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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Seven Stories

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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To purchase Seven Stories

Title: Seven Stories
Author: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Genre: Stories
Written: (Eng. 2006)
Length: 202 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Seven Stories - US
Seven Stories - UK
Seven Stories - Canada
Seven Stories - India
  • Six of the stories were written in the 1920s, the seventh (Yellow Coal) in 1939
  • Translated by Joanne Turnbull

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Our Assessment:

A- : stylish and fantastic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum A Summer/2006 Natasha Randall
Financial Times A 17/3/2006 Robert Chandler
The Independent . 15/5/2006 Lesley Chamberlain
The Spectator A 8/4/2006 John Bayley
TLS . 13/10/2006 Oliver Ready

  Review Consensus:

  Very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) small collection but terrific in every sense of the word. Krzhizhanovsky is often compared to Borges, Swift, Poe, Gogol, Kafka, and Beckett, yet his fiction relies on its own special mixture of heresy and logic." - Natasha Randall, Bookforum

  • "Curiously, one of the most startling qualities of his work is the directness with which it addresses our 21st century concerns. Itís as if the Soviet editors were right: Krzhizhanovsky now seems more our contemporary than theirs. (...) His stories, like those of Jorge Luis Borges, are closer to poetry and philosophy than to the realistic novel. (...) It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century." - Robert Chandler, Financial Times

  • "What's this writer about, and does he live up to comparisons with Kafka, Borges and Beckett ? Yes and no. He would need to have written more, but he's certainly worth taking in." - Lesley Chamberlain, The Independent

  • "Each of these seven stories is delightful to read, humorous, sad and meaningful. (...) His work, subtly subversive, as his editor rightly calls it, only started to be published as a whole in 1989, when what might be described as all the usual suspects, Kafka and Borges, Swift, Gogol and of course Samuel Beckett, were promptly trotted out by way of comparison. Krzhizhanovsky has certainly much in common with them, but the flavour and personality of his writing is all his own, as if it were a subdued and friendly personal conversation. His method, as he put it, was not to borrow from reality, but to 'ask reality for permission to use his own imagination'." - John Bayley, The Spectator

  • "A sense of discovery and displacement is a motif of several stories, and the newness of Krzhizhanovsky's surroundings appears to have reinforced his literary preference for the defamiliarizing perspective (a preference fully shared by one of his most important tutors, Swift). (...) The theme of Seven Stories, if there is one, is change, both in language and in the apprehension of reality." - Oliver Ready, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It's not hard to imagine Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as the 'theme catcher' in one of the stories included in this collection, The Bookmark. The theme catcher is a story-teller the narrator of the tale encounters, someone who simply can't stop his imagination and out of thin air and nothing throws forth story after story, finding the germ for yet another in any small detail or thought. The narrator first meets him when the theme catcher imagines 'The Tower Gone Mad', in which the Eiffel Tower ... well, goes mad and stomps through Paris.
       The world the theme catcher lives in -- after the "lifequake" (the Russian Revolution) -- isn't one where there is any room for his sort of creativity (or productivity), and in that his story closely mirrors Krzhizhanovsky's own. Krzhizhanovsky's collected works apparently amount to some 3000 pages, but almost none of it was published during his lifetime -- because of a combination of terrible luck and a style that wasn't of the times. Finally, he gave up -- but, as noted in the Introduction, "like the hero of The Bookmark -- gave away the 'themes' with which his imagination continued to fountain in casual conversation."
       There's a tinge of bitterness to The Bookmark as the theme catcher describes the many rejections he received for the stories he submitted for publication -- a too common writer's fate (aren't they all misunderstood ?) to really move any more. Still, it's hard not to sympathise with the obviously talented writer recounting the fate of his own work here -- and one imagines an editor really did tell him:

