Thought I better give a bit of background to the image that I’ve been printing during this tutorial thing, also I wanna big up a very dead Polish-Ukrainian-Russian dude.
A while ago I found an extract of some work by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky online, and decided to look into him. As well as having an amazing, near-unspellable name (try pronouncing in it’s Russian form – Сигизму́нд Домини́кович Кржижано́вский !!) he was virtually unknown during his lifetime, but has since had a series of short stories unearthed and translated into English, which has raised his profile somewhat. Only a couple of his pieces were published while he was alive, and most of his manuscripts were squirreled away in the back of his partner’s wardrobe for many years. To quote from a review in FT:
“We are very lucky that Krzhizhanovsky’s work has survived. In 1976 a young scholar called Perelmuter uncovered his writing in the Central State Archive and, in 1989, published a selection – the first. The complete works – around 3,000 pages – are now being published in Russian and French. It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century.”
During his life, his work was largely dismissed as “untimely”, and yet, as if often the case with great minds, his work seems to resonate with many contemporary themes, from climate change (‘Yellow Coal’), to agraphobic alienation in compartmentalised urban environments (‘Quadraturin’) and pointless celebrity worship (‘The Unbitten Elbow’).
I bought 7 Stories, the only part of his works currently available in English, and I highly recommend it, it’s available on Amazon here.
His stories have rightly been compared to Borges and Kafka, with whom he shares many qualities. His language is both poetic and direct, taking the reader on surreal trips that remain rooted in the very real confines of post-Revolution Moscow. His pieces are philosophical; metaphorical thought experiments that skilfully combine humour and sincerity to engage the reader whilst the internal logic of each piece brings about conclusions that are both satisfying and mystifying. Krzhizhanovsky said that he was not interested in the arithmatic of life, but rather the algebra, and thus characterisation is subordinate to logic, yet, despite this, his writing reveals surprisingly poignant details of everyday life during this fascinating period. There is also a great warmth to the stories that emerges not from normal human interactions, but from minor yet symbolically significant details (a room, a hand, a bookmark, a notebook, the reflection in another’s eye) which become fondly anthropomorphised and animated in order to articulate Krzhizhanovsky’s ethics in subtle ways. When reading his work, one feels the frustration and impulse to escape that he must have felt – cooped up in his small room and rejected by publishers – saturating each story, but none more so than my favourite two pieces, ‘Quadraturin’ and ‘The Bookmark’.
‘The Bookmark’ is a relatively short piece, yet is stunningly creative and full of fascinating ideas. It describes the ‘theme-catcher’, a man so observant and imaginative that he can spin a meaningful tale out of virtually any minor detail in everyday life. Each of the theme-catcher’s brief whimsies could easily be turned into a fully fleshed-out story, and yet publishers are distinctly uninterested. This of course describes Krzhizhanovsky’s own frustration; a man with so much creativity to offer, unsuited to the times he lived in, the driven, focused, even close-minded Soviet epoch. Although the theme of unappreciated writer is hardly uncommon, Krzhizhanovsky gets away with it because his imagination leaps and flies off the page in a truly uncommon manner.
I started by reading his short story called ‘Quadraturin’. You can read this online here.
This intriguing piece features a protagonist named Sutulin, who, like Krzhizhanovsky himself, lives in a tiny room, really no more than a closet. The story takes for its starting point a real life absurdity: Soviet regulations at the time (1920’s) prescribed each citizen with no more than 9 metres squared of living space, a regulation that was checked periodically by the Re-Measuring Commission, who would visit door-to-door to ensure no-one had somehow gained extra space. In the story, Sutulin is visited by a salesman who persuades him to buy a tube of ‘Quadraturin’, a new product that is “an agent for biggerizing rooms”. Once spread all over the walls and floor, his box room slowly begins to swell and expand, becoming grotesquely malformed and out of proportion. His furniture now seems lost in an expanse of floorboards, dirty corners that were once hidden become hideous dusty spaces, the wires and cables in the walls cannot cover the new dimensions and snap like overstretched ligaments, leaving Sutulin in a vast and terrifying darkness.
Maybe I just don’t get out enough, but this will for more space struck a chord with me. I’ve often had dreams about finding secret rooms and passages in the various places I’ve lived, and I seem to remember reading that these are really common dreams for people who live in high density areas like Manhattan or Tokyo, for obvious reasons. However, when I think about it, I wouldn’t actually like to live in a massive house because the empty stretching space and darkness are two things that would particularly frighten me.
Anyway, while I was reading ‘Quadraturin’ I drew an illustration for the first part of the story, when Sutulin hears a knock at the door, and since his room is so small, simply stretches a foot across an opens the door with a toe. Here’s a photo of the original drawing:
I intend to do some more illustrations for this story, and maybe some more of Krzhizhanovsky’s pieces, so if you found that interesting, watch this space.
Currently listening to: Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna