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♥ Attack: A review of The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

By Gabriel Crouse.

The Letter Killers Club

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Letter Killers Club, translated by Joanne Turnbull (New York Review Books Classics, 2011)

Once upon a time Barnes and Noble would send you your book order with a bag adorned by the face of a famous author or a famous passage of text; last year they started making bags with “I ♥ books” printed across them. I can’t help wondering what Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky would think about that. He’s yet to appear on a tote bag, long dead from drink, and, according to his life-partner, he only cried once — when a stroke rendered him unable to read. He didn’t go blind, he was struck by pure alexia — in his case, the inability to comprehend letters. He could converse and write, but he could not read a thing. For an all-but unrecognised Soviet Russian who’d spent most of his life in the space between letters, it was a final blow. What would he say to “I ♥ books”?

My guess, to hazard a line from his only novel, The Letter Killers Club, is: “Remember this, my friend: if there is one more book on the library shelf, that is because there is one less person in life.”

His response would be out of joint now, as indeed he was in his own time. It is perfectly ironic that in an era of cruel and pervasive censorship — the darkest hours of the Soviet era — Krzhizhanovsky failed through bad luck and a bad attitude. He reminds me of another K: JM Coetzee’s Michael from Life & Times of Michael K, the misshapen little man of colour who survived Apartheid with dignity thanks to his misanthropic self-reliance. No matter how hard the boot comes down on a place, someone is always slim enough to live in the grooves.

K needed his pumpkin seeds to plant and tend, Krzhizhanovsky needed his words; each eventually lost what they could not afford to lose. The analogy breaks down there, because Krzhizhanovsky was dubious about his own contribution to the bounty of the earth or the garden of his own mind. Rather than farming, he discerned a hunt in the act of writing. In The Letter Killers Club the chief enemy of letters asks, “Do you know about the production of astrakhan fur? Suppliers have their own terminology: they track the patterns of the unborn lamb’s wool, wait for the necessary combination of curls, then kill the lamb — before birth: they call that ‘clinching the pattern’. That is exactly what [writers] — trappers and killers — do with our conceptions.” Tweet that.

The tension between Krzhizhanovsky, an almost unpublishable writer, and the president of the letter killers club, Zez, a famous and wealthy character who would despise the act of his own creation, made me want to give this book to many of my NYC friends. Friends who troll online and offline, friends who hate-watch movies and friends who hate their jobs and their colleagues and work torturous hours. The writer who hates writing, who compares it to grazing the bottom of a pool with your mouth — the escaped bubbles reflecting whatever beauty they may at the surface — clinches the pattern of so many people who’ve worked hard to get the point when they can finally start cutting their teeth, and do it at full tilt.

And then that symbol, finding a place between the ego and books, changed my mind.

It’s not just that I fantasised about a B&N bag that reads “I ♥ Unborn Ideas” and fanatics who toss paint on people’s books and Kindles in the subway to protest against the inhumane financial support of others’ withdrawal from society for the purpose of petrifying unsuspecting trends. Nor is Krzhizhanovsky the only person to notice that success is often hard won at the cost of leisure and whim. It’s that he wrote something I’ll call an anti-book which is highly specific to the act of reading. A Brave New World, 1984, Farenheit 451 and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich are riddled with book-burners and censors. But the authors of these books and their readers survive beyond the fire’s reach. This invites the reader to enjoy a sense of superiority, viz. the anti-literate. The Letter Killers Club invites the reader to put the book down and get out of the zoo.

*

Krzhizhanovsky was certainly not the last great writer to come from Russia, but he is one of the last to be discovered, so getting the context right matters. It also helps explain why The Letter Killers Club is no longer something I only recommend to 20-somethings with a point to prove.

Krzhizhanovsky belongs to a tradition of writers who intimately understand antipathy to writing. Pushkin’s magnum opus, Eugene Onegin, ends with portentous footsteps. What do they portend? Whatever sets the Pushkinian ending apart from the mere cliffhanger is hard to pin down. Part of what he does when, in the closing stanza of his great epic, he blesses jolly people that leave the feast early and close a book before it’s ended, is issue a challenge to the reader: extend your imagination beyond the reach of my written words. So began one of the great literary traditions.

