Saturday, July 02, 2011

Krzhizhanovsky's Memories of the Future + Krasznahorkai's Ontological Depths

Four years ago on the Open Democracy website I came across a strange but prescient short story, "Yellow Coal," by a writer I'd never heard of, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950). The site had excerpted the story from the first collection of English translations, by Joan Turnbull, of his work, Seven Stories (Moscow: Glas, 2007). In the story, Krzhizhanovsky imagines that an alternative and inextinguishable fuel source arises to replace the almost complete depleted stores of oil, coal, and so on: human bile.  I'll say no more, because it's better to savor Krzhizhanovsky's (translated) words themselves.

Despite enjoying the story I completely about Krzhizhanovsky's work until I recently came across Adam Thirwell's sprightly June 2011 New York Review of Books essay "The Master of the Crossed Out," which made me want to find the review's new publication of Turnbull's translation, with Formozov, of Krzhizhanovsky's stories, Memories of the Future (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), and also provided an insightful overview of the ill-fated writer's life. Krzhizhanovsky, a Russian of Ukrainian-Polish ancestry, was active in the post-Revolutionary Moscow literary world, but because of thematic vision and aesthetic daring quickly ran afoul of Stalin and his censors. In addition to short stories he wrote novellas, short stories, plays, screenplays, and libretti, but as Thirlwell recounts, his publishing history is the nightmare of any author.

In 1924 a collection of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, Fairy Tales for Wunderkinder, was accepted for publication, but the publishing house went bankrupt before the book came out. And so begins the sad history of Krzhizhanovsky’s impossible publications. In 1928 and 1929 he wrote more stories, a screenplay, and a play. None of these appeared in public. On April 23, 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party created the Union of Soviet Writers, with Maxim Gorky appointed the first chairman. In the same year, Gorky stated that stories like Krzhizhanovsky’s “would hardly find a publisher,” and if they did, and managed to “dislocate a few young minds,” he added, would this really be desirable?

In effect, his opinion made Krzhizhanovsky definitively unpublishable. The next year, Krzhizhanovsky’s Academia edition of Shakespeare was canceled. In 1934, another play, The Priest and the Lieutenant, went unstaged. A collection of stories that was provisionally accepted by the State Publishing House was stopped by the censors. 
It was only downhill from there; the war prevented publication of another collection of stories, while censors gutted or held back his plays. He sank into alcoholism, suffered a stroke in the spring of 1950 and died before the year was out.

As "Yellow Coal" shows, Krzhizhanovsky was able to see almost 75 years ago what people today still fail to grasp in terms in terms of our limited resources and the truth of who we truly are. In 1976 scholar Vadim Perlmuter discovered a cache of Krzhizhanovsky's papers at the State Archives in Moscow, and 13 years later, during the Perestroika period, was able to publish one of his stories, which led to the slow but steady publication of his collected works and a concomitant rise in his reputation.  I'm slowly making my way through Memories of the Future, but it's clear that Krzhizhanovsky's is a highly original voice, a parallel to Kafka with the SF chops of generations of writers who appeared decades later, and a clarity of vision that would make many a realist envious. I'm enjoying dipping into the new volume, which does not include "Yellow Coal," but you can read that online as a way of entering this deservedly-acclaimed writer's world(s).


Another writer with a long and poetic last name, the Hungarian László Krasznahorkai (1954-), is the subject of critic James Wood's thoroughgoing critical essay in the current (July 4, 2011) New Yorker; the article unfortunately remains behind a firewall.  The screenwriter of five films, all directed by the internationally praised director Béla Tarr, Krasznahorkai has also authored six novels, only two of which, The Melancholy of Resistance (1989, published in English in 1998) and War and War (1999, translated into English in 2006), are available in English, from New Directions Publishing Corporation; his first, Sátántángo (1985), in its cinematic form secured Tarr's reputation outside Hungary as much as earned Krasznahorkai within his local literary culture.

To summarize, Wood, whose chief critical interest is Euro-American realist prose fiction, explores the idea, taken from Krasznahorkai's novel War and War that the author's work represents "reality examined to the point of madness." Citing a host of well known and challenging avant-gardists ranging from Nobel Prize winners Claude Simon and José Saramago to the late W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño and David Foster Wallace, Wood argues that Krasznahorkai is perhaps the most unusual (and that's saying something) of all of them, squaring the tendences both of the maximalists (like Thomas Bernhard) and the minimalists (like the later Samuel Beckett), as his prose pushes the boundaries of the real inwards and thus outwards, not towards the fantastical but as if scanning the depths of the real as our perceptions, however skewed, record, reflect and create it, doing so through exhaustively serpentine sentences, hallmarks of nearly all the writers listed above, that pierce like rays not only plot, character, theme, tone, and the other fundamental elements of fiction, but of perhaps the most fundamental ones, language and time.

Wood describes Krasznahorkai's narrative ontology--for dramatic arc is not exactly what he's describing, nor is thematic arc, or character trajectory, let alone plot, but the status of the narrative as the text progresses--as "unstable," almost to the point of dizzying, though rendered superbly by translator George Szirtes. It produces for Wood a feeling akin to that of two of Krasznahorkai's epigones, Bernhard and Beckett, but goes even further, charting "abysses [that] are bottomless and far from logical," in a maximalist prose different from the later work of the latter, more vertiginous, disorienting and yet self-correcting, leaving Wood feeling that he "had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of another person, and, in particular, the inhabiting of a mind in the grip of 'war and war'--a mind not without visions of beauty but also one that is utterly lost in its own boiling incommunicable fictions, its own grotesquely fertile pain ('Heaven is sad')." That sounds almost like he's encountering a version of the sublime, which is to say, it's quite an appraisal.

I'll only note in conclusion that Wood also analyzes the other New Directions-published novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, which became Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, a film that's on my Netflix queue, to suggest that it's less involuted than War and War and not at all magical-realist as the film adaptation portrayed, but still quite exceedingly strange, demonstrating the author's interest in "apocalypse," as the late Susan Sontag wrote of him, "broken revelation," and "indecipherable messages" that nevertheless appear to convey substantial truths.  In discussing Melancholy, he also touches upon the author's most recent English-language book, 2010's Animalinside, texts in conversation with images by German artist Max Neumann, with an introduction by Colm Tóibín. Animalinside was jointly published by New Directions, Sylph Editions of London and the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and translated by Ottilie Mulzet.  In this text disturbing images of a dog-like creature parallel Krasznahorkai's texts, which evoke the work of Beckett, but the Hungarian writer is more overtly political. Or, as Wood says, "By the end of this text, the dog has passed through the political and become metaphysical and theological." I was given a copy of The Melancholy of Resistance last summer, but did not get to it. Before the end of this summer I shall....

From New Direction's Website, a snippet of Animalinside:

(Excerpt) Krasznahorkai Animalinside

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