Stravaging “Strange”

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Pub Date 28 Feb 2023 | Archive Date 01 Jun 2023

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Description

“I’m not on good terms with the present day,” Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky once mused, “but posterity loves me.” Virtually unknown during his lifetime and unpublishable under Stalin, he now draws comparisons to Beckett, Borges, Gogol, and Swift. This book presents three tales that encapsulate Krzhizhanovsky’s gift for creating philosophical, satirical, and lyrical phantasmagorias.

“Stravaging ‘Strange’” details the darkly comic adventures of an apprentice magus: lovesick, he imbibes a magic tincture to reduce himself to the size of a dust mote, the better to observe the young lady in question. He stumbles across a talkative king of hearts, a gallant flea, a coven of vindictive house imps, and his romantic rival along the way to a cinematic dénouement. “Catastrophe” wryly parodies Kant’s philosophy: An old sage decides to extract the essence from all things and beings in a ruthless attempt to understand reality—and chaos ensues. “Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki,” set in Berlin, Paris, London, and Moscow, recounts the absurd trials of an otherworldly outsider of uncertain nationality and unfixed profession with boundless curiosity but scant means.

This book also includes excerpts from Krzhizhanovsky’s notebooks—aphoristic glimpses of his worldview, moods, humor, and writing methods—and reminiscences of Krzhizhanovsky by his lifelong companion, Anna Bovshek, beginning with their first meeting in Kiev in 1920 and ending with his death in Moscow in 1950.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887–1950) was born in Kiev and moved to Moscow in 1922, where he became known in literary circles thanks to the readings he gave of his modernist texts. Krzhizhanovsky’s creative vision ran counter to the dictates of Soviet censorship, and not until four decades after his death could his works begin to be published. His works in English translation include Countries That Don’t Exist: Selected Nonfiction (Columbia, 2022).

Joanne Turnbull’s translations of Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction include Memories of the Future, Autobiography of a Corpse, and The Return of Munchausen.

“I’m not on good terms with the present day,” Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky once mused, “but posterity loves me.” Virtually unknown during his lifetime and unpublishable under Stalin, he now draws...


Advance Praise

"It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century."

—Robert Chandler, The Financial Times

"Krzhizhanovsky is often compared to Borges, Swift, Poe, Gogol, Kafka, and Beckett, yet his fiction relies on its own special mixture of heresy and logic...phantasmagoric."

—Natasha Randall, Bookforum

"Krzhizhanovsky is unmatched for the droll humor with which he fictionalizes philosophers, from Kant to the imaginary Katafalaki. 'Logic for children,' he wrote in his notebook; yes, children of the universe, old as we are, and still bewildered. I am so grateful for his gentle pathos in the face of great odds."

—Ange Mlinko, author of Venice: Poems


"It is now clear that Krzhizhanovsky is one of the greatest Russian writers of the last century."

—Robert Chandler, The Financial Times

"Krzhizhanovsky is often compared to Borges, Swift, Poe, Gogol...


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Featured Reviews

Book Review - Stravaging "Strange" by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky; translated Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This was an ARC provided by NetGalley.

This book is made up of 3 stories :

Stravaging "Strange" (1924) - This tells the fantastical tale of "miniaturisation, maturation and loss". Our magus takes a tincture which makes him the size of a dust mite. He meets the King of Hearts, house imps, and various creatures within a watch (as you do) - but to me, it is ultimately a tale of love, jealousy, and revenge. There are clear influences from HG Wells Invisible Man and Swifts Gullivers Travels.

Catastrophe (1919-22). The synopsis states that this is a wry parody of Kant's philosophy, and I'll just have to take their word for it as this one went over my head. My knowledge of philosophy is limited to the ancient greats of Plato and Aristotle and I had no idea what was going on 🤔

Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki (1933). This was my favourite, not least because our pragmatist was entirely reminiscent of Don Quixote with foolish naivety and eternal optimism. We follow Gorgis as he travels from Russia to Berlin to Paris and to London on various endeavours not often successful.

