, personification and other linguistic fireworks were exhausting; I had to learn to defend my own translation, certainly not because it was the best, but because the original was so divisive, I could never rely on two readers to agree with each other. And ever since, not quite as horribly as a revenge-bent monster leaking embalming fluid while citing Kant, Krzhizhanovsky has pursued me through my career... A research paper here... A comparison with Gogol there... until I was honoured to be invited to this conference at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, organized by Jacob Emery and Sasha Spektor.

Imagine you admire an individual. Then collect almost ALL THE SCHOLARS ever associated with that individual in one room. How stardusted, not to mention starstruck, would you feel? This is what Jacob and Sasha sensationally accomplished, while additionally inviting several postgrad students and other Krzhizhanovsky tourists who gave stimulating papers or simply asked good questions. There were a great many great people present (and if I over-use the word 'great', it's simply for want of better adjectives of magnitude). Among so many Krzhizherati of note, I'll highlight those who have done the most to make this writer accessible to non-specialist audiences (or, in the first case, simply to any audiences, anywhere).

Vadim Perelmuter. The Great.*** 
The great Vadim Perel'muter was present: pleased, he revealed, to be formally invited for the first time to an academic conference on his life's work. (An almost unbelievable statement, given his achievement, yet we had to believe him). For those, like me, who have spent years painstakingly MHRA- or MLA-izing the publication details of Krzh's (now) six-volume collected works, finally meeting their editor was enthralling. One by one I have picked up these pleasingly colourful volumes in indie bookshops in Moscow and St Petersburg, with ever-expanding pointillist constellations on their spines and close-up cover images of Krzh looking thoughtful (or just myopic). VP told us that he had invested almost 14 years in seeing the sixth and final volume into print. In person, he is modest, observant, slightly reserved; despite frequent discreet recourse to his pipe, he sat forbearingly through our conference (in a language he claimed to understand poorly). Seated as if at his fireside,VP's keynote was more like an after-dinner tale, regaling us with the vicissitudes of becoming Krzhizhanovsky's posthumous keeper.

My set of five is incomplete. New life ambition...
 He told us, more completely and humorously than in his Introduction to the Collected Works, of that legendary moment in Moscow's RGALI** in the mid-seventies (we all wished we could have been flies on the archive wall). VP belonged to a group of young poets who celebrated the anniversary of the poet Georgii Shengeli; one year, examining Shengeli's diaries, VP noticed that a sentence about the death of a certain Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky had been underlined in black. Puzzled by his own ignorance of a writer Shengeli had respected - and particularly, a pisatel'-fantast, or writer of fantasy - VP asked around, trying to discover why this author had vanished. "I was astounded by [меня ошеломил]", he told us, his eventual realization that a writer of such "genius" had been so utterly forgotten. Even inquiries in RGALI failed to elicit the mysterious writer's archive; Krzh's de facto widow, Anna Bovshek, had acted correctly in lodging his papers with the state archive but, VP emphasized, it never occurred to her or to Krzh's other surviving contemporaries that his memory would lapse so thoroughly that even the catalogue record would be mislaid. Then one day, after asking about a different record and being told by the archivists to "go and have a smoke" while it was fetched, VP happened to loiter past and glimpse the fond, or list of index numbers of Krzh's files, in a pile of documents. Armed with this, he was able to order the actual opis' with Krzh's manuscripts - and so it all began. (Excursus: long ago, when researching my PhD - in which, as you may well infer, Krzh features - I tried to re-enact VP's wow moment by ordering this same opis' in RGALI. But instead of the tottering heap of manuscripts that I expected, all I got was a few photos and personal letters in (to me) illegible handwriting. This may have been because of my relative incompetence in Russian archives, or because the same cataloguing error that temporarily stymied VP's researches persisted thirty years later). Of course, Krzhizhanovsky's climb towards fame with his new and devoted editor was not exactly Andy Warhol's can of soup. VP shared with us how the condemnations of Stalin-era critics (even Gorkii's) were still taken seriously by late Soviet publishers; how his efforts to find missing stories (such as "Red Snow"), Krzh's missing grave (which has never turned up), and living acquaintances of the author led him to Kiev, Odessa, Paris, and stranger places. Once, after a conversation with a friend of Krzhizhanovsky's about the short story "The Bookmark" (which contains an episode about a tomcat trapped on a high ledge, which eventually plunges to its death), a cat plummeted past the balcony and crashed to the ground. VP commented wryly that the situation would have felt even stranger if it hadn't rained cats; with Krzhizhanovsky, one expects such things to happen. He has often felt like a participant in a seance, or at least, in a postmortem conversation with Krzh.

Karen Rosenflanz, author of the first Anglophone academic monograph on Krzh, showed us her well-used first edition of Memories of the Future, VP's first anthology of Krzh's fiction; it came out in an overambitious print-run of 100000 copies.

Karen Rosenflanz's copy of Memories of the Future
The first French translation, however, caused a media sensation. Gradually, VP located and interviewed surviving friends of Krzh, like his line manager at the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, whom Krzh had generously introduced to Bulgakov at Herzen House (the Soviet writers' club) in 1931; actors and actresses from Tairov's theatre who remembered him as the writer of Tairov's version of Eugene Onegin; and others. He even discovered that Krzh had known Boris Pasternak; the latter had consulted Krzh, as a known critical authority on Shakespeare, when he began translating the Bard.

