Worlds within Words: A Translation of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s ‘The Rosary’

Published: May 12, 2014

“The creative legacy of Krzhizhanovsky, rising before our eyes entirely from nonexistence…is a unique case even in the history of our culture which, to put it lightly, has not stinted on the excommunication of artists who could have become its pride,” writes Vadim Perelmuter in the introduction to the first of five volumes of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s collected works.[1] Perelmuter, a poet and literary historian, discovered over three thousand typed pages[2] in the practically unpublished writer’s archive in the 1970s[3] and spent several decades making sure those pages finally saw the light of day. Krzhizhanovsky wrote, “I am at odds with the present, but eternity loves me,”[4] and thanks largely to Perelmuter’s efforts, these words ring true.

I. The Writer in—and beyond—His Time

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in 1887 to a Polish Catholic family in the outskirts of Kiev.[5] After studying law at Kiev University, Krzhizhanovsky worked as an assistant barrister before abandoning law to lecture on the history and theory of literature, theater, and music, and to write.[6] Soon after moving to Moscow in 1922, he gained recognition in the city’s literary circles.[7] Over the course of the next three decades, he wrote prolifically, producing six collections of short stories, many uncollected stories, journals, essays, drama, translation, and literary criticism.

Although “at odds with the present,” Krzhizhanovsky “was inextricably linked to his time.”[8] He embraced wordplay, which gained ground as “a serious poetic medium”[9] in early twentieth century Russia. This and other elements of his technique, such as his use of punning and “the realization of metaphor,” show the influence of the devices and theories of formalism.[10] He also shared with contemporary Andrey Bely and futurist poets like Velimir Khlebnikov an interest in the relationship between words’ forms and meanings and made extensive use of sound association.[11] But Krzhizhanovsky had his own style, which he called “experimental realism.”[12] In “Реализм и гипербола” (“Realism and Hyperbole”), a section of the longer essay “Фрагменты о Шекспире” (“Fragments on Shakespeare”), Krzhizhanovsky describes experimental realism as realism in which hyperbole acts as a “literary microscope [italics in the original]” in which the exaggerated proportions of an event, an emotion, or an object bring it nearer to the reader.[13] Ratios and relationships remain unchanged, and details are exact. Experimental realism, Krzhizhanovsky argues, is “the realism of Bacon and Shakespeare.”[14] The playwright creates “laboratory conditions” for his characters, whose reactions, though magnified, are very real.[15]

With the exception of his articles on Shakespeare and Shaw, published in the latter half of the 1930s, almost none of Krzhizhanovsky’s work made it into print during his lifetime.[16] Editors consistently rejected his submissions, citing ideological reservations, and, in 1932, writer Maxim Gorky dismissed Krzhizhanovsky’s stories as overly philosophical and inappropriate to the time.[17] Krzhizhanovsky bemoaned his “literary bad luck,” but would not “compromise either himself or his work.”[18] His works were not readily accepted by editors after his death in 1950, either.[19] Perelmuter’s first publications of Krzhizhanovsky’s short stories in the 1980s marked the beginning of scholarly recognition of his fiction. This recognition was not widespread, however, perhaps in part because “the publication of [Krzhizhanovsky’s] works beginning in the late 1980’s [sic] coincided with the appearance of a plethora of rediscovered works from the literary heritage.”[20] Perelmuter began publishing the collected works of Krzhizhanovsky in 2001, with the last of the five volumes appearing in 2010. During those same years, English translations of Krzhizhanovsky were published for the first time. There are now published translations of 18 of Krzhizhanovsky’s short stories and one novella, all by translator Joanne Turnbull.[21] These translations are exciting developments in the continued life of Krzhizhanovsky’s work, but they have only begun to scratch the surface of his creative legacy.

