I recently finished reading Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. My opinion can be summed up quite nicely by a quote from this unusual short story collection:
This may have been a pseudo-hallucination, I don’t know: It’s all the same to me.
I’m tempted to stop with that quote. It really is a suitable summation of my reading experience. Autobiography of a Corpse is an odd, strangely pleasant collection of eleven short stories. I can’t say that I enjoyed it exactly, but I can say that words like philosophical, fantastic, and phantasmagorical apply to the overall experience. In the title story, a new resident of Moscow reads the autobiography of the previous (now deceased) occupant. ‘In the Pupil’ tells the story of a man’s journey into his lover’s pupil – where all her past lovers reside. ‘The Land of Nots’ (a story whose writing would test the patience of the saintly readers) is the most politically subversive of the collection, examining a society that bases their civilization on a fragment of mythology. ‘The Unbitten Elbow’ tells the story of a man whose life goal is to bite his elbow. This leads to unexpected consequences in society, going so far as to rattle the stock market and, in my favorite part, inspire a new repudiation of Kant. Several other stories examine everything from a pianist’s runaway fingers to the possibility of building a bridge to hell.
The stories range from humorous to satiric to philosophical. The writing, when it’s good, is very, very good – there’s a lot of wit to be found in Krzhizhanovsky’s fabulist tales. His musings may be morbid, but there’s an attractive dream-like quality to his work.
I was bored. The minutes crawled by on the wall clock. The door would not open. I opened my dictionary. A sort of bibliographical curiosity from the mid-nineteenth century. My eye immediately fell upon the word ethics. Then I understood: This old dictionary was an intelligent conversationalist. Well, of course, only old-fashioned and less-than-intelligible ethics could have shut me up inside a manège with all of these people from whom I had not use.
He possesses an imagination I cannot help but admire. However, when the author becomes philosophical, the writing borders on tedious. Quite simply, I found some of the passages taxing. The adverbial abuse alone causes it to be stultifylingly unreadable at times. It’s important to note, when all is said and read, the collection as a whole is worth it – sapienti sat, et insapienti sat*.
I can’t imagine Krzhizhanovsky’s wit and whimsy were appreciated in 1920s Russia, which may be why the vast majority of his work was not published until 1989 and after. Autobiography of a Corpse** is the third of his publications, after The Letter Killers Club and Memories of the Future, to be translated by Joanne Turnbull. All three are available from NYRB Classics. 3.5/5, Krzhizhanovsky deserves a place among the great twentieth century Russian writers.
Anyone brave enough to give this collection a try? Anyone else enjoy discovering long lost classics by authors you’ve never heard of (because we all know Austen…right?). And, most importantly, any thoughts on the pronunciation of his last name? I didn’t even try…
There is not a lot of food happening in these odd and morbid tales, but there is a sandwich scene. I won’t recommend the same sandwich (a white bread, butter, and grainy red caviar culinary atrocity), but instead share the recipe for Garlic-Rubbed Grilled Cheese with Bacon and Tomatoes. You’re welcome.
*There’s enough for the wise, and enough for the fools…
**I received this book in exchange for an honest review.