Two New Authors.

New to me, that is; Victor Pelevin published his first story in 1989, became famous almost thirty years ago, and has been one of Russia’s most important authors ever since, while Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky died before I was born (though he only became known when the bulk of his fiction was published at the end of the 1980s). But both are writers I’ve been interested in for a long time, and now that I’ve gotten up to 1990 in my long march, I’ve read my first works by each: Pelevin’s Затворник и Шестипалый (translated by Andrew Bromfield as Hermit and Six-Toes) and Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (written around 1926 and translated by Joanne Turnbull as The Letter Killers Club). They’re different in many ways, but they have something in common that caused me to think about what it is I value in works of fiction, so I’m going to discuss them both here, starting with the Krzhizhanovsky.

The Letter Killers Club is a set of stories linked in a frame, in a fashion popular in Europe in the early 19th century; in Russia it was famously used by Pushkin and Lermontov, as mentioned in my 2014 review of Odoevsky’s Russian Nights. In Odoevsky, to quote my review, “a group of poorly differentiated young people visit their wise friend Faust (a stand-in for the author) and argue about life, history, and everything”; in Krzhizhanovsky, the narrator is brought by an acquaintance to the home of a writer who has stopped writing (hence “killing” the letters he would have written down). I’ll quote Lizok’s excellent review:

Krzhizhanovsky frames five stories, setting them up by describing an apartment and the host of a club where members, each known by a monosyllabic nickname, recite stories from memory. I don’t want to spill many details but I’ll say that the leader, a writer, composed his books after having to sell all his books; he imagined his books and the letters on the pages, rearranging them to occupy emptiness. He says writers are “professional word tamers” (“профессиональные дрессировщики слов”). […]

I think my biggest difficulty with The Letter Killers Club is that I, a bit like the narrator, who’s an invited guest at the meetings, was more interested in buttonholing club members for a chat than in listening to their stories. More frustrating, the first tale, a playlet with characters from Hamlet and the eternal question and implications of “to be or not to be,” interested me far more than the remaining four, despite the appearance of my beloved carnival themes and an interesting science fiction take on mind control. Some of the stories just felt too long.

Lizok has a convenient set of links to reviews by Daniel Kalder, Joe Gallagher, Matt McGregor, and others; I think it’s fair to say that in general they feel the stories are uneven. They tend to prefer either the first, like Lizok, or the third, the “mind control” one, a terrifying vision of a society based on the ultimate slavery, in which the vast bulk of the population have their actions controlled by “exes” (reminiscent of the towers in the Strugatskys’ Обитаемый остров, translated as Prisoners of Power) and live in a completely regimented society like that of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s История одного города (The History of a Town — see my review). I’ll quote some passages from reviews I agree with; Matt McGregor at The Rumpus:

Though not as egregiously experimental as comparable modernists, Krzhizhanovsky often has us wishing […] that he would put down his well-thumbed editions of Kant’s Critiques and Tell the Fucking Story. Rar, the most sympathetic of our letter killers, puts this another way: “A conception without a line of text, I argued, is like a needle without thread: it pricks, but does not sew.”

And Scott Esposito at The National (archived):

But though the stories in The Letter Killers Club show great strength, their diverse nature, plus the very light scaffolding that holds them all together, makes the book feel as diffuse as a collection of short stories. A reader must hunt for the novel’s core. This search is not helped by the book’s conceit for binding these stories into a larger work, which is given only flimsy support and at times feels contrived.

Krzhizhanovsky was at heart a short-story writer and his skill lies in the creation of wild ideas, which he props up just long enough to fill out a good 20 pages. His is the manic energy of creation, not the more subdued rhythms that come to the fore when an author develops a conceit with the nuances of characters and their interactions. None of Krzhizhanovsky’s letter killers grows into a lifelike individual – they blend together more than anything – and the interrelations among them are all but nonexistent. One wonders in vain what has inspired these men to join together into a club, what they get out of this weekly exercise and what they all think of one another.

On the other hand, Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes (archived) says:

Finally, his work is trickling into English, and we’re catching on to the fact that here we have one of the greatest Russian authors of the twentieth century. […] I read a lot of great books this year, but I believe this is the best of them all. It is incredible that such a voice was unheard for most of a century and was nearly lost for good.

