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Phantasm Banged Into Fact

By (March 1, 2017) One Comment

The Return of Munchausen
By Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov
NYR Classics, 2016

Under Stalin, art, like politics, became a game of follow-the-leader. During a speech at the First All Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Andrei Zhdanov, who would later become Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Russia, approvingly quoted Stalin’s view of writers being “engineers of the human soul.” In Zhdanov’s opinion, writers had to “stand foursquare on real life. This in turn means a break with old-style romanticism … which depicted a non-existent life and non-existent heroes, drawing the reader away from the contradictions and shackles of life into an unrealisable and utopian world.”

After the Congress, the Union of Soviet Writers issued a prescription that the purpose of literature was to elevate the common worker by presenting his life and work in an admirable fashion. Henceforth, Socialist Realism was to be the “basic method of Soviet literature and literary criticism.” Literary works had to be realistic, partisan, and proletarian (i.e. relevant and understandable to workers). There was to be no place for artistic movements like Dada and Surrealism, which were judged to be symptomatic of bourgeois decadence (an opinion the Nazis shared).

None of this would have surprised Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. By the end of the 1920s it was clear that his fantastical yet philosophical plays, short stories and novellas were completely at odds with what the Soviet authorities required of literature. Though prolific, he published very few stories, and usually didn’t even bother to submit them to state-approved publishers. The only audience for most of his work was the few people who got to hear him read them out loud. In 1932 Maxim Gorky, the ultimate arbiter of Soviet literature (other than Stalin), proclaimed Krzhizhanovsky’s work too intellectual, “more suited to the late 19th century.”

It would have been little comfort to Krzhizhanovsky that he was in distinguished company. Most of the great Soviet fabulists suffered similar censorship. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We had been banned in 1921, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog was banned in 1925, while after the early 1930s Andrey Platonov wasn’t allowed to publish. In 1939, when Krzhizhanovsky was 54, a collection of his stories was scheduled for publication, but this was prevented by World War Two. Like many of his contemporaries, most of Krzhizhanovsky’s work didn’t come out until long after his death. A five-volume edition was finally published in Russia in the first decade of this century.

Given the restrictions on Krzhizhanovsky’s work, it’s unsurprising that people (or sometimes creatures) desperate to find an audience for their tall tales feature heavily in his stories. If there can be said to such a thing as a typical Krzhizhanovsky story – this is, after all, a person who wrote stories in which the Eiffel Tower tries to join the Soviet cause, a man gets lost in a tiny room, and a toad from the River Styx bemoans the lack of exclusivity in the underworld – it would be “Someone Else’s Theme” in which a dishevelled man offers a stranger an entire philosophical system in exchange for dinner. Krzhizhanovsky’s pessimism about publishing under the Soviets is exemplified by his novella The Letter Killers Club, in which writers gather to tell each other stories under the strict condition that none of them can be written down. Throughout Krzhizhanovsky’s work there are withering assessments of the kind of literature that did satisfy the demands of the state. In “The Bookmark” he speaks of “the long, bare literary pavement of today,” while in “Seams” he bemoans the fact that “If in the past writers looked for themes in their inkwells, close at hand, in and around themselves, now they don’t look at all: Themes are assigned.”

The tall tale of Baron Munchausen was a perfect fit for Krzhizhanovsky. The real-life inspiration for this purveyor of the fabulous was Baron Hieronymus von Münchhausen, a German nobleman who fought with the Russians against the Turks in the mid-18th century. After his retirement, the Baron threw lavish dinners at which he regaled his guests with exaggerated versions of his military exploits. In 1786 Rudolf Erich Raspe, a disgraced geologist living in Cornwall, England, sought to make money by publishing an even more fantastical version of the Baron’s life (Raspe had probably been a dinner guest of the Baron). The huge success of Raspe’s book led to the publication of a German translation of Raspe’s English text a few months later (which fittingly bore numerous embellishments of Raspe’s tale). After this appeared, the fictional Baron’s real life namesake became so deluged with curious visitors that he stopped his dinner parties and became a recluse. The legend thus replaced its real life counterpart.

In Krzhizhanovsky’s The Return of Munchausen, Raspe’s book serves as both prologue and inspiration for a new series of adventures for the Baron. The novel opens in March 1921 in Berlin with a playful conversation between the Baron and a poet named Unding, during which the Baron hands over his business card. On it the Baron describes himself as a “Supplier of Phantasms and Sensations In and Out of This World;” his ancestral motto is “Truth in Lies.” During a bantering exchange, the Baron mentions one of the recurring philosophical tropes of Krzhizhanovsky’s work, the solipsistic proposition of the 18th Century German philosopher Johann Fichte that the “not I” is the product of the “I” – i.e. the mind creates everything we think of as real. One reading of this is that Krzhizhanovsky is using Fichte’s ideas to assert the primacy of the imagination over reality – but the Baron goes on to argue against this (possibly) comforting view. Munchausen subverts the idea by suggesting that now “that ‘not-I’ has jumped out of ‘I,’ it had better look back more often at its whence.” Even at this early point in the novel, Krzhizhanovsky is suggesting that fantastic stories do more than offer an escape – the more urgent question is what they say about the minds that conjured them.