II. Threading New Words onto “The Rosary”

“Чётки” (“The Rosary”), written in 1921, is the eleventh story in the 29-story collection “Сказки для вундеркиндов” (Tales for Wunderkinds). In 1924, the publishing house Денница (Morning Star) accepted the collection, then consisting of only 24 stories, for publication. The company soon went bankrupt, however, and folded.[22] The first version of “Сказки для вундеркиндов,” the earliest collection of his prose, was written just before Krzhizhanovsky left Kiev for Moscow. The reading he gave of these stories in 1922 marked his Moscow debut.[23] First published in 1990 in the journal “Человек”[24] (Mankind), “Чётки” appeared with all 29 stories of “Сказки для вундеркиндов” in 2001, in the first volume of collected works compiled by Perelmuter. My translation of “The Rosary” is based on the text as it appears in this volume.[25]

Throughout “The Rosary,” Krzhizhanovsky’s prose embodies a central theme: a simultaneous conflict between and confluence of the tangible and the abstract. In the story’s opening paragraph, the narrator compares the safety of the man-made clutter of the city to the vertigo-inducing open spaces of the country.[26] Krzhizhanovsky’s alliteration, sound repetition, and sparse punctuation in this paragraph carry the reader breathlessly through the text, calling to mind the country’s overwhelming vastness. At the same time, repeated sounds call attention to individual syllables and letters. Lengthy sentences make it difficult to stop reading, but easy to lose the sense of the sentence along the way and become caught up in a specific succession of letters, syllables, and words.

In an entry in “Краткая литературная энциклопедия” (Concise Literary Encyclopedia), Krzhizhanovsky wrote that a book’s reader “should unconsciously transform into…the typesetter of the book, recomposing the given text slowly, letter by letter, in his consciousness.”[27] For readers of “The Rosary,” concentrated and active participation in the text is not merely valuable; it is unavoidable. When, as readers, we get stuck on unexpected or invented words, when a repeated sound or a lost thread of sense forces us to direct our attention to the letters on the page, we are undergoing the transformation Krzhizhanovsky describes. We discover in the first paragraph of the story what the narrator discovers only gradually: that every detail encompasses a world, and one can turn away from the large and abstract whole and devote oneself to its minute pieces. It is, in fact, much easier to read “The Rosary” in this way than to follow the larger contours of the story. Though painstaking, the slow and detailed work of a close reading of this story provides an escape from the experience of floating with the story away from sense and toward the intangible.

These two strains of Krzhizhanovsky’s language — the tug of individual words, sounds, and letters, each promising a world of meaning, and the dizzying pull of the abstract and intangible — are crucial, I believe, to translating “The Rosary.” In his essay “The Task of the Translator,” critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin writes, “The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.”[28] The challenge of producing the pull and tug so essential to Krzhizhanovsky’s story in my translation confronted me with the first sentence of “The Rosary.”

The first sentence, in Russian, is:

Я всегда предпочитал прямые и ломаные линии городских улиц извиву и кружениям полевого просёлка.

Translated literally (in terms of semantics), this reads:

I have always preferred the straight and zigzagged lines of city streets to the curve and circling of the field’s country road.

Of course, to say that this renders the precise meaning of the Russian words would be untrue. Извив (curve) could be translated as bend or twist, and кружение (circling) as spinning, whirling, or twirling. It is also impossible to pare a word down to its precise meaning at all, for each word has its own texture, its own set of associations and echoes. Просёлок, for example, which I rendered above as “country road,” is a characteristically Russian compound word, combining the prefix meaning “through” or “across” with село (village). Yet село, a word that in the nineteenth century indicated a major peasant settlement, and in the Soviet Union designated a rural administrative-territorial unit,[29] is not captured by “village” or “the country.” The word просёлок, then, in fact means something quite different from “country road.”

The decisions I made in translating this sentence were governed by an examination of what Krzhizhanovsky does to and with his language in the original. The three instances of alliteration move the sentence melodiously forward; the fact that Krzhizhanovsky constructed the sentence such that no punctuation is necessary also contributes to the forward motion. The alliterative pairs simultaneously pull the reader back: they call attention to word choice, and the second word of each pair recalls the echo of the first, the echoes accumulating in the mind of the reader. The final alliterative pair, полевого просёлка, is similar to the first, предпочитал прямые, giving a circular structure to the sentence. The instances of alliteration mirror the precision of urban geometry and accentuate the lopsided and non-alliterative coupling of извиву (curve), and кружениям (winding). These two words, in the indirect and more winding dative case as opposed to the direct accusative of the previous pairs, express the organic, rather than logically constructed, contours of the countryside.