So you pays your money and you takes your choice. Why do Trevor (and many others) love Krzhizhanovsky while Matt, Scott and I have reservations? I think it depends on how much you enjoy the philosophical element in fiction, the emphasis on clever ideas. If you really, really love, say, Borges, Eco, and Calvino, you’ll probably enjoy Krzhizhanovsky. I am fond of those authors, especially Borges, but they are not at the center of my literary universe; for me, cleverness is a minor virtue, one I enjoy as long as it’s accompanied by the major ones, which for me are use of language and what I’ll call (throwing up my hands in despair) human depth. I have to care about the characters, whatever their philosophical value for the story. I was, for example, disappointed by Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which was hugely popular and very well reviewed; I enjoyed the first few chapters quite a bit, but the enchantment soon wore off and I started feeling like I was watching too many card tricks in a row. If you imagine (and I think Krzhizhanovsky would have liked this idea) a literary equivalent of a mixing console, with faders to increase or decrease elements like language play, dialogue, characterization, philosophy, parody, satire, social realism, and so forth, I want those first few turned way up and the rest kept at reasonably low levels. I don’t much care what an author is writing about as long as I feel the characters’ humanity and want to read the sentences out loud. Novelists like Tynyanov (review) and Bitov (review) are way too abstract/intellectual for me; what works in literary criticism does not (for me) work in fiction. But others feel differently, and their tastes are as valid as mine.

As for Pelevin, my long-distance romance Katya, with impeccable taste in Russian literature, told me I would love him back in the late ’90s, so I’ve accumulated half a dozen books on faith in her judgment, and now I’ve started reading him at last. Hermit and Six-Toes, his first substantial piece of fiction to be published, starts off with two characters conversing about their environment, which involves multiple suns and a strangely near horizon; soon enough you realize (spoiler alert!) that they are chickens in the Lunacharsky Broiler Combine, and their compartment is headed for the Decisive Stage, which (as the more experienced Hermit explains to his bewildered but attentive companion) will involve their deaths. I won’t go further into the plot, which involves scary encounters and daring escapes, except that when I summarized it for my wife she said “That’s a good story,” and it is. It’s obviously what you might call high-concept, with much parody of Soviet terminology (cf. A. Arzumanyan, The Decisive Stage in the Economic Competition Between Socialism and Capitalism: “The theses of the report by Comrade N. S. Khrushchev at the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union reveal a magnificent program for the upbuilding of communism in our country…”), and the chickens have no backstory or deep psychology, but you care about them, and that’s the magic of good fiction. The cleverness dial is turned way up and the language dial left at medium (you wouldn’t lose a whole lot by reading it in Bromfield’s fine translation), but it’s got that essential (for me) virtue. And there is linguistic fun to be had; another compartment of chickens (each has its own traditions and culture) calls the Decisive Stage the Страшный Суп ‘Frightful Soup,’ a parody of Страшный Суд ‘Last Judgment’ (Bromfield has “Day of Condiment”), and when Six-Toes temporarily becomes a holy prophet his disciples call one of his speeches the Околепсис [Okolepsis], an inspired combination of Апокалипсис ‘Apocalypse’ and околесица [okolesitsa] ‘nonsense’ (Bromfield just has “Revelation”).

Oh, and another linguistic note: when I first encountered the title, I read Шестипалый as Шестилапый, thinking it must be based on лапа ‘paw,’ but -палый (seen also in беспалый ‘without fingers or toes’) is actually a remnant of an archaic suffixless form of палец ‘finger, toe’ — the suffix is otherwise universal in Slavic (see the etymology at Wiktionary).

Addendum. I forgot to mention this bit from the Krzhizhanovsky, which chimes with the Pelevin: “Он мог бы подняться до самого солнца, но не взлетал и выше насестей: душа орла, а крылья одомашненной клохчущей курицы” [He could have ascended to the sun itself, but he flew no higher than the perch: the soul of an eagle, but the wings of a domesticated cackling chicken.” Also, my wife says I should mention that when she told me there were chickadees in our viburnum, I thought she said they were chickens. It all fits.