Manuscripts Don't Burn

Mikhail Lermontov took the written word seriously enough to die in a duel while casually spitting cherry pits, after one of Pushkin’s characters. But in his own writing, that seriousness is reigned in tight by an avowed cynicism. In his only completed novel, Hero of Our Time, the reader is challenged to acquaint herself intimately with a character who believes that “passions are merely ideas in their initial stage”. It is a genealogical gesture which opens the loop, placing the cerebral at a particularly loose end. Even as you delve deeper into the fictional world the law of entropy holds, he insists. After every emotional explosion things return to a cooler, duller state, until stasis. In the end a man survives the first instance of Russian Roulette, only to die later that day. You don’t know what to feel. A witness muses that it was “written”. Insofar as a book of fiction is a mordant that fixes feeling to thinking, Hero of Our Time purports to be an anti-book that rinses “thinking” from “feeling” with time.

These men were not writing anti-novels: works primarily defined by their formalistic extravagance. They were authoring the canon and steering the mainstream. Dostoevsky comes closer to blending the anti-book with the anti-novel. The spirally, isolated recorder of his Notes From the Underground distorts a standard notion of character, while his persistent rants stretch the notion of plot rather thin. You can say that this is an anti-book because it’s anti-everything, but the precondition for acquaintance with that “sick… wicked man” is reading a book, so the act of reading meets a particularly fine edge. Like Gogol’s Diary of a Madman the Notes end somewhat arbitrarily, as if the author understands that issuing the final word is for our own good. Like release from prison or an asylum or some internal exile.

Arguably the least moreish of the Great Russian novelists (his major extravagance was to romance with serfs) and the most committed believer in the positive externalities of reading clear, balanced prose was Ivan Turgenev. He seemed to record the social reality he lived in with such command over his innate bias that Nobel Laureate and South African political activist Nadine Gordimer recommended young (black) Africans eschew the entire western canon, tainted by imperial self-regard, except Turgenev. Still, he could not escape the idea of the anti-book.

His masterpiece, Fathers and Sons, is reportedly the most talked about of any of the Russian works, in its time. It is remarkable that so many people saw themselves parodied where others saw them praised and that so many saw themselves lionised on both sides. When this became embarrassingly clear it led to some conclusions that are obviously anti-book: you take from a story what you want. The most charismatic character is a nihilist, repulsed by art and tradition, the guy who says: “What a magnificent body, how I should like to see it on the dissecting table.” Seeing the capacity for his fellows to hijack his words to serve their own agendas, Turgenev left Russia and largely withdrew himself; as it happens, Gordimer later retracted his exceptional status as far as it went, for her own reasons.

And then, of course, there is Mandelstam’s line, “only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed”, which is heavy — because they killed him too.

The terrific censors and great writers of that region seem to share the attitude that leisure time spent thoughtfully alone is dangerous. Dissident ideas can foment, antisocial attitudes can flare up and utility can suffer. Pushkin sets a high bar and dares you to jump over it; Lermontov pries open your living mind and challenges you to return to a dynamic equilibrium; Dostoevsky brings you to the face that eats itself; Turgenev revitalises urgent arguments without abstraction and places a man completely antithetical to literature at the centre of Russian literature.

The act of reading always has challenges, but these people seem serious about challenging the act itself. So I wonder again: what would Krzhizhanovsky think if he saw his book travel down the street in a container that ♥s books? I really wonder if he would see in the West what the West has seen in the East for so long — civilised, ritualised death-worship?

*

If we were together and he asked, I might tell him that he checked out before the institutionalisation of anthropology and performance studies, before the technological revolution of self-expression and before the calamitous social experiments of fascism and Bolshevik socialism retreated into history (mostly). These events exemplify the massive release of pressure from above and outside the individual, but not without a contrary force gaining momentum. I would accept that he anticipated this move, that it was a move he lived out between the grooves of a big heavy boot. But I would remind him that he was not the only one to do so. There are always those that suffer the world more lightly than themselves.

There’s a trick to it. He pulled it off by reading himself into a corner and then cornering the corner. I mean he learned to dominate the supply of right-angled thinking in his mind, stopping it from overwhelming the demand.

