Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Review of Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (translated by Joanne Turnbull)

Memories of the Future
4 out of 5: This collection of seven loosely interconnected short stories, by turns whimsical and menacing, examines Soviet Moscow in the 1920s. In these stories Krzhizhanovsky primarily focuses on the lives of displaced intellectuals—those who, after World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, are left with little to do but wander the city’s streets wondering what happened to their settled lives of respectability. One of Krzhizhanovsky’s protagonists describes Soviet Russia, and particularly Moscow, as a “country of nonexistences,” and it is these nonexistences, left without a place or function in society, that populate Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. While often representing an isolated point of view, Krzhizhanovsky’s stories contain enough dark comedy and signs of hope to mitigate their overall bleakness.

In a self-described style of “experimental realism,” Krzhizhanovsky mixes gritty details (dark rooms in concrete block buildings, frozen boulevard benches) with fantastical elements, including several extended dream sequences. In one story, the Eiffel Tower uproots itself and heads towards the revolution in the East, laying waste to everything in its path. In another, a sociable corpse manages to miss his funeral while trying to experience one more day of life. In the last story of the collection (Memories of the Future), Max Scherter is a man obsessed with the concept of time. He works to build a time machine only to be repeatedly interrupted by war and revolution. Despite the obstacles Max faces, his story is a hopeful one of the perseverance of a noble idea over mankind’s tragedies.

Krzhizhanovsky died in 1950 before any of his stories were published. Now, for the first time, these seven stories are available to an English audience thanks to Joanne Turnbull’s translation and the New York Review of Books. Memories of the Future, although sometimes confusing in its wild departures from reality, gives us a valuable and unique insider’s view into a closed society.


Anonymous said...

Hey there! Just found your blog and I'm now subscribed. Thanks for this review. It's a book a hadn't heard of, but now feel I should add to my reading list.

Zibilee said...

I am not sure if I would read this, as I don't really like tangential writing and dream sequences, but other things that you mention do intrigue me about this book. I am going to try to pick this one up in person and see if it does anything for me, and if I can deal with the writing style. I have a feeling that if I can, I will be richly rewarded. Great review, Gwen.

M said...

The notion of a "country of nonexistences" is fascinating, and I'm wondering if you can describe how Krzhizhanovsky's writing aesthetic captures this nonexistence-ness, or void. Does he have any interesting narrative or aesthetic strategy that seems to convey a sense of non-existence? I'm greatly looking forward to reading these stories, and have found your review to be a helpful introduction.

Found your blog, in fact, because I was doing some research on Krzhizhanovsky...thanks for the great review.