This book also includes exerpts from the authors notebook and reminiscences from his companion, Anna Bovskek. I found these equally if not more fascinating and provided extra layers and insight to the stories - especially when you look at the context of the time they were written (following WW1, the Russian Revolution, advances in science).

This is a book you could re-read and take different meanings from every time. A solid 4/5 for me.

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Oh, dear. This book was something, something like Alice in wonderland for adults.
Alice in wonderland, meets Flatland, meets Kafka, meets Gogol,

I almost feel like all one needs to know about this author is that in his notes for future works he out down things like “briefcase carriers”, “marvelousl adventures inside a manual of logic” and, possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever read, “Yes, I love myself; but it seems my love is unrequited.”

Krzhizhanovsky was a new name to me and he seems to have struggled to get published and find success, which is a shame because this is mind boggling and fantastical stuff, it is inventive yet emotionally resonant, and just takes the strangeness of Gogol’s legacy into a new era.

The first story was probably the best, “Stravaging ‘Strange’” which is in essence the Alice in Wonderland story of drinking something and shrinking in size and wacky adventures ensues. Although in this case it is more horrifying run ins with dust-Imps who whisper in peoples ears, being trapped, becoming corrupted by your desires, getting lost in a clock having to fight against time bacilli, and finally murder. Some of this stuff was truly nightmare stuff, while highly entertaining at once. Who thinks of stuff like this?

“Before my wanderings in watch-face land, I had thought that the concepts of order and time were inseparable: my own experience debunked that fiction invented by metaphysicians and watchmakers. In fact, there was more chaos than order! True, almost every Second, say, having plunged its stinger into a person’s brain, would dart away and slip back under the watch face glass to life out its life in complete idleness and peace. But sometimes time bacilli, having fulfilled their purpose, would refuse to yield to the new swarms come to relieve them; they would continue to to parasitism a person’s brain and thoughts, aggravating old bites with their empty stingers.”

After which the main character stars imagining a vaccine against time.
It is a peculiar story to say the least.
Then there was “Catastrohpe” which was a chaotic little interlude.

And then came a story about Gorgis Katafalaki which was strangely moving and sad, about a man who keeps trying to be as remarkable as he believes himself and his thoughts to be, but flitting from one field to another, trying to make it in a world that’s as unstable as he is.

“Those words stuck in Katafalaki’s mind. He had no intention of becoming lost. People like him did not grow on trees. We’re he to lose himself, Gorgis Katafalaki, in the metropolitan maelstrom, where would you find another?”

And I agree, where would you find another dedicated investigator of haustology…

“….a haustologist has to catch yawns hidden behind palms, to hunt for them them under pursed cracks of mouths, to trace the isopropy of haustus in moist bulging eyes or driven inside quivering skin. (…) Here the investigator’s thinking ran into a knotty problem: the statistical tabulation of yawns.”

Basically, one of his fields of study - among others - is the study of yawns. It is as hilarious as it is bizarre, but it also feels like an apt commentary of academica as a lot of it does focus on ridiculously specific things that you wouldn’t imagine anyone studying or for what purpose.

All in all, this book was bloody brilliant and a terrifically confusing way to spend a day,
Do you like to feel slightly bemused and confused about what you’re reading?
Do you like things strange and a bit peculiar, steeped in the harshness of reality?
Well, this might be for you.

I’m convinced that this author will one day be recognized as someone quite brilliant and sadly unrecognized.

I am so grateful to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this ARC, in exchange for a review, I recently discovered CUP’s Russian library series, after surprisingly finding that they had published a modern copy of Avvakum Petrovich, and immediately started collecting these for more money than I care to admit. It is quite an extensive library and they are my Pokémon’s, gotta catch them all! Can’t wait for this to be published so I can add it to my shelf and revisit whatever it was that I just read… and maybe have some nightmares about my boyfriend drinking funny colored tinctures and getting small enough to crawl into the skin folds by my cuticles,,, urgh.

