Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

I recently finished reading Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. My opinion can be summed up quite nicely by a quote from this unusual short story collection:

This may have been a pseudo-hallucination, I don’t know: It’s all the same to me.

I’m tempted to stop with that quote. It really is a suitable summation of my reading experience. Autobiography of a Corpse is an odd, strangely pleasant collection of eleven short stories. I can’t say that I enjoyed it exactly, but I can say that words like philosophical, fantastic, and phantasmagorical apply to the overall experience. In the title story, a new resident of Moscow reads the autobiography of the previous (now deceased) occupant. ‘In the Pupil’ tells the story of a man’s journey into his lover’s pupil – where all her past lovers reside. ‘The Land of Nots’ (a story whose writing would test the patience of the saintly readers) is the most politically subversive of the collection, examining a society that bases their civilization on a fragment of mythology. ‘The Unbitten Elbow’ tells the story of a man whose life goal is to bite his elbow. This leads to unexpected consequences in society, going so far as to rattle the stock market and, in my favorite part, inspire a new repudiation of Kant. Several other stories examine everything from a pianist’s runaway fingers to the possibility of building a bridge to hell.

Autobiography of a Corpse

The stories range from humorous to satiric to philosophical. The writing, when it’s good, is very, very good – there’s a lot of wit to be found in Krzhizhanovsky’s fabulist tales. His musings may be morbid, but there’s an attractive dream-like quality to his work.

I was bored. The minutes crawled by on the wall clock. The door would not open. I opened my dictionary. A sort of bibliographical curiosity from the mid-nineteenth century. My eye immediately fell upon the word ethics. Then I understood: This old dictionary was an intelligent conversationalist. Well, of course, only old-fashioned and less-than-intelligible ethics could have shut me up inside a manège with all of these people from whom I had not use.

He possesses an imagination I cannot help but admire. However, when the author becomes philosophical, the writing borders on tedious. Quite simply, I found some of the passages taxing. The adverbial abuse alone causes it to be stultifylingly unreadable at times. It’s important to note, when all is said and read, the collection as a whole is worth it – sapienti sat, et insapienti sat*.

I can’t imagine Krzhizhanovsky’s wit and whimsy were appreciated in 1920s Russia, which may be why the vast majority of his work was not published until 1989 and after. Autobiography of a Corpse** is the third of his publications, after The Letter Killers Club and Memories of the Future, to be translated by Joanne Turnbull. All three are available from NYRB Classics. 3.5/5, Krzhizhanovsky deserves a place among the great twentieth century Russian writers.

Anyone brave enough to give this collection a try? Anyone else enjoy discovering long lost classics by authors you’ve never heard of (because we all know Austen…right?). And, most importantly, any thoughts on the pronunciation of his last name? I didn’t even try…

Grilled CheeseThere is not a lot of food happening in these odd and morbid tales, but there is a sandwich scene. I won’t recommend the same sandwich (a white bread, butter, and grainy red caviar culinary atrocity), but instead share the recipe for Garlic-Rubbed Grilled Cheese with Bacon and Tomatoes. You’re welcome.

*There’s enough for the wise, and enough for the fools…
**I received this book in exchange for an honest review.

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  • Shannon @ River City Reading

    I can’t answer your questions about the book because I’m so distracted by that amazing looking sandwich, oh my gosh.

    • Rory

      Yeah, I need someone to make that for me. Right now, preferably.

  • gargoylebruce

    Good Lord, if only proper names were allowed in Scrabble. That author’s name would be a game winner every time!

    • Rory

      Ha, definitely. Are there that many z tiles in scrabble…maybe with the blanks?

  • Jennine G.

    That is a catchy title for sure. Made me think of the Mary Roach book “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” Although hers in nonfiction I believe. Still, love catchy titles…although short story collections always make me hesitate…I’ve really got to get over that.

    • Rory

      That one is non-fiction. Short stories are one of my favorite fiction forms, but I think I’m in the minority. I definitely think you should give them a chance, although I’m not sure this is a good one to start with.

  • Bonnie @ For the Love of Words

    Oh my gosh I’m freaking starving now.

    • Rory

      Exactly. But nobody would’ve been if I posted the white bread caviar sandwich.

      I need a personal chef, even a sandwich seems beyond me at this point.

      • Bonnie @ For the Love of Words

        I just got up to make myself lunch because I was starving. I’m eating top ramen. Clearly I’m in need of a personal chef as well.

  • Andi (@estellasrevenge)

    This one sounds super weird, but I like weird sometimes. And that cover is the shiz.

    • Rory

      That cover is the entire reason I read the book. Because otherwise, it’s a little too strange even for me. He gets lost on tangents more often than not…

  • Sarah Says Read

    Oh my word, that sandwich looks delicious…

    “phantasmagorical” and a guy trying to bite his own elbow? SOLD.

    • Rory

      I want the sandwich and I don’t even care for tomatoes.

      Spoiler: he never bites his elbow. But he gets so famous trying to do so that it could be said he elbows his way to the top.

  • Monika

    That is a kick-awesome cover!! And… I love weird stories. LOL
    Such a cool review!!!

    • Rory

      Thank you. The cover might be the best part of the book. That’s not to say the book isn’t good, just that that’s the best cover I’ve seen in a long time.

  • lauratfrey

    I love this review, and the cover (love all the NYRB Classics.) I wonder if I’d love the book. Hard to say.

    • Rory

      NYRB always have the best covers. I don’t think anyone could *love* this book. Appreciate it, laugh a little…yes. Truly enjoy it? Probably not.

  • RebeccaScaglione – Love at First Book

    Sounds unique. Am I the only person who felt his first and last name sound a little like something Snoopizzle made up? 😛

    • Rory

      It’s definitely a little different.

      And nope.

  • Wendy @ Wensend

    Morbid and intriguing? Sounds like my cup of tea. 🙂

    • Rory

      I’ve loved all of the books being republished by NYRB. This one wasn’t my favorite, but it definitely has some good parts (and the cover is the best).

      • Wendy @ Wensend

        I’ll look into the other books. Thanks for letting me know!

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