  1. I like Pelevin, but I am surprised you care for his characters. For me, he is an ideas author and characters are more of an embodiment of ideas. But that’s just me.

  2. Maybe I just have a fondness for chickens. We’ll see how I feel when I read more of him.

  3. Hermit and Six-Toes is smartly constructed and doesn’t try to hide its framework. All the same, even when you’ve understood how it works, its spell does not dissipate. You still care about the chickens – and probably about the “goddess” as well.

    The chickens call humans gods. Most of the humans they encounter belong to the dregs of the working class. Still, there’s this conversation between the two broilers watching three workers – two men and a woman (the translation is mine):

    “And the fat one, what is she talking about?”

    “She’s not talking. She’s singing. About this: when she dies, she wants to become a willow tree. It’s my favorite divine song, by the way. I will sing it to you some day. I only wish I knew what the willow tree was.”

    “But do gods die?”

    “Of course! It is their principal occupation.”

    The two men walked on. “What grandeur!” Six-Toes thought…

    “If I only I could be a willow after death,” the fat goddess was singing slowly and quietly next to the bucket with paint. Six-Toes, his head on his elbow, was experiencing sadness…

    Perhaps the novella was inspired by The Poultry Yard, a late poem by Nikolay Zabolotsky. The author observes a rooster, turkeys, geese and ducks living their very busy lives and wonders why they never try to fly away and escape the master’s knife. With their incessant activity, their stupid and self-important appearance, they are insane not learn from “life’s experience”:

    “Not believing in miracles,
    Eternally obsessed with food,
    They are waiting – the fools! –
    Until they part with their heads.”

  4. Yes, I love that passage about the willow song, and I hadn’t known about the Zabolotsky poem — thanks for that!

  5. January First-of-May says

    I think it depends on how much you enjoy the philosophical element in fiction, the emphasis on clever ideas. If you really, really love, say, Borges, Eco, and Calvino, you’ll probably enjoy Krzhizhanovsky.

    I liked Borges, but that kind of clever-idea emphasis does work well in a typical-Borges setup where each short story is self-contained with its own clever idea. And some of those just got confusing. I hadn’t tried Eco and Calvino, and I suspect I would have been even more confused.

    This is also my impression of what little I’ve read of (and heard about) Pelevin’s works: too philosophical, and too confusing as a consequence. (And also a bit too uncomfortably, as the modern kids say, edgy.)
    OTOH (as I recall) you’ve rather heavily praised Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf, and AFAIK it’s hard to get more philosophical and confusing than that, at least without edging into blatant absurdism (e.g. Joyce).

    Have you ever tried Gianni Rodari? Daniil Kharms? At a risk of blatant promotion… Andrey Zhvalevsky? IIRC you did try Lem and decided it wasn’t for you.
    I’m tempted to suggest Marcello Argilli’s Ten Cities, but apparently it’s shorter and sadder than I remembered (and I’m not confident if there’s an English translation).

  6. OTOH (as I recall) you’ve rather heavily praised Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf, and AFAIK it’s hard to get more philosophical and confusing than that

    Ah, but there the language dial is turned up to 11! When it’s that fun to read, I don’t really care about the confusion.

  7. I think it is a little inaccurate to put Eco in the same boat as Borges and Calvino (or Pelevin). Casaubon, the narrator of Foucault’s Pendulum, certainly struck me as a very plausible certain type of italian intellectual. Eco for the most part writes realistic novels where the characters are trapped in a fantasy created in their own minds. His novels arguably are “character driven” for that reason, but if you tire of obsessives Foucault’s Pendulum or The Prague Cemetery will probably get wearisome.

  8. Fair enough, but I do think there’s a significant overlap among the readership of those authors.

  9. “If you really, really love, say, Borges, Eco, and Calvino, you’ll probably enjoy Krzhizhanovsky.” Ah – maybe that’s why I love him so much!!

  10. Nice to see my guess confirmed!

  11. John Cowan says

    In short, your judgment is as follows: “For the letter killeth, but the chickens give eternal life.”

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