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The word stravaging means to roam, ramble or wander. This book contains whimsical, fantastic stories that pulled me along in in rapidly moving narratives about charachters who indeed have strange stravagings. The first concerns a mage's student who, much like Alice, shrinks to a miniscule size and has a series of improbrabable adventures.

In another the main charachter Gorgis Katafalki pinballs around Europe in search of a profession, propelled by the quirky interactions he has with random people. He is at times a sketcher of yawns, a dentist with some very sketchy training, a meteorologist in training, the founder of a new Soviet republic of one and the walker of all London streets.

Written in the time of Stalin's rule, the action in these stories takes place in relatively confined spaces, the meaningful interaction for the most part take place inside the charachters themselves. They are equally appropriate the confined world of the pandemic.

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I was really looking forward to this one. I love the dark nature of Russian literature - particularly the bleak dry humorous fatalism that is frequently found lurking in the corners. I definitely found elements of the author's wit and wry humor to suit my taste here, but a lot of the writing was kind of Vonnegut-esque in it's meanderings and that's where I kept getting lost... I need my narrative a little more structured than this, but if you are willing to follow an unusual path, this is definitely worth taking a look at.

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Stravaging "Strange" (1924) - This tells the fantastical tale of "miniaturisation, maturation and loss". Our magus takes a tincture which makes him the size of a dust mite. He meets the King of Hearts, house imps, and various creatures within a watch (as you do) - but to me, it is ultimately a tale of love, jealousy, and revenge. There are clear influences from HG Wells Invisible Man and Swifts Gullivers Travels.


This book also includes exerpts from the authors notebook and reminiscences from his companion, Anna Bovskek. I found these equally if not more fascinating and provided extra layers and insight to the stories - especially when you look at the context of the time they were written (following WW1, the Russian Revolution, advances in science).

This is a book you could re-read and take different meanings from every time. A solid 4/5 for me

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If you're seeking short stories of literary fiction, this is not it. This will probably appeal most to Fantasy and fairly tale fans. The stories are unpredictable and well-constructed. This is from a talented writer.

I really appreciate the free ARC for review!!

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This is a curious collection of three stories by the Ukrainian-Russian author, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. The first "Stravaging 'Strange'" (written in 1924) is an absurd fantasy about a man who takes a potion that can turn him into a microbe-sized miniature of himself. He talks to a king trapped in a paper playing card, fights neurons in the brain of an adulterer, is frozen in time, and discourses with an ancient Roman in faltering Latin. He muses about logic and syllogisms and repeatedly thinks about the nature of time and space but ultimately it is a hapless tale about romance and betrayal. The second story, "Catastrophe" (1919-1922), is a more absurdist cosmological tale about a thinker who ponders the universe but, when he decides to think about the world, is met with resistance (the books revolt and hide their contents). Finally, the third "Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki" (1933), is a collection of anecdotes about a muddle-brained idiot ("he wears rose-colored glasses that might fall off but not break"), wandering across Europe with just thirty German words and minimal worldliness. He is confused by an encyclopedia of authors and, when finds the postnominal "Derselbe" repeated throughout, decides to travel to Berlin to find the prolific author--but accidentally becomes a brief figure of the conservative movement. Later he is hoodwinked into marrying a woman under the misapprehension that she is someone else. Finally Time asks for his wisdom teeth to be extracted. Katafalaki wants to be a polymath but he winds up as a vagabond dentist.

Krzhizhanovsky is a bewildering writer. His use of phantasm, buffoon characters and surreal plots is reminiscent of Gogol. His style of illogical whimsy also reminds me a lot of Lewis Carroll as well. But Krzhizhanovsky has a distinctive style of self-lampooning melancholy (I particularly liked the line "Of course I love myself, but it's an unrequited love"). There's a comic absurdism. In "Catastrophe" as the narrator describes the revolt of the universe, he lists a variety of inapposite catastrophes ("divided souls, smashed crockery, spilt soup"). He has a gift for aphorism ("The thing I know about Truth is that when we meet she does not bow", these are drawn from his notebooks and collected in the final section of the book). Ultimately, these stories are not simply parables of post-revolution Russia; they are the tragicomic caricatures of a mediocre Socrates never able to understand the world around him.

