Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Letter Killers Club”

Reviewed by Christopher Tauchen

Image of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Letter Killers Club”

“As per Article 5 of the Regulations, this manuscript is committed to death.” The chairman of the Letter Killers Club throws the contraband notebook onto the flames as the other members watch in silence. They know the rules: writings of any kind are forbidden. They do not see books as a means of spreading ideas, but rather as a means of confining them. To the members of the Letter Killers Club, letters of the alphabet are the prison cells of concepts, and they need to be destroyed.

Set in Soviet Moscow during the 1920s, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club presents a bizarre inversion of the usual motivations behind violence done to books. The members of this secret society have abandoned letters in an effort to liberate ideas from confinement in ink.  Once distinguished literati, these men have vowed to give up reading and writing and to keep their own ideas firmly in the realm of pure thought. The club meets regularly on Saturday evenings in a dark room lined with empty bookshelves. Every week one member, the “conceiver,” shares a story, or “conception,” with the others, who offer their suggestions and criticisms as they listen. At the command of the chairman, the changes are implemented immediately—conceptions are moved along a different line, or started anew from the beginning. The conceivers must rework their stories on the spot, changing the direction of the plotline, focusing on different characters or emphasizing new themes.  Sometimes they have to scrap everything and create what amounts to an entirely new story. It’s like a writers’ workshop from hell.

This unusual novella (really a cycle of stories) was written in 1926 but did not make its way into print until after the fall of the Soviet Union, nearly half a century after Krzhizhanovsky’s death in 1950. The political situation during his lifetime was never suited to his sort of experimental fiction: after receiving a stream of rejections from publishers, Krzhizhanovsky eventually stopped submitting. Piles of the obscure writer’s manuscripts lay in an archive for decades. Since their discovery and publication, their author has been counted among the greatest Russian writers of the period. At the center of all his best work is the intersection of the fantastic and the philosophical. This tends to draw comparison to writers like Borges or Kafka, though Krzhizhanovsky seems to have a greater attachment to the fantasy.  His absurdities are not just vehicles for big ideas.

The Letter Killers Club begins with an invitation—the chairman, Zez (a “nonsense syllable”: names, like letters, confine meaning), asks an unnamed narrator to sit in on their meetings. The narrator accepts, and his observations over the course of five Saturdays form the narrative framework for his transcription of five of the club members’ conceptions. The stories that follow are told from memory and are full of digressions, interruptions and revisions. They all ask questions which parallel the central conceptions-vs.-letters problem: what separates our true selves from our other selves, our reflections and our bodies? How are we to understand the relationship between a unified abstract and its manifest forms? In one of the stories, a Shakespearean actor trades places with his role and finds it difficult to return to reality. In another—a dystopian sci-fi tale—a modified strain of bacteria is used to seal people’s minds off from their bodies, whose movements are then manipulated by the State with a kind of radio transmitter.  In another, a travelling priest in the Middle Ages finds himself jobless and destitute after his clothes are stolen: without his vestments, no one believes he is a priest any more.

Joanne Turnbull’s graceful translation is a welcome complement to her other work on Krzhizhanovsky (earlier collections of his stories were published as Seven Stories, Glas, 2006 and Memories of the Future, NYRB Classics, 2009). And while The Letter Killers Club is certainly one of the strongest—and most accessible—examples of his prose fiction, it is by no means the only one. The five-volume Collected Works in Russian contains dozens of others, along with some drama, essays and literary criticism. Krzhizhanovsky’s growing readership in English will hopefully encourage further translation of his work in coming years. 

The fact that we can read The Letter Killers Club at all shows us how well the narrator keeps up with the club’s founding principle. After the meetings have stopped, he can’t bear the pressure—the conceptions are struggling to get out, and after four nights’ worth of “dictation”, the words in his head “guzzle” the ink from his pen and escape out onto the page. One way or another, great thoughts must be released from the mind. If there’s no one to help share the burden, the only way to stay sane is to betray our ideas by writing them down. Perhaps this helps explain why Krzhizhanovsky—like so many others—wrote so much with so little hope of an audience.