Russian author, essayist, and translator. Born on 30th January, 1887 near Kiev, died on 28th December in Moscow.
Polish author writing in Russian, essayist, translator.
The output of Zygmunt Krzyżanowski (Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky) is positioned alongside works of such 19th and 20th century prose masters as Edgar Allan Poe, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Gustav Meyrink. He is more often referred to, however, as the ‘Russian Kafka’ or Russian Borges,’ even though he has always identified as a Pole in exile. Critic Jan Gondowicz claims that he is someone ‘between Dino Buzzati and Italo Calvino,’ whose work resembles ‘dreams of a mad clockmaster.’ The famous Russian semiotician Vladimir Toporov described him as a ‘genius of space.’ In the United States, collections of his short stories are published as part of the prestigious New York Review Books Classics series. Since late 1980s, six publications with his collected works have been released; his writings have been translated into, among others, French, German, and Spanish.
Krzyżanowski was the only son of the bookkeeper Dominik Aleksandrowicz Krzyżanowski, Dębno coat of arms. He went to Kiev’s Fourth State Middle School, also attented by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz; Krzyżanowski later studied law and philosophy at the Saint Vladimir Royal University of Kiev. His father’s wealth and support for his son’s education allowed Krzyżanowski to receive a broad knowledge in various disciplines: philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, history of theatre, and musicology. He was fluent in ten languages, including Greek and Latin. In the 1920s, he travelled a lot around Europe – mostly to Italy, but he also visited Germany, Austria, and France. During a six-month stay in Paris, he attended lectures by Henri Bergson and Henri Poincaré at the Sorbonne.
After years of education, having faced a dilemma which he described as ‘Kant or Shakespeare?,’ Krzyżanowski chose Shakespeare, i.e. a career in literature. The writer made friends with Bulgakov (Gondowicz doesn’t in fact denounce the possibility of their mutual influences and inspirations in their respective writings), however, just like the author of Master and Margarita, he didn’t see a place for himself in the provincial Kiev, where his début as a poet did not meet with success. Krzyżanowski needed to make another choice; his exceptional language skills allowed him to take into consideration not only Poland, but also Western Europe. In the end he decided to go East and move to Moscow, tempting due to its thriving cultural – especially theatre – life.
From a broader perspective, this choice turned out to be mistaken. Krzyżanowski took up an unexciting position of a lecturer at the Moscow Chamber Theatre, where he was stuck for nearly twenty years. Its upside, however, was the possibility of working with the avant-garde theatre of Alexander Tairov, in collaboration with whom he achieved his sole spectacular artistic success in his life: he created the famous adaptation of Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. The Polish author made additional money by writing theatre, advertisement, and silent film (a popular medium at the time) screenplays. The censorship turned out to be ruthless towards his literary phantasmagorias: virtually none of Krzyżanowski’s prose writings were published during his lifetime. He only managed to release some of his works on Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw, translate Julian Tuwim’s poems into Russian, and create an anthology of Polish short stories.
Perhaps some could find ironic serendipities in Krzyżanowski’s biography: his audacious comments dismayed the manager of the publishing house he collaborated with, and who later became the head of Moscow’s censorship authorities. Whereas when in 1939, after years of efforts, the first collection of his short stories was finally prepared for print, the war broke out and the publication never saw the light of day.
This astonishing lack of any big publications was also associated with the author’s specific type of mentality – not only did he detest any ideological compromises, but also seemed to be completely immune to the intellectual trends of his era and rigorously attended to his spiritual autonomy. Krzyżanowski’s biographers claim however that it was the lack of any existing publications that might have saved him during the Great Purge (his other contemporary authors, including Isaac Babel, Daniil Kharms and many others, paid for ‘improper’ literature with their lives). After the Second World War, Krzyżanowski decided to stop writing prose. As he used to say, in Moscow he was known for being unknown. One could suspect that the Soviet censorship and the unfortunate lack of recognition and appreciation influenced the shape of Krzyżanowski’s oeuvre, saturated with an atmosphere of complete isolation and rejection.
