Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy, The Letter Killers Club

In 1920s Moscow, a secret society meets every Saturday night, identifying each other by nonsense syllables such as Rar, Zez, and Das. The ritual is the same each week: they arrive to a bare apartment with empty shelves and take their accustomed seats, a fire is lit in the fireplace, and the appointed member begins to speak. More precisely, he begins to “conceive” of themes while the others listen. Nothing is written down since, as the President of the club maintains:

Writers, in essence, are professional word tamers; if the words walking down the lines were living creatures, they would surely fear and hate the pen’s nib as tamed animals do the raised whip.

and

Oh, how I hated all those people slitting open the latest literary journal with their paper knives, surrounding my flogged and exhausted name with tens of thousands of eyes. I’ve just remembered a tiny incident: a street, a little boy on the frozen pavement hawking letters for galoshes, and my immediate thought: both his letters and mine will end up underfoot.

Then I made up my mind: to shut down the inkwell lid and return to the kingdom of free, pure, and unsubstantiated conceptions.

The Letter Killers Club is told from the point of view of an interloper, someone without experience either as a storyteller, writer, or conceiver, who has been included in the group to determine if he is able to grasp the meaning behind the conceptions or if the club is simply a group of eccentrics sitting in a room once a week. After a series of upheavals strike the group the narrator sat down to record the five conceptions he saw. First, there is the conception of Hamlet whether the actors Guilden and Stern are competing for the Role (the lead part), then one about The Feast of the Ass, in which a love story is hijacked by profane rites. The third conception (my favorite) is a dystopian future where biochemists discover a way to create “exes,” decoupling the mind and body so that the body becomes a clumsy automated machine–first as a measure deemed moral to protect society from and use madmen, later an experiment run amok. Fourth is a conception about whether the mouth is for speaking, kissing, or eating, a crime punished by forcing abstention from the preferred action, and the equivalent withering of each mouth. Lastly, there is a conception about a dead Roman scribe who was buried without his obol and is therefore no longer alive, but cannot afford to be dead.

The setting, with the conceivers sitting in a solitary room with nothing but chairs and a fire is also suggestive of an oppressive regime without actually being politically subversive. Each of the conceptions is poignant and touching in its own way, but the amalgam is faintly bizarre. Moreover, there are layers of irony in reading a book built on the premise that:

libraries have crushed the reader’s imagination, the professional writings of a small coterie of scribblers have crammed shelves and heads to bursting. Lettered excesses must be destroyed: on shelves and in heads. One must clear at least a little space of others people’s conceptions to make room for one’s own.

The conceivers talk about theme and draw from each other’s stories and their immediate surroundings, but even though only Rar (who is considered something of a deviant) draws from an explicit text, they all rely on things that they read to generate conceptions. They do not refer to the texts, though. The conceptions are not meant to rest on anything concrete or oral tradition, but be a direct, fleeting transfer of theme invoked by the speaker into those who hear it.

The Letter Killer’s Club is an odd little book that is densely webbed together. The president of the club asks the narrator on multiple occasions if he understood the theme of the individual conceptions (he answers in the affirmative) and while I enjoyed most of the vignettes quite a lot, I am not so sure that I did understand their themes so concretely. There is a broader theme that Krzhizhanovsky broaches about the importance of one’s own conceptions, but also the importance of letting the letters out when it is time for them to come, for they cannot in fact be killed.

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