Krzhizhanovsky may be invoking the idea of the “not I” looking back in his repeated use of personification, which makes the ordinary seem magical. In one description of a man climbing stairs, we are told that “leaping after him, taking the stairs two at a time, came muddy footprints.” Similarly, when the Baron’s guest “extended a hand: after it crept a striped and crumpled cuff.” Not all of the magic in the book is figurative: a beanstalk grows to roof height in a day; a fox sheds then regrows its pelt seven times; hunting boots stride about on their own; a horse gallops around after being sawn in two. Krzhizhanovsky also exploits the magic inherent in metaphor:

His listeners are all ears, and right away he begins to bend them: first around the edges, then along the auricular canal, inward and inward, until they curl up like autumn leaves and, ear by ear, softly and unrustlingly, flutter to the floor.

In a later episode a countess is said to be “melting with delight” at one of the Baron’s stories. Several sentences later there is a “pool of water that only a moment ago had been the countess.” Joanne Turnbull’s translation nimbly reproduces these and other linguistic games in a manner that never feels forced.

From Berlin the Baron moves to London, a place he thinks particularly suited to his brand of invention, for “the albescent veils rising from the Thames can unshape shapes, shroud landscapes and worldviews, shade facts.” The Baron’s justification for his love of invention is a paean to creativity:

Oh, how silly all those scholars seemed to me, those unifiers and fathomers. They were searching for ‘one in many’ and not finding it, whereas I could find many in one. They closed tight the doors of consciousness, whereas I flung them wide to nothingness, which is indeed everything. I withdrew from the struggle for existence (which makes sense only in a dark and meager world where there isn’t enough existence to go around) so as to join the struggle for non existence: I created not yet created worlds, lighted and doused suns, ripped up old orbits, and traced new paths in the universe.

But The Return of Munchausen isn’t just fancy for its own sake. The bulk of its narrative is taken up by the Baron recounting to an audience in London the story of his trip to (now Soviet) Russia. Here his talent for exaggeration acquires a satirical edge. He travels on locomotives fuelled by burning books. In Moscow “everything has been eaten, including the onion domes.” Of course not all the population are going hungry:

More prosperous Muscovites, who could afford to hire an artist, honored the culinary traditions of old. At dinner, for the first course, they would serve a Dutch still-life depicting all sorts of comestibles, and for dessert, Christmas-tree decorations (various fruits) made of papier-mâché.

Perhaps the most ingenious satirical detail is the Baron’s claim to have solved the food shortage by inventing “munchkitchens.” In these, a diner swallows a piece of pork fat tied to a string, which passes through them so quickly that a second person can consume the same morsel. Krzhizhanovsky is here brilliantly updating a vignette from the German translation of Raspe’s book in which the Baron catches a succession of ducks by attaching a piece of lard to a dog leash. Equally inspired is the Baron’s claim that these munchkitchens are the cause of the triumphant parades in Moscow – people remain attached to each other after sharing a piece of fat and so must trail after one another.

When the Baron investigates the state of Soviet literature, an official tells him “all of our penmen are given a choice: feast or fast. Some work steadily; others starve.” The Baron is then directed to a high-ceilinged hall whose floor is covered with a giant piece of paper. On it a man, a pen in each hand and each foot, is “working with the speed of a true floor polisher”:

Now, if I squinted, I could make out: a tragedy unfolding along the top line; lower down a treatise on basso continuo and strict counterpoint forms; his left foot was knocking out essays on Russia’s economic situation, his right foot a musical comedy in verse.

When the Baron asks the floor polisher what he is making, the man replies: “Literature.” Krzhizhanovsky is here satirising the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s contention that poets should possess an “industrial attitude towards art.”

The Baron’s version of his trip is a great success with his London audience, but at the height of his fame he vanishes. When Unding eventually tracks him down at his ancestral home in Germany, he finds a broken man. The Baron confesses that his trip to Russia was entirely fabricated, and necessarily so, because “one cannot turn to face one’s ‘I’ without showing one’s back to one’s ‘not I’. And I, of course, would not be Munchausen were I to think of looking for Moscow… in Moscow.”

What ails the Baron isn’t remorse for his inventions, but the shock of finding out that his lies about Russia contain truth, that his “phantasms had banged into facts.” It’s a testament to Krzhizhanovsky’s skill as a writer that the book’s emotional register shifts to pathos following this revelation. There’s a genuine sadness to the Baron’s confession that he “did not know that there were people who could out-Munchausen Munchausen.” And the sadness is of course doubled – this is also Krzhizhanovsky’s disillusioned lament for the state of Soviet Russia, a place so full of hypocrisy and distortion that it merits the unflattering accolade of being “the Country About Which One Cannot Lie.”

The Baron is so downhearted by the possibility that he may no longer be able to offer pure lies, having “fallen ill with the truth,” that he literally retreats into the safety of a book, proclaiming “all my phantasms are played out.” For Krzhizhanovsky there was to be no such solace. Though he was belatedly accepted into the Soviet Writer’s Union in 1939, the only book that would appear during his lifetime was a 34-page monograph on the art of composing titles. After the war he drank heavily and had a stroke in 1949 that left him unable to read. When his friends asked the reason why he was drinking so heavily, Krzhizhanovsky is said to have replied: “A sober attitude to reality.”

Nick Holdstock is the author of a novel, The Casualties, and several nonfiction books about China, The Tree That Bleeds and China’s Forgotten People.