Though Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky wrote until his death in 1950, his work was rejected by Soviet editors as being "untimely" in the early to mid-twentieth century. But in a string of serendipities, the three thousand pages of his fiction, essays, librettos, plays, and screenplays began making their way into print in 1989 after exhumation from a Soviet archive. While the French have been quick to translate most of it, the English-speaking world will have to whet its appetite with Seven Stories, a small collection but terrific in every sense of the word. Krzhizhanovsky is often compared to Borges, Swift, Poe, Gogol, Kafka, and Beckett, yet his fiction relies on its own special mixture of heresy and logic.
"A fantastical plot is my method," the Russian author once wrote. "First you borrow from reality, you ask reality for permission to use your imagination, to deviate from actual fact; later you repay your debt to your creditor with nature, with a profoundly realistic investigation of the facts and an exact logic of conclusions." In each story in this slim volume, an everyday scene is turned on its head by an impossible idea (usually acknowledged as such) and then spun into a gently neurotic narrative as tight in its argument as algebra. The first story concerns a ma n named Sutulin who lives in a very small apartment. He receives an unexpected visitor, a sort of door-to-door Soviet pharmaceutical salesman, who gives him a tincture called Quadraturin, an "agent for biggerizing rooms." Sutulin's story expands, literally and figuratively, until he begins to panic following attempts by the "Re-measuring Commission" to perform a routine check of his apartment. (All citizens are allotted only eighty-six square feet of living space.) Trapped in a room that won't stop expanding, where agoraphobia and claustrophobia coincide, the story finally unravels into the black hole of Soviet life.
Other stories, though not all, are similarly phantasmagoric. The fingers of a virtuosic pianist scamper off during a concert in "The Runaway Fingers." In "The Unbitten Elbow," a man answers a newspaper survey asking about his life's goals by writing "To bite my elbow." Curiosity in the newsroom leads to celebrity for the elbow man: His elbow-biting attempts become spectacles, and "elbowism" is suddenly all the rage. (This is a play on a Russian proverb about biting one's elbow—it looks so easy but it's utterly impossible.) In "Autobiography of a Corpse," a man who committed suicide has mailed his autobiography to the tenant who moves into his room after his death. The manuscript is an exploration of his selfhood described mostly in animated linguistic terms: The "corpse" has tried living in the dative case ("To me: some bread / a female / some quiet / and a little peace heaven.
If there is any"); he is interested in the letter t, rather than the letter i; he suffers from psychorrhea, a seepage of the soul. It's a story about being and nonbeing, and, as with all of Krzhizhanovsky's stories, it depicts something aberrant, which is strongly rooted in something true.