Caryl Emerson and Alisa Ballard
Caryl Emerson, who has perhaps done more than anyone to integrate Krzhizhanovsky within modern Slavic scholarship (see, for example, this special issue of SEEJ which she co-edited and to which she contributed) spoke movingly, with her collaborator (and translator of Krzh's play That Third Guy [Тот третий]) Alisa Ballard, about two of her attempts to move the author into the public domain. The first of these has been reviewed elsewhere: a Princeton performance of the 1936 theatrical version of Eugene Onegin as conceived by Tairov (but never staged), with Prokofiev's original score and Krzhizhanovsky's text. In a unique Spring 2015 Princeton course "Special Topics in Performance Practice: Krzhizhanovsky and the Soviet Fantastic", Emerson and Ballard team-taught with the late Tim Vasen, the director of Princeton's Theatre Programme, a small group of drama students. Using Joanne Turnbull's translations as core texts, they encouraged the students to explore and physically enact the meanings of stories such as "Quadraturin" and "The Collector of Cracks". The students produced brief course essays and brief but intriguing dramatic sketches, some of which we watched at the conference. "The Runaway Fingers" lent itself to physical dramatization; Krzh's dialogue between an actor and his role was more challenging, but also compelling to portray with the help of pre-recorded video projected on stage in sync with live acting. As one student perceptively concluded, "estrangement from reality makes these stories so compelling, and forces the reader [...] to re-think the rules by which he or she perceives and carries on as a human being, as both a dreamer and a dream-ee".

My Krzhizhanovsky rainbow
Joanne Turnbull is another Krzhizhanovskian eminence whom I regard with awe. I've mentioned my struggles with "The Phantom"; she has sustained her relationship with Krzhizhanovskii across four beautifully produced anthologies of his fiction (soon to be five), setting aside her earliest Glas collection Seven Stories, which was my Anglophone portal into the Krzh universe. "Love", she smiled, in answer to my tiresomely predictable Why-do-you-do-it question; and she presented us all with copies of her latest love-child, The Return of Munchausen, a perfect Christmas present for those who enjoy obscure and very funny fiction. She also shared with us some secrets of her approach to translating Krzhizhanovsky, one of which is to immerse herself in the vocabulary of Poe and Chesterton (whom Krzh admired) and of Anglophone writers roughly coeval to Krzh with an eccentric and whimsical lexis rivalling his command of rare Russian idiom (such as Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Vladimir Nabokov). She compressed her overall strategy under three headers: language , research (she researches her own footnotes, always required in texts of this complexity), and collaboration (as with her longstanding partner in Krzh adventures, Nikolai Formozov). Her new translation, published by NYRB Classics like its predecessors, is a standalone novella like The Letter-Killers' Club. It reworks the Munchausen legend to re-introduce the Baron as a corpulent, world-weary diplomat dispatched by the London government to diagnose the political condition of Soviet Russia. From a mansion on Bayswater Road known as Mad Bean Cottage for its girdle of exuberant beanstalks, Munchausen hypnotizes the English aristocracy with his tall tales (even the Bishop of Northumberland is transfixed) until his chauffeur is squashed by rioting East End terraces and he finally scandalizes British society by standing up the king. This short book is notable not just for Krzh's witty and bittersweet observations on Soviet Russia, which one might expect, but also for its acute consciousness of inter-war London society and its unexpectedly elegiac portrayal of the German backwater where even the great Munchausen finally retreats, finding ultimate refuge (like his author) inside the covers of a book. (The cover of this one is ingeniously chosen, with Yuri Annenkov's Chagall-esque cockerels, choo-choo trains and Biblical symbolism echoing Munchausen's trans-European journeys).

As you would expect, this conference abounded in stirring insights and recurring themes. its ostensible purpose was to explore strategies for translating Krzhizhanovsky's non-fiction, but clearly its remit extended well beyond that; boundaries and Krzh were never going to work. Translator Anne Fisher, currently drafting the first English version of Krzh's The Poetics of Titles, suggested that Krzh's youthful training as an opera singer might have influenced the complex sound texture of his prose. We returned again and again to Krzhizhanovsky's love of dichotomy and opposition, and his emphasis on the cracks, or fissures, between absolutes. Organizer Jacob Emery won my silent applause both by using the word 'katabatic' casually before lunchtime and by playfully suggesting that Krzhizhanovsky loved generating dialogues between humans and animated objects or concepts (like the writer and his inspiration, or the actor and his role, or even the doctor and his phantom) as a sort of ongoing Turing test into the nature of reality. A nice anachronism that helps us understand Krzhizhanovsky's philosophical conundrum. His co-organizer Sasha Spektor (a name made for Halloween) displayed an equally inspiring passion for Russian (and comparative) literature.

Sincere thanks to the two organizers...

*Disclaimer: I connected these writers together as contributors to the so-called "Bulgakov generation" of post-revolutionary supernatural fiction in my book Stalin's Ghosts.
** The Russian Government Archive of Literature and Art. A lurking-place for the manuscripts, drafts, personal correspondence, and other lost realia of generations of Russian and Soviet authors.
***Photo credit to Anthony Anemone for the image of Vadim Perel'muter. 


  1. Yay, a new Dinosaur post! The more I read about Krzhizhanovsky, the more intrigued I become; I've downloaded the articles from the special issue of SEEJ and look forward to reading him and them.

    1. Thank you, Languagehat! Perhaps you'll be tempted to add Munchausen's Return to your Amazon wish list (I confess I snooped on it recently, admiring your confidence that you'll find time to read these tomes...).