His life as a reader began in earnest with Kant. As a young man he was caught in the grip of Kant’s elaborate, architecturally interconnected ideas until he was decamped by the thin, shadowy worlds of Shakespeare. At first he read the dramatic text, rather than seeing it staged. He took active roles in film and theatre productions and wrote a theatrical adaptation of Eugene Onegin, in collaboration with Prokofiev, sensibly hoping that it would be staged. It was staged, but not until 60 years later, when the soviet censors’ technical insistence that the narrator be performed rather than implied had become ineffective. And yet the performance that most directly changed the course of his life was quietly internal: the short-circuited game by which the player and viewer coincide. It is a game that endeared him to writing criticism, the only work that his contemporaries really accepted, and it is the game of The Letter Killers Club.

That dangerous gambit of un-narrated, or largely un-narrated, dialogue has a potent and under-appreciated history. Plato is the most enduring master. Shakespeare was co-opted, together with the great antiquarian playwrights. Milton is no stranger, nor is Dante, nor is Goethe. Among the High Romantics Byron spent the most energy on closet drama and reaped the highest returns. My introduction to the genre, if it deserves such taxonomy, was Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, a tale about the burden of telling tales if ever there was one. The epitome of my experience is Joseph Brodky’s Gorbunov and Gorchakov.

I would bring these dialogue-dominant works to Krzhizhanovsky’s mind and I would ask him, “Can you ♥ these?”

Why group them together? Here’s why, droog. Of all the ideal readers imaginable, the reader who reads from beginning to end without once being swept off or shocked out of her wits, the reader whose critical faculty never falters and whose energy drips evenly across art and life — that reader is the most temptingly robust. The reader who, as it were, leans back has the double advantage of knowing her own position and seeing the bigger picture.

Children burning books

Not so for the reader who dips into the handy wellspring, who immerses herself at random intervals to get away from here and returns to her business unhindered, relieved. The reader who keeps reading at a distance from life has the personal advantage of resigning the epistemological high-ground on which one rants at length about a book that no one else has read. She also has the advantage of being able to read in the cracks of her schedule: in the subway; on the toilet; before bed. This reader has alacrity.

These readers lie on a scale that is crossed off by dialogue-dominant prose. The less narration there is to carry you around and into a character’s mind, the more you must endeavour, place yourself in devoir, duty, debt. It isn’t complicated — you must lend your voice, merely internally, to a character whose path is largely occluded. You might strive towards a perfectly neutral voice, reading against the grain, but chances are that a complex interaction between author, character, performer and listener will absorb your attention away from your ego: perhaps that is what you owe. And if you delve only to dive through and return another time you miss something — maybe that same thing you miss when you check your phone, even if you have no messages or reminders, while you’re in conversation.

*

The Letter Killers Club is predominantly comprised of dialogue — men telling one another stories; distractions locked out. And as is often the case, its opening and closing are spirited by the narrator. Insofar as the narrator guides the reader towards and away from the voices that will be called on to perform the hints are negative.

The narrator is told that the storytellers are chosen from literary society. He presumes they are men who are sensitive to the “outstretched palms” of yearning readers, but that thought is smacked down.

“You know, Goethe once described Shakespeare (to Eckermann) as a wildly overgrown tree that — for two hundred years straight — had stifled the growth of all English literature; thirty years later, Börne called Goethe: ‘A monstrous cancer spreading through the body of German literature.’ Both men were right: if our letterizations stifle one another, if writers prevent each other from writing, they don’t allow readers even to form an idea.” The narrator is left wondering: “What am I to him or them? What do their conceptions need from me?” The other letter killers arrive and even their adopted names are stripped to clueless, nonsense syllables.

The narration that envelops the reported speech self-destructs. So even more than a novel in dramatic form or a closet drama or play — which list characters, set the scene and then head into speech with or without a prologue — this book is dialogue-dominant.

That places the reader in an excitingly vulnerable place. I hesitate to say something decisive about what that place is or means or does. I like the thought that reading well both exercises the facility by which we follow and resist a train of thought, and I would not suppose that The Letter Killers Club provides unique access to such exercise. But I suspect that when the narration that bridges one line of thought to another is evaporated, the reader is more easily bewildered. When you read that “all the world’s a stage and the men and women merely players”, rather than hearing it live, it is easier to find yourself disturbingly outside the scope of that observation — a stable, unforced and authentic unit outside the economies of esteem and power and ideas. And if you’re silently performing Jaques addressing Duke Senior in the seventh scene of the second act of As You Like It then you’re playing a different, wonderful game.