Thanks to netgalley for the chance to read this fantastic collection--I only wish the publishers had included more stories.

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The three novellas in this collection are all deeply disorienting and equally remarkable to read. Cause-and-effect are nearly absent--instead what carries the stories along from sentence to sentence is a sort of internal longing, maybe, ever-present in the narrator--a striving for connection and understanding. It felt like a singular voice, reaching out for a connection to another thinking person, while at the same time doubting there was such a connection to be found. The stories felt lonely. That the author of them felt lonely, that is--that the intellect behind the words had thrown off any belief that anyone was listening--and in this resigned state resolved to write whatever the hell he wanted. Like throwing a message in a bottle out to sea. Translator Joanne Turnbull found the bottle. I had the feeling as I read that Krzhizhanovsky had reached the perfect listener, across time, and through her translation I was also compelled to listen. Her word choices are delightfully archaic and I can't help but think they are the perfect choices to convey to me the sense of the original. The disorientation of the original. Stravaging Strange is an incomparable read in the most literal sense possible and it's a must-read for anyone who values the feeling "i've never read anything like this before.'

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I was given access to an ARC of this edition through NetGalley, having requested it after reading and enjoying the recent edition of Poplavsky's Homeward from Heaven.
Krzhizhanovsky is an together different trip, but also a very enjoyable one, if the reader is comfortable with lyrical and weird plots. This is a bewildering book by an author that reveals himself quite bewildering and maybe bewildered by the world, despite never giving up on trying to be himself.
This book collects 3 of his stories. The first - Stravaging Strange - is like Carroll's Alice in Wonderland meets Kafka and lets Gogol tell the tale. The second - Catastrophe - is a philosophical but very satirical comment on the effort of making sense of one's whole reality. The third - Material for a life of Gorgis Katafalaki - is even harder to characterise: the reader is shown a kind of biography of a man who has a mixture of delusions and dreams that lead him on a continued effort and hope of becoming someone remarkable, only to end up where he couldn't have imagined after an accumulation of incidents.
Together with the stories told by Krzhizhanovsky's companion, Anna Bovshek, and some loose quotes and aphorisms at the end, this book is a good insight into who this author was. A person on a seemingly never-ending discovery of himself and the world, without ever losing sight of who he is and how that keeps him at odds with the expected, travelling not only through the world but also between the odd mixture of self-deprecation and epic purpose.

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Stravaging “Strange”

[Blurb goes here]

Let me start by copy/pasting a quote from the Soviet era author: "I’m not on good terms with the present day, but posterity loves me." Maybe if you came across these words in the 1920s, you would either think the man to be full of himself, or you would readily ignore him. These words are an echo from the past that prove themselves to be right on the mark. Krzhizhanovsky is a superb author.

This collection of stories dwell on the fantastic. The first one, "Stravaging (to roam, to wander) Strange", asks the question: what if a potion were to make you as small as a dust mote? The apprentice mage that ingest the liquid, meets with all sort of characters, some a danger to himself, some telling their tale, some intent on helping him: house imps whispering secrets to the house's inhabitants. The King of Hearts from a deck of cards, who lost his kingdom and former three dimensional shape. Time basili, when traveling through the inner parts of a watch while mulling over a "Time Vaccine". It is through this adventure that the author deals with subjects such as infatuation, love, infidelity and loss.

While, at times, the stories on the book get a bit confusing, all are kin on detailing every aspect surrounding the characters with great precision. Something not to be taken lightly, since it's hard to find in today's myriad of literary works. Also, not something meant to be read in one sitting, as it's meant to be savored.

It's to be noted that this book includes excerpts from the author's notebooks, one such, is a treaty on the study of yawns. The mind of this man is worth exploring through his short tales and musings.

His memories of the time spent with his long life companion, Anna Bovshek, give you glimpses into his psyche, and further insight into this collection.

This is a read to explore, to enjoy. I can recommend it enough.

Thank you for the advanced copy!

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