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Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club)

This novella was written in 1926, a period of intense literary activity for Krzhizhanovsky. However, it was not published till seventy-five years later, long after the author’s death. Reading it you will see why the Soviet authorities might have been wary as it is certainly unconventional and does not in any way promote socialism.

Our unnamed narrator (Krzhizhanovsky himself?) is visiting a distinguished author. The author (also unnamed) is somewhat cynical about his own success. If there is one more book on the library shelf, that is because there is one less person in life. If I must choose between the shelf and the world, then I prefer the world. We learn that the author has not written anything for two years and admits that his more recent work has sold because of his reputation, not because of its literary quality. The author goes on to tell his story.

It seems when he was a young and starving writer, he had bookcases replete with books, sacrificing his purchases of food and fuel for books. However, he received a telegram saying that his mother had died and he had to attend the funeral. He had no money for the train fare so had to sell off all his books. When he returned, there were only empty bookshelves. (This apparently happened to Krzhizhanovsky.) He looked sadly at the empty shelves but then tried to reconstruct the books that had been there. It worked. I was extracting whole fistfuls of them—letters, words, phrases—from myself: I took my conceptions, printed them in my mind, illustrated them, clothed them in carefully considered bindings, and stood them neatly on the shelves, conceptions next to conceptions, phantasms next to phantasms. One day a man came to see him, to return a book he had borrowed. No room said our author.

His manuscripts started selling and he became successful but my library of phantasms was drying up: I was spending the shelves’ emptiness too fast and recklessly: that emptiness, less and less charged, was turning into ordinary air. What was the solution? He has a small room, with empty bookshelves and sat there but nothing came. The secret was to return to the kingdom of free, pure, and unsubstantiated conceptions. And that is what he did.

He gathered other authors and they would meet on Saturdays. No letters allowed, no written material. Even names went. Everyone was known only by a nickname, in the form consonant-vowel-consonant. Our narrator was invited to participate. He and we learn only later that he was specifically invited as they wanted someone from the real world to see if their ideas worked.

So he turns up on the next Saturday and continues to attend, though he has some doubts. The first conceiver (as they call themselves) is Rar.

Rar tells a deconstructed version of Hamlet. Shakespeare was fond of pairs. There are several pairings, including twins, in Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet has a famous example: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (Tom Stoppard‘s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead would perhaps have been of interest to Krzhizhanovsky, though it was written forty years after this story and sixteen years after Krzhizhanovsky’s death.)

Rar divides them further. He creates two characters, Guilden and Stern, and does the same for Ophelia – Phelia and Phelya. The Ophelias both prefer Stern to Guilden (they are all actors) which causes problems. It gets more complicated with multiple Hamlets, represented by famous actors who have played Hamlet, in particular Richard Burbage, a contemporary of Shakespeare. An extra character is called simply Role, a sort of shade looking for a role. We also have a Hamlet in a white cloak and a Hamlet in a black cloak doing alternate lines of the To be or not to be monologue and a rehearsal of Hamlet hijacked by an actor who vanishes with the role.

It turns out that Rar has cheated as he has a notebook in his pocket whch is confiscated and burned.

While the others are perhaps less deconstructionist, they still have fun, but serious fun, parodying other genres, including Krzhizhanovsky’s favourite German Baron Munchausen-style tales (Krzhizhanovsky would write a story about the Baron.)

Tyd does the Feast of the Ass, set five hundred years earlier, about the Goliards whose riotous Feast of the Ass has a profound effect on a young woman and results in a priest performing his duties in jester clothes. As Tyd breaks the rules, he has to tell a another story, which he does about Notker the Stammerer and his theories on atekstalis, a method (or rule) according to which a text is found and fitted to a piece of music after it has been composed.

Das tells a science fiction tale about a man who invents a way of controlling the muscular and nervous movements of other people and what this leads to (a society based on the haves and have-nots, which the Soviets would probably not have liked). Fev tells the Tale of Three Mouths. Three friends each thinks the mouth has a prime role, respectively eating, kissing and talking and we learn of the problems this leads to, not least because they ask everyone they meet what they think is the most important role of the mouth. We end with a story of a mysterious death.

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are wildly inventive and clearly not in tune with Socialist Realism, so it is not difficult to see why the Soviet censors rejected them. For us, however, they are both witty and very clever and great fun to read some one hundred years after they were first written. Of course, our narrator, breaks the rules of the Club by writing them down. Fortunately for us he did.

First published in 1991 by Sov
First English translation in 2011 by New York Review Books
Translated by Joanne Turnbull