The author died in 1950; no one even knows where he was buried. It didn’t look like the world would ever become acquainted with his writings. Krzyżanowski’s works were however serendipitously discovered by Vadim Perelmuter at the State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow, where Krzyżanowski’s typewritten manuscripts were stored. Thanks to the efforts of this publisher and poet, Krzyżanowski’s works were finally published in a book – over half a century after they were written. This event was accompanied by a rare aura of revelation caused by a discovery of a forgotten genius. Soon afterwards, works on a critical edition of collected writings by Krzyżanowski was initiated. The researchers still couldn’t resist the feeling of an incompleteness of collections deposited at the Moscow archive: the writer’s notes mentioned titles of short stories that couldn’t be located; different versions of autobiographical texts were found and were moreover inconsistent with one another; there were some jarring gaps identified in the retrieved correspondence. Researchers were beginning to suspect that another fundamental archive existed.
And indeed, it was discovered in autumn 2005, awakening strong emotions among Russian literary critics and historians. As it turned out, the writer’s wife, Anna Bowszek, who moved out of Moscow in 1967, brought a large part of Krzyżanowski’s works with her. That Kiev archive contained, among others, the missing short stories, essays, film screenplays, poems, notes from travels across Europe and Siberia, journals, handwritten autobiographical texts (free of the self-imposed censorship in the fear of the government), and photographs.
The Pole’s output oscillates between a number of philosophical themess, such as space and its different, strange dimensions, memory and oblivion, a book and the process of reading or creating it, or the mutual infiltration of fiction and reality. Krzyżanowski wrote in a cold, precise, and laconic style, which always guarantees longevity in literature. His witty, gothic use of metaphors is impressive and memorable. Krzyżanowski’s thorough philosophical education provided him with tools to cleverly introduce metaphysical paradoxes; his later works are especially filled with absurd, grotesque, and dark, paranoid humour. He fluently rendered grand themes from the Bible (for instance in the short story Historia proroka / Story of the Prophet) and mythology (like in stories Most przez Styks / Bridge over Styx and Przykuty przez Prometeusza / Tethered by Prometheus). The element of play has a permanent place in his writings, regardless of whether it applies to the genre or the presentation of the subject. This is well illustrated by the largely satirical novel Powrót Munchausena / The Return of Munchausen, where, in Krzyżanowski’s version, the famous baron escapes the pages of the book and wanders across the Soviet reality and shares his inventive lies; however, after a series of adventures, the character realises that his artful lies are nothing compared to the distortion of reality which he’s exploring, and eventually he is convicted and executed with blank cartridges, after which he returns to the book which he jumped out of (it is hard to believe that the author seriously considered submitting a text this critical of the USSR reality to the censorship – but he did!).
When outlining the nature of Krzyżanowski’s output, it should also be added that fans of fantasy or horror literature by the likes of Poe and Hoffman will easily connect to the writer’s works. His oeuvre contains a lot of Kafka’s loneliness, stretched to nearly cosmic proportions – like in the short story Szwy / Stitches, in which window panes and puddles eventually stop reflecting the figure of the protagonist. Krzyżanowski’s prose astonishes the reader, hopping between different levels of reality: between reality and dream, life and death; it also contains elements of a fairy tale – animals may share something interesting about the netherworld, while echoes might congregate in a valley in order to discuss their tough life (like in the short story Bezrobotne echo / Unemployed Echo). Borges comes to mind here – as what brings the authors together is not only their vast imagination and touching on the subjects of infinity, time, and space, but also the abundance of narrative solutions and meta-fictional games. Krzyżanowski was however doing it as early as in 1920s – so about twenty years before Borges’s biggest works were written. In spite of a plethora of comparisons with a long list of authors, not just the Argentine author, Krzyżanowski’s output is filled with a fundamental distinctiveness, which is still waiting to be understood.
Altogether, Krzyżanowski wrote over two hundred short stories and several novels; he is also an author of philosophical essays, librettos, musical comedies, dramas, film screenplays, treatises on theatre, aesthetics, and sketches on Shakespeare and Chekhov.
Besides some limited publications in expert magazines, three collections of Krzyżanowski’s short stories have been published in Poland so far (Trzynasta kategoria rozsądku / Thirteenth Category of Reason in 2004, Niemożliwe do przewidzenia / Impossible to Foresee in 2004, and Most przez Styks / Bridge over Styx in 2008), as well as two short novels (Powrót Munchausena / The Return of Munchausen in 2005 and Klub morderców liter / The Letter Killers’ Club in 2010). This is mostly owed to the translation and popularisation efforts of Walentyna Mikołajczak-Trzcińska.
Author: Tomasz Wiśniewski, December 2016, transl. AM, January 2017