Monday, December 26, 2011

Benigsen’s Rayad and Krzhizhanovsky’s Letter Killers

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.


  1. Dear Lisa, a big thank you for all your wonderful (and very useful) posts. You're my favorite read of the week. Wishing you to find the right publisher(s) for your translations, authors able to lift your spirits and make you want to be their voice in English, enthusiastic students, and generous crops from your garden. For a gentle and healthy 2012!

  2. Thank you for your lovely greeting, Catherine! It's nice to hear that you enjoy the blog so much, and I wish you lots of fulfilling translation (and publishing!) in 2012, too.

    You'll be happy to know that we are still eating vegetables from the back yard, despite some temperatures in the teens: we had a nice salad (lettuce and spinach) last night and there is still a bit more to come!

  3. I don't know why, but your description of The Letter Killers Club actually has me interested. Maybe it's the storytelling aspect, but the premise does actually hold some appeal for me. And if you think the unexpectedness is one of its virtues... well, I'll just see if this one finds its way to me. Fate, do your magic!

  4. Thank you for your comment, Bibliobio... I was hoping that someone would say what you said! The book definitely has a certain appeal; my reading biases/preferences lean more toward character but I certainly found it interesting.

    I'm not sure if other readers would feel unexpectedness as I did but I found a certain suspense, wondering what the next week's story would be. And then what the next odd turn would be within the story. I'll be interested to see what you think!


  5. Hi Lisa! I was interested to hear what you thought of Krzhizhanovsky. I've not looked at The Letter Killer's Club, but I translated a few of his stories years back that were so, so hard! Like, entire sentences where I didn't recognize a single word. In many cases I struggled to even recognize verb forms and root words. I had a Russian help me with stuff I just couldn't crack, and he said there were a fair number of invented words the definitions of which he (in his fluent English) had difficulty explaining. There was a quote from Krzhizhanovsky I found in his biography that I translated as something like, "When I die, don't clear the nettles from my grave. Let them sting." I thought it appropos for how difficult he is to read, translate, and ultimately, I discovered, publish.

    Anyway, I'm impressed you tackled K. in Russian. When I look at his text in the original I go cross-eyed.

  6. Dear Lisa, Thank you so much for posting about The Club of Letter Killers! As you know, I'm a big Krzhizhanovsky fan. I read this story many years ago while doing PhD research, and (perhaps predictably) my favourite storylet was the science-fiction episode. I also liked The Bookmark (Knizhnaia zakladka), another Krzh story with a similar multiple-brief-tales structure. This type of frame tale makes me think of Hoffmann's Serapion Brothers's storytelling circle (as I'm sure I'm meant to do) and also of the odd Manhattan gentleman's club where macabre stories are exchanged in Steven King's 'The Breathing Method' (as I'm sure I shouldn't!).

  7. Thank you, Andrea G. and Russian Dinosaur, for your comments!

    Andrea G., I didn't think the *words* in this particular novella were so difficult but I found that I often had to reread, to be sure I was absorbing meaning. Platonov has the same effect on me; I think it's the unusualness of how and what these writers write. I'm not sure if I'll ever enjoy Krzhizhanovsky as much as I enjoy Platonov but who knows what more reading will do!

    Russian Dinosaur, I didn't realize that you're a big Krzh fan, though I'm not surprised you liked the science fiction story best! I'll have to look for "Книжная закладка"... I think I'll enjoy Krzhizhanovsky more as I read more, and it would probably help to read pieces that link thematically.

  8. I haven't read Raiad, but I've read a few reviews and yours seems to confirm Benigsen's general pattern of unfulfillment.

    His latest, VITCH, has an intriguing idea at the heart of it, much like his others, but fails to deliver. I remember one reviewer (I think it was Alla Latynina) praising him for his ability to come up with anekdoty, but his problem is that he stretches them out for 400 pages. VITCH suffers from this horribly. He needs an editor.

    Thank you for a great blog!

  9. Thank you, Tom, for your kind comment! I was especially interested to read your thoughts on VITCh: I saw it at a discount on one of my book sites but read a review or two and decided "не стоит".

    I see this pattern of "great idea, lousy execution" all too often with contemporary Russian -- and American -- novels. I seem to read a lot of novels that could use another rewrite!

  10. That said, his satire of the liberal intelligentsia myths and stereotypes is hilarious. But then, that was the best part of Genatsid, right?

    I look forward to hearing about the new Dobrodeev. I really need to find time to buy and read it.

  11. I agree, Tom, about GenAcide... I thought the book was laugh-out-loud funny in places, even if the structure felt a bit off. With Rayad, though, it felt like Benigsen found a good structure but couldn't get an optimal balance of humor, sociopolitics, and energy. Resulting, alas, in a competent but mediocre novel.

  12. I've finally read Клуб убийц букв, and I agree with you; here's my review:

  13. I'm glad you posted your link, Languagehat, I'm in complete agreement with you about philosophy in fiction!