The challenge issued by dialogue-dominant prose is different to that of highly hermeneutic novels like Ulysses, which strain your ability to find intertextual meaning. The groping movement is not across the library shelf, but rather across the author, character, reader and listener: across selves. In fingering the seams between them I’ve caught hints of an underlying architecture, but more often come away feeling that the inventiveness of these basic units will always resist formalisation.

Krzhizhanovsky

Can I hear Krzhizhanovsky grumbling? He knew that as a general rule the reader is always given help in finding the voice of talking characters. Even when there is absolutely no narration or preface there is still, in the case of old work, an atmosphere of criticism that remotely or directly serves as a guide towards some style of interior performance, and away from others. In one of his short stories, ‘Someone Else’s Theme’, a critic is baited into a conversation. He’s told that characters, if they crossed the metaphysical plane between fiction and reality, would all be critics: desperate to vindicate their existence. From the side of existence, “the critic, as professional reader, reads and reads until he encounters himselfThe point is that characters do not, of course, turn into people, but people often turn into characters, that is they serve as material for people who invent people.” A crazy idea, and crazily I sometimes feel that I found some part of myself in his novel. A mad part defined by the desire to write without being, in any way, a writer.

Sure, at this point Krzhizhanovsky does what the hero of his most terrific story ‘Red Snow’ (the one too risky to be archived) does at the beginning of every day: “He walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over.”

*

The two angles of approach converge. The Great Russian authors more or less metaphorically breathe their lives into your shelves; the tradition of dialogue-dominant prose, under no certain terms of repayment, catches your innermost breath. The regional tradition that is so skeptical of books and the global tradition that is so skeptical of narrators meet under Krzhizhanovsky’s name.

But the story is incomplete. The Russian tradition contemporary to Krzhizhanovsky is recognisable to us today. The highest and best goal of a Soviet writer was to service, with his imagination, an epistemological pump from helpless mute reservoirs, across and up to whichever circles best matched the nutritional content of the information they carried. Then, as now, the politically correct espouse the idea of giving “a voice to the voiceless”, although the ranks of the underrepresented and marginalised have been refracted as if by kaleidoscope into so many special interests.

As you perform the interruptions and complaints of the letter killers against their own stories you might find yourself wondering what pipes there are inside yourself that, had they been sounded sooner and louder, might’ve attuned your ear to the potentially complacent throb of utilitarian literature. You know, “♥ books”.

That roughly sets the Russian context. How does the more global tradition of dialogue-dominant prose help Krzhizhanovsky understand what you resign in order to gain the last page? In two words that verge on the oxymoronic: responsible anonymity. We seem to have an unprecedented force of expression, though, as always, some have more than others. If books generically offer anything freshly needed, it is a relief from that force — access to a stage from an isolated, dark position. Dialogue-dominant books in general, and The Letter Killers Club in particular, lift the house-lights and expose the dangerous, even suicidal crack in the mere receptacle’s schema.

In other words The Letter Killers Club is not a book about a man who hates writing that should be read by people who love reading too much. Krzhizhanovsky didn’t hate writing and we, whoever we are, don’t love reading too much. The Letter Killers Club is about the disposition to tell stories and the implication seems to be: guns don’t kill people; people don’t kill people; stories kill people.

The patriarchy, the hegemony, fascism, racism and fundamentalism — these are all stories that have been justly accused of the most heinous crimes. I assume those stories have been put to bed in your mind. How well do you know the stories that took their place? Will you turn your back on them before they turn on you?

The final words must go, with all my ♥, to Coetzee, whose description of K’s brief internment applies to Krzhizhanovsky and his masterpiece: “It was an allegory — speaking at the highest level — of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it.”

 

Gabriel Crouse

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gabriel David Crouse is the lead critic for The Johannesburg Times and he has contributed to The Daily Maverick. He lives in Joburg and spends three months of the year in Moscow, Russia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 3rd, 2015.