Autobiography of a Corpse
New York Review Books
“The Unbitten Elbow”
“The Unbitten Elbow” is from Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s collection AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CORPSE (New York Review Books, 2014, translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov). Krzhizhanovsky worked as a clerk in Moscow during the Stalin era and for two decades wrote largely in obscurity. His phantasmagorical fictions ignored injunctions to portray Soviet life in a positive light. Censors quashed three separate efforts to print his collections of stories, and the first edition of stories to be published appeared in 1989, almost forty years after his death.
His reputation in death has grown steadily. Elaine Blair, writing in the Nation, explained his resurrection this way: “The fascination of Krzhizhanovsky’s work today is also its limitation: the blatant criticism of the Soviet regime that makes itself felt, in different ways, in every one of the stories. Each is about a man and his private reckoning with the political, economic and social conditions of post-revolutionary Russia. There seems to be no room for any kind of struggle but the one between citizen and state.
“For Krzhizhanovsky’s characters this struggle is silent and inward rather than confrontational, and the need for secrecy creates an atmosphere of intense loneliness and isolation. There is a kind of aridity in these stories when it comes to human relations. The family drama, friendship, love, marriage–none play any significant role. Sex is a little joke well out on the margins of life. As for the pointless humiliations of existence and the baser human impulses, these are, for Krzhizhanovsky, bound up with the new regime and culture, which, of course, offers no shortage of examples.”
Like Calvino, Krzhizhanovsky takes us to the edge of the absurd and forces us to look into it. “I am interested,” he said, “not in the arithmetic, but in the algebra of life.”