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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Letter Killers Club

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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To purchase The Letter Killers Club

Title: The Letter Killers Club
Author: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Genre: Novel
Written: (1926) (Eng. 2011)
Length: 120 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Letter Killers Club - US
The Letter Killers Club - UK
The Letter Killers Club - Canada
The Letter Killers Club - India
Le club des tueurs de lettres - France
  • Russian title: Клуб убийц букв
  • Translated by Joanne Turnbull
  • With an Introduction by Caryl Emerson
  • First published in Russian in 1990, and in French in 1993

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Our Assessment:

A- : wonderful ideas, nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 3/2/2012 Scott Esposito
TLS . 31/8/2012 Eric Naiman

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)nother successful synthesis of his passions for experimental narratives and traditional literary pleasures. (...) But though the stories in The Letter Killers Club show great strength, their diverse nature, plus the very light scaffolding that holds them all together, makes the book feel as diffuse as a collection of short stories. A reader must hunt for the novel’s core. This search is not helped by the book’s conceit for binding these stories into a larger work, which is given only flimsy support and at times feels contrived." - Scott Esposito, The National

  • "By fleeing Soviet realia, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky climbs up into the rarefied air of what some would call world literature. It is hard to play on that ghostly pitch, before empty stands with a teleplastic ball." - Eric Naiman, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Letter Killers Club imagines a group of emphatically non-writers -- creative souls focused solely on story, creators of "conceptions" brought to bloom but never set down in written or printed form. The narrator is introduced to the group who practice this -- this 'letter killers club' - by a once very successful writer who has abandoned writing and now fights against the tyranny of the written word:

Once profligate with my phantasms, I began hoarding them and hiding them from inquisitive eyes. I kept them all here under lock and key, and my invisible library reappeared: phantasm next to phantasm, opus next to opus, edition next to edition -- they began to fill these shelves
       It is a "garden of conceptions" he is tending here -- the ultimate in ephemera -- and the narrator is invited to witness the weekly sessions where the 'letter killers' gather to tend to it. There they recount their inventions -- telling stories. Unmoored -- since they are not fixed on the page -- the stories tend to get out of hand, taking on lives of their own, with characters taking matters into their own hands or slight changes in the tales changing their outcomes. Indeed, the premise is, in part, a mere excuse for Krzhizhanovsky to allow his own imagination to run wild (which he was very. very good at).
       The narrator admits early on: "I'm afraid I am not very good with words", but there's a reason he gets drawn into this odd round -- and, as readers can't help but note, he is narrating a written text, and in recording the conceptions of those in the letter killers club his actions are the very anti-thesis of their ideal. Krzhizhanovsky neatly and beautifully resolves that little conundrum, the narrator admitting: "As a writer I'm all thumbs, it's true" -- but finding that he nevertheless serves a purpose.
       Krzhizhanovsky allows for some debate about the focus on the unwritten word even among the club-members; one admits:
A conception without a line of text, I argued, is like a needle without a thread: it pricks, but does not sew. I accused the others and myself of fearing matter. That's just what I called it: matterophobia.
       The conceptions -- and what happens with them -- are quite entertaining (including a variation on Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that features a bifurcated Guilden and Stern)), but it's the sheer passion Krzhizhanovsky conveys, of the magic of storytelling, that is the most appealing thing about his fictions. Krzhizhanovsky's wild conceptions really do seem to have a life of their own, and his veneration of story and storytelling is beautifully conveyed -- as when one club-member begins his tale:
     This time the key and the floor belonged to Tyd. Upon receiving them, he inspected the key's steel bit, as though searching for a theme in its scissure. Then, shifting his attention to the words, he began carefully extracting them one after another, inspecting them and weighing them. The words came slowly at first, then faster and faster, all jockeying for position; Tyd's sharp cheekbones bloomed with ruddy blotches. All faces turned towards the storyteller.
       A character in one of the tales laments:
Men's minds have become as coarse and flat as this field: it's easier to cackle than to think. Where are the syllogisms of the great Stagirite, the definitions of Averroes, Erigena's hierarchy of ideas ? People no longer know how to treat ideas: rather than look an idea in the eye, they peek under its tail
       Krzhizhanovsky knows how to treat ideas, and The Letter Killers Club is yet another example of the wondrous and yet practical imagination he possessed (or that possessed him). This novel is all the more poignant, too, because Krzhizhanovsky's remarkable conceptions themselves almost suffered a fate that would be welcomed only by members of the letter killers club: they were essentially long lost, barely existing in printed form for decades as he was hardly allowed to publish during Soviet times. Fortunately, some of his work is now available even in translation (even if this volume was already published in French back in 1993, at the beginning of the Krzhizhanovsky-renaissance, which has been a long time coming everywhere, but especially in the US and UK).
       The Letter Killers Club is important, remarkable, and unique fiction, by a major writer.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 February 2012

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The Letter Killers Club: Reviews: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Other books by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (Sigismund Krzyzanowski, Сигизмунд Доминикович Кржижановский) lived 1887 to 1950. He was a prominent but largely unpublished literary figure in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

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