Against an Ethical Machine

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Rejected by the early Soviet state, Sigizmund Krhizhanovsky published only nine stories in his lifetime; luckily his novel The Letter Killers Club  is now available in English.

In 1932, eleven years after Trotsky crushed the rebellion at Kronstadt, and a few years before the purge, a smart young Soviet writer called Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky sent out a collection of stories for publication. A well-known figure in Russian literary circles, Krzhizhanovsky had not, until that point, had much success. In the land of “dialectical materialism,” Krzhizhanovsky was known, not without reason, as a Kantian, which is a bit like being a socialist in Texas. Nevertheless, on the strength of his reputation, the manuscript managed to scale the gray heights of cultural bureaucracy—passed, one assumes, in triplicate, from functionary to functionary—until it landed in the soft hands of that most disheartening functionary of them all, Mr. Maxim Gorky.

Gorky was not impressed. Like the “notes” given by the simple-minded fuck-wits who always seem to govern major cultural institutions—I’m looking at you, network TV—Gorky’s reply reminds us why Official Culture is so often a contradiction in terms. As he put it, the stories were, “more suited to the nineteenth century” and thus, in Caryl Emerson’s paraphrase, “unnecessary to the tasks of the working class.” Although Krzhizhanovsky would keep writing, this casual judgment essentially ended his career.

And get this: the silly bastard didn’t even quit. With no market, and no access to the party’s printers, Krzhizhanovsky kept plugging away, finishing over 150 experimental prose works, a dozen plays, and a whole mess of criticism, nearly all of which went unpublished, unperformed, and untranslated. Even during the war, with the Nazis at the gates, he stayed in Moscow, working; and it was only in 1945 that he decided to quit, feeling, as his longtime companion puts it in Caryl Emerson’s fantastic introduction, “a played out player, a loser.” By the time of his death in 1950, Krzhizhanovsky had published nine stories.

There is no happy ending; like so many stories of Soviet life, the biography of Krzhizhanovsky is an unqualified bummer. But for us, there is good news: sixty years after his death, the New York Review of Books has published a translation of The Letter Killers Club, one of Krzhizhanovsky’s many experimental novellas, and it is very, very good. While there are many reasons to read this book, let me give you just one: we have, in these glorious pages, final, unequivocal proof that Maxim Gorky was an idiot.

The Letter Killers Club begins with a strange but successful writer who has decided to quit publishing. Confused by this decision, our narrator, a kind of literary everyman, comes to the reclusive writer’s residence, where he learns the truth. The writer, waxing nostalgic, returns to the poverty of his pre-literary days, where, “Besides the desk that served as a cemetery for my fictions, my room contained: a bed, a chair, and bookshelves… the stove was usually without wood, and I without food.” One day, he receives a telegram telling him that his mother is dead, and to make the funeral, 700 miles distant, he is forced to sell his library. When he returns, there is nothing for this isolated bachelor to do but remember the stories he has lost.

Through some strange psychic alchemy, the act of re-imagining these lost classics allows our writer, as Hilary Clinton might put it, to “find his voice.” Soon, his stories are being accepted by major magazines; his books are published, to acclaim; and he becomes what newspapers call a literary icon. Like other literary icons, our writer quickly becomes “drunk from the ink.” He plunders the canon, wildly throwing his “concepts” into print, emptying his pockets of words—until, tragically, he finds himself bereft. As he somewhat oddly concludes, the juice of his works was squeezed from old masters; as he runs out of classics to plunder, he runs out of words.

Like some literary scrooge, his solution is to hoard. “Sometimes,” he tells us, “out of long habit, I was drawn to paper, and a few words would steal out from under my pencil: but I killed those freaks…” He dreams of concepts which might “grow and bloom for themselves,” without the barbaric limitations of print. Fleeing the bloody inkwell, our writer founds a club, for writers who do not wish to write. One by one, the members—taking nonsense names like Tyd, Zez, Das, and Hig—give an unwritten story. It is these stories that form the bulk of The Letter Killers Club.

The first ex-writer tells the story of two actors, Guilden and Stern, who compete for the love of a woman (Phelia) and a role (Hamlet). Struggling to meet the challenges of playing Hamlet, Stern encounters Role, who takes him to “Hamletburg,” a spiritual home for old Shakespearean actors. Greedily surveying the lines of old greats, Stern comes across Burbage. Oddness ensues. At one point, our narrator, Rar, is caught rustling papers in his coat pocket. The others are outraged. Zez jumps up, and accuses Rar of being an accursed ink-man: “Did you smuggle letters in here?”

The story, like The Letter Killers Club as a whole, dramatizes, more than anything else, a person’s capacity to dwell in mind-fucking metaphysics. Our narrator leaves the club disturbed: “The evening seemed like a black wedge driven into my life.” The next story gives us the Feast of the Ass, when the Christians of a local shire march on their church to enact an “inverse Mass” of ecstasy, sacrilege, and profound ass-cruelty. On this day, Francoise, a well-loved peasant, and Goliard, a “strapping lad,” plan to marry. In the church, as they announce their vows, the wild mob cries out: “And me!” “And me!” The story ends with Francoise rising from her marriage bed, to wander alone in the night, plagued by a mass of spectral bridegrooms.

Each of the stories in The Letter Killers Club has either the perfume or stink of German metaphysics; this is, for better or worse, where Krzhizhanovsky finds his home. In the next story, we follow Tutus, an engineer, who helps to invent a device called the “exes,” an “ethical machine”of social control. With a casual “blast of ether wind,” this machine “drives the ‘I’ out, into the world,” where it can be remotely and rationally re-configured. Tutus, captured by the sad modernist dream of a completely rational and efficient society, aims to “rebuild all of human reality: from top to bottom”:

We must socialize psyches; if a blast of air can blow the hat off my head and drive it before me, then why not blow the entire psychic contents hiding inside people’s heads out from under their craniums with a controlled stream of ether; why not turn every in, damn it, into an ex.

Things, of course, do not go well. An “international government” buys the device, and uses it to put the insane to work. The initial phases of the project are spoiled by “unaccountable scrawls of will” and “highly complex and elusive fauna of the brain.” People revolt; armies of “ex-persons” patrol the streets; the streets themselves are rebuilt “as straight as bowling alleys.” As the ranks of ex-people grows, Tutus begins to realize his dream of “a reality that was read off meters, correctly dosed and distributed.”

This is great science fiction; and our narrator, like us ink-addicted readers, is frustrated to see this slim bit of brilliance wedged between oddities and obfuscation. Though not as egregiously experimental as comparable modernists, Krzhizhanovsky often has us wishing, like that sad reactionary Gorky, 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.”

After these relatively minor mind-fucks—the thinking about thinking and stories about stories—you return, as always, to the sentences. And in my opinion there is, quite simply, something rather nice about Nig blowing “the downy clocks off dandelions.” Though he was never quite professional, Krzhizhanovsky is always a pro, and this short book is littered with damn fine throwaways. There is the passer-by, “who left nothing to posterity but odd pages from untitled drafts.” There is the clown, who sees “the loneliness and homelessness of laughter, seraphically pure, sewn from dazzling scraps.” There is the “narrow black street” which stretches ahead “like a thread that had slipped the needle.” For Gorky, tasked with the onward march of History, this wasn’t enough. For us, raised in the general pigsty of monopoly culture, The Letter Killers Club is wonderful reminder of what a great writer can do, “a holiday lost among weekdays.”

Matt McGregor is from New Zealand, and is currently working, reading and writing in Albany, New York. More from this author →