You have talent. But you must put it into a pen, and the pen into your hand. Your stories are, well, how shall I put it ... untimely. Put them away -- let them wait. In the meantime, a person able to cross things out would, most likely, suit us. Have you ever tried writing criticism ? A reappraisal, say, of reappraisals ?
       What it comes down to is related in the last encounter between the narrator and the theme catcher:
     "So there's no hope ?"
     I hadn't gone more than a dozen paces when -- through the noise and hubbub of the square -- his voice overtook me:
     "And even so !"
       And one of the things that shows Krzhizhanovsky isn't just a natural storyteller, but rather a master of a craft is that that's not how he ends it, as many other writers would, but rather that he uses a framing device -- of just the right dimensions --, nestling the theme catcher's story there, and making it just that bit more poignant in how the narrator relates (and relates to) it.
       The Bookmark shines -- occasionally stunningly brightly -- with that creative spirit, but too much of Krzhizhanovsky's personal hurt shimmers through for it to be entirely satisfactory; it's the other stories, the pure invention, that really impress.
       Not untypical of the times -- think Karel Capek -- scientific innovation of fantastical extremes is at the centre of several of the stories. Yellow Coal (written more than a decade after any of the other stories collected here, in 1939) imagines an alternative energy source in a world of global warming and depleted natural resources -- and find it in human bile (a story in which Krzhizhanovsky perhaps tries too hard for a moral). A more amusing smaller effort is Quadraturin, set in the Soviet times when individuals were allotted at most nine square metres of living space (and a Re-measuring Commission was established that would go door to door making sure no one had excess space ...). Sutulin's matchbox of a room is smaller than the legal limit -- so small he can barely move around in it -- but then he is offered a sample of Quadraturin, "an agent for biggerizing rooms". Coat the walls and the room expands -- but Sutulin finds that along with all this new-found space there are unexpected consequences.
       Another tale of the times is Autobiography of a Corpse, in which the journalist Shtamm comes to Moscow and looks for an apartment -- and finds one where the previous tenant was a suicide. The 'autobiography' of the title is a suicide note of sorts, left behind for that next tenant (who turns out to be Shtamm), a fascinating exploration of death- (and life-) obsession. The corpse describes, for example, the official government publications listing the war-dead:
Officially regulated, death began putting out its own periodical, which, like any well-organized publishing concern, appeared on schedule. It was the most succinct, businesslike and absorbing publication I had ever read: I am speaking of those white booklets, like fortnightlies, that provided a "complete list of the dead, wounded, and missing in action". At first glance, a death journal might seem dull: number -- name -- number -- another name. But given a certain imagination, the dry, lapidary style of those booklets only intensified one's sense of the fantastic.
       And it is this that Krzhizhanovsky consistently does: touch that imagination, and intensify the sense of the fantastic (and since he starts off with considerably more than number -- name -- number -- another name, readers are in for quite a ride). Ultimately, the stories are haunting, their various echoes -- from the plot and structure to the stylistic details -- resonating long after the book has been closed.
       The corpse adds:
I maintain that people with a numb sensorium, with an almost corpse-like ossification of the psyche, can no longer live themselves. But they can be lived. Why not ?
       It's the sort of imaginative leap -- the possibility of 'living' another (which the reading experience, at its best, offers) -- that Krzhizhanovsky repeatedly makes.
       In In the Pupil the narrator sees himself -- or rather: "my miniature likeness" -- in his beloved's eye -- and then gets the whole story from the little creature (who turns out to be surprisingly real -- and not the only one stuck in there), a conceit that Krzhizhanovsky pulls off with surprising ease.
       The Runaway Fingers offers a pianist's hand on the loose, briefly asserting its independence and exploring the world on its own (though not quite going to the extremes of the Michael Caine schlock vehicle, The Hand).
       Krzhizhanovsky was also interested in philosophy (not surprisingly, Max Stirner crops up repeatedly) and The Unbitten Elbow is the most philosophically-playful of the stories, focussed on a man who responds to the question: "Goal in Life" in a magazine questionnaire with: "To bite my elbow." It's this physically impossible undertaking that pre-occupies him. The magazine thinks there might be a story in it, and there is. It's just a small one, but then strikes a chord and many fancies and suddenly elbowism is all the rage. First hired as a performing freak -- a circus act of Elbow vs. Man. Will he or won't he bite it ? Three 2-minute rounds. -- his relentless effort is soon something a whole nation is fascinated by. Others take to the idea; the book Elbowism: Premises and Deductions goes through 43 editions in its first year, for example. Even the state takes a stake in the elbow-fanatic's obsession .....

       The theme catcher of The Bookmark was advised that his books were "untimely", and that he should: "Put them away -- let them wait." It's hard to imagine Krzhizhanovsky's stories were ever untimely, but they were put away, for a long time. But the wait has done them no harm; there's barely any dust to blow off here. Even on the basis of such a small sampling of his work as these Seven Stories, there's no question that Krzhizhanovsky is a major (re)discovery.
       These seven stories show some wonderful flights of the imagination, but it's the confident, easy style that set them apart. Here a natural storyteller, striking intellect, and deeply creative soul are found all in one -- a rare combination. Joanne Turnbull's translation also reads exceptionally well.
       Here is the rare author where we would immediately purchase any other available work of his; sadly, this is the only English translation of his writing currently available.
       Well worthwhile.

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Seven Stories: Reviews: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Other books by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (Sigismund Krzyzanowski, Сигизмунд Доминикович Кржижановский) lived 1887 to 1950. He was a prominent but largely unpublished literary figure in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

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© 2006-2022 the complete review

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