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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Countries That Don't Exist

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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To purchase Countries That Don't Exist

Title: Countries That Don't Exist
Author: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Genre: Novel
Written: (Eng. 2022)
Length: 263 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Countries That Don't Exist - US
Countries That Don't Exist - UK
Countries That Don't Exist - Canada
directly from: Columbia University Press
  • Edited by Jacob Emery and Alexander Spektor
  • With translations by: Anthony Anemone, Caryl Emerson, Jacob Emery, Anne O. Fisher, Elizabeth F. Geballe, Reed Johnson, Timothy Langen, Alisa Ballard Lin, Muireann Maguire, Benjamin Paloff, Karen Rosenflanz, Alex Spektor, and Joanne Turnbull.

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing variety from a fascinating writer

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 5/10/2021 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "With a playful blend of logic and fantasy, Krzhizhanovsky's works defamiliarize everyday concepts. Readers interested in the crossover between art and philosophy will be rewarded." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Barely published during his lifetime, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky finally began to get his due after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- and, in more recent years, even in English translation, with half a dozen volumes of his stories now available in English (and another to follow later this year), as well as one of his dramas. The latter volume includes a selection of his essays on theater, but Countries That Don't Exist now presents a considerably broader selection of his non-fiction.
       Each of the fourteen sections here -- consisting of complete essays, excerpts of longer works, as well as selections from his notebooks -- has a helpful brief introductory piece by its translator. (There are a baker's dozen translators involved, with only Joanne Turnbull doing double-duty; Krzhizhanovsky's own advice, from his notebooks, was: "A translator must be an accompanist, not an improviser (accompanying the original, the author)", and these thirteen seem to have done so quite well here.) The pieces were originally written from 1912 through the Second World War, basically spanning Krzhizhanovsky's entire writing life; among them is also The Poetics of Titles, "the only book to be credited to Krzhizhanovsky during his lifetime" (presented here in its relatively short entirety).
       Krzhizhanovsky was deeply interested in philosophy, and several of the essays focus on philosophical questions -- with similar philosophical concerns and issues also finding their way into many of the other pieces, as, indeed, they inform so much of his fiction as well.
       In 'Idea and Word', he observes just how difficult it is to adequately present anything in writing:

     And yet the slightest attempt to convert any meaningful idea (of one's own -- this is the main thing) into words leads inevitably to the thesis: for pure thought, all human languages are foreigners.
       In 'Art and Ergo' Krzhizhanovsky juxtaposes science and art -- science as demystifying, "a systematic mystery-destroyer", in contrast to enmystifying art. He, of course, emphasizes the value of art -- and notes:
The soul looks to art to protect it from the mind, from science that "explains" everything to the soul, up to and including the soul itself. The soul of our century craves not truth but mystery.
       Beside pieces on two authors -- Edgar Allan Poe and George Bernard Shaw -- there are a number of others specifically on literature, from 'A Philosopheme of the Theater' to a consideration of 'The Poetics of Titles' and an outline-prospectus of 'A History of Unwritten Literature' (which would surely have been a wonderful book). His tour of 'Countries that Don't Exist' -- also focused on the literary -- is an entertaining dive into these, while 'A History of Hyperbole' -- again, a proposal for a book -- is a compact but detailed overview (leaving one to again lament what might have been, if he had been able to make a complete book out of it).
       Several "Physiological Sketches" of 'Moscow in the First Years of the War' are -- relatively -- more conventional pieces of reportage and observation, though even here the Krzhizhanovskian shines through, as in the lovely episodic 'The Girls by the Water'.
       A more creative take is found in the dialogue-piece 'The Dramaturgy of the Chessboard: On the Grounds of Paradox", which opens:
     BLACK. b5 b4.
     WHITE. Kg1 g2.
     BLACK. b4 b3. If I were in your king's shoes, I would have already shed my crown.
     WHITE. Is that so ?
       The final piece provides a look into 'Krzhizhanovsky's Writer's Notebooks', with a few story-titles, some slightly more fleshed-out story ideas (e.g.: "A play: John and Joan (Falstaff and Jeanne d'Arc)"), and a selection of 'Epigrams and Aphorisms' (including: "The epigraph is the epigone of the epigram"). The aphorisms include both general ones ("I respect God for not existing") to ones specific to the Soviet condition and the times, such as:
     We resemble people who walk at nighttime on the sunny side of the street, thinking it's warmer there.
       Occasionally, his own sad situation pokes through ("A dream: my manuscripts being interred in the garbage can"). But perhaps he sums up his situation best in the lovely:
     I'd quite like to exit literature (and conscience), but I don't know where the door is.
       Countries That Don't Exist is a welcome addition to the body of work by Krzhizhanovsky now available in English -- though it's still hard not to say: never enough. The selection is a broad and varied one, making for enjoyable reading; for better and worse, it' s something of a grab-bag -- but with Krzhizhanovsky one wants to grab as much as possible, so it's great to see such a selection of his non-fiction now available in English as well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 February 2022

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Countries That Don't Exist: 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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© 2022 the complete review

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