My last two book commentaries for the year—about Vsevolod Benigsen’s Раяд (Rayad) and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (The Letter Killers Club)—feel all too typical of my reading in 2011, a year when I abandoned many books and finished others without particular enthusiasm. In this case, I finished both books but neither gave me quite the kick I might have hoped for…
Rayad, a novel about contemporary Moscow, borrows heavily from the detective genre: Benigsen begins with the murder of a man in a moviehouse then shows us an investigation carried out by a recent widower, Kostya. Kostya and his young daughter go to live in a clean, orderly, and slightly creepy all-Russian neighborhood in Moscow, where Kostya quickly meets Gremlin, the alleged perpetrator, a nationalist. Benigsen works in a series of faux historical letters, including one from V.I. Lenin himself, about Rayads, an invented nomadic tribe who once lived in Kostya’s new neighborhood. Of course corruption makes an appearance, too.
Rayad is competently composed and constructed, and it addresses timely sociocultural and sociopolitical issues, but I think Benigsen missed a chance to write a truly important book, a book that makes readers feel deeply uncomfortable. Though there’s a nasty scene on a train with Gremlin and his gang, it’s physical violence and we don’t know the victim. To my mind, the problem with Rayad is that Benigsen doesn’t go nearly far enough in exploring the psychology of nationalism in a way that would encourage readers to (re)examine their own beliefs.
Worse, Rayad’s characters and plot developments feel formulaic. Kostya’s family is half military and half intelligentsia, his new neighbor has problems because he’s not pure Russian, a neighborhood woman resembles Kostya’s dead wife, and so on. The term “Rayad” is particularly obvious because it sounds like an amalgam of the words for heaven and hell. By contrast, Benigsen’s ГенАцид (GenAcide) (previous post) is funnier, sharper, and more literary. Rayad reminded me of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, where Perrotta also failed this picky reader by backing away from an opportunity to write an important book; The Leftovers, too, lacked enough narrative tension and social spark to inspire introspection, rendering it mediocre “stuff.”
Nearly a century earlier, Krzhizhanovsky put literary tropes to use in The Letter Killers Club, a novella of sorts. Krzhizhanovsky frames five stories, setting them up by describing an apartment and the host of a club where members, each known by a monosyllabic nickname, recite stories from memory. I don’t want to spill many details but I’ll say that the leader, a writer, composed his books after having to sell all his books; he imagined his books and the letters on the pages, rearranging them to occupy emptiness. He says writers are “professional word tamers” (“профессиональные дрессировщики слов”). (The English phrase is from Joanne Turnbull’s translation, which you can look inside on Amazon.)
I think my biggest difficulty with The Letter Killers Club is that I, a bit like the narrator, who’s an invited guest at the meetings, was more interested in buttonholing club members for a chat than in listening to their stories. More frustrating, the first tale, a playlet with characters from Hamlet and the eternal question and implications of “to be or not to be,” interested me far more than the remaining four, despite the appearance of my beloved carnival themes and an interesting science fiction take on mind control. Some of the stories just felt too long.
I think the most intriguing aspect of The Letter Killers Club stems from the opening scene, where Hermann Ebbinghaus is referred to as “мнемолог,” a mnemologist. The story and my book’s endnotes also mention Ebbinghaus’s use of “бессмысленные слоги” (“nonsense syllables”) in his research; Krzhizhanovsky’s club’s host uses Ebbinghaus’s term to refer to club members’ nicknames. Ebbinghaus used nonsense syllables in his research to remove associations with real words.
Of course associations develop, both in memory research and in the story: storytellers occasionally even borrow fellow club members’ nicknames for their characters, just as they, like their leader, borrow and reshuffle letters, syllables, and motifs from world languages and literatures. All the club’s storytelling (well, most of, but I won’t go into that) is from memory, playing on mnemonics; I have to think archetypes must have been helpful devices, too. (Festival of the Ass, anyone?) The Letter Killers Club gave my addled brain lots to think about last week when I had a nasty cold: my dreamy, floaty head probably got me further than a clear head could have.
I still have hundreds more pages to try in my collection of Krzhizhanovsky stories and novellas; despite the disappointment of The Letter Killers Club, I’m looking forward to reading more. I have the feeling (or at least the hope!) Krzhizhanovsky may be the kind of writer whose work takes time and patience, that ideas may seep from story to story, eventually accumulating in a way that begins to form a world or worldview. Joanne Turnbull’s translation of The Letter Killers Club, with an introduction by Caryl Emerson, is a recent release from New York Review Books.
P.S. Here are links to some pieces, most with more enthusiastic opinions than mine, that contain far more details about Krzhizhanovsky and The Letter Killers Club. Just watch out for all those details: I think the unexpectedness of the novella is one of its real virtues, so I was glad I knew almost nothing about it when I read.
Up Next: Favorites from 2011. And Dmitrii Dobrodeev’s Большая svoboda Ивана Д. (Ivan D.’s Big Liberty). And then a reading extravaganza—inspired by peculiarities of Petersburg and some of my translation work—is on the way. Why, I thought, just reread Bely’s Petersburg? I’m planning to start with Gogol’s Petersburg tales (or a selection of said tales, I’m not sure), move on to Petersburg, and then finish with something contemporary, probably Dmitrii Bykov’s Ostromov.
Disclosures: The usual. I received a copy of Rayad at the London Book Fair from organizers of the Russia pavilion. Thank you! I know New York Review Books from discussions of translation at book fairs. One other thing: that Amazon link is my affiliate link.