For all of these reasons, then, and not for the sake of “a vague alikeness between adaptation and original,”[30] I have maintained the alliterated pairs and some of the specific sounds in my translation. I ultimately translated the sentence as follows:

I have always preferred the precise and jagged geometry of city streets to the curve and circling of a rural road.

“Exact” meaning has in places been sacrificed, and the images created by the sentence in translation are not perfect replicas of the images created by the original. In his essay titled “Translating Poetry,” Yves Bonnefoy writes, “the translator needs to be on his guard and to test the ontological necessity of his new images even more than their term-for-term (and therefore external) resemblance to those of the original poem.”[31] He must “come to see what motivates the poem” so that “the first intention and intuition…can be tried out anew in the other language.”[32] I have tested the new images that arise from my translation of this sentence against the motivation I discern behind the images in the original. I have also tried to maintain the rhythm and tone of the original sentence in its translation. These elements, too, are conveyors of intention and motivation, and are components of the pull toward the intangible that is as important as the tug of individual words and sounds in this story.

Capturing both the concrete and the abstract was my constant aim in translating “The Rosary.” I have preserved Krzhizhanovsky’s sentence, paragraph, and section divisions, and included dashes wherever he does. I have changed punctuation only when his is conventional in Russian and would be unconventional in English. Grammar presented a greater challenge, for Krzhizhanovsky uses grammatical forms and constructs particular to the Russian language to convey meaning or contribute to its musicality—the sound of a perfective verb ending echoed in other words, for instance, reiterates the rapidity of an action. Such instances cannot always be carried into English, but I have taken care in my rendering of the story’s grammar. Where possible, I have used the appropriate verbal aspect in the translation, though the imperfective is often wordier and more awkward in English than it is in Russian. Its wordiness slows the pace of the narrative, just as the imperfective aspect slows the motion of the action in the original. Fidelity in translating verbal aspect also preserves a distinctly Russian way of using language, and I like to feel the Russianness of the text through the translation. I have striven toward Benjamin’s ideal: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original.”[33]

The “experimental” element of Krzhizhanovsky’s “experimental realism” is evident not only in the plot, but also in the liberties he takes with language in “The Rosary.” In various places throughout the story, he strays from the rules of Russian grammar, alienates the reader with invented or unexpected words, and uses difficult and unnatural syntax. Such writing contributes to the challenge and the pleasure of translating this story. I have invented words to translate Krzhizhanovsky’s invented words. In general, I have pushed the syntax of the translation in the direction of the Russian syntax, both to preserve Krzhizhanovsky’s unique rhythm and for the sake of “allowing [the target] language to be…affected by the foreign tongue.”[34] While I could not replicate them, I have tried to reflect in English the “experiments” Krzhizhanovsky carries out on the Russian language.

Translator Amaia Gabantxo has described her work as that of a musician. She sees the original as a score; with her translation, she plays this score on the instrument of another language.[35] This metaphor can be extended to the challenge of capturing the tug toward individual words and the pull toward the abstract in Krzhizhanovsky’s story. A piece of music is made up of very specific components. If a musician changes a note in a composition from an A to a B, or from two quarter notes to a half note, he is not interpreting the piece; he is altering it. One can argue, though, about the extent to which other elements of a composition — the articulation of a note, for example — are essential to its nature. What are the fundamental, unchangeable units of Krzhizhanovsky’s text? The sounds of the words, their meanings, or their connotations? The instances of wordplay, or the specific words involved? Or do the fundamental units change, sometimes consisting of one of these elements, sometimes of another?

With each sentence, with each word, I have tried to answer these questions. Like dissonance and unexpected rhythms, surprising word choices and unusual grammar call attention to the components and the construction of the composition, making precision especially critical. I have also had to remember that Krzhizhanovsky’s story is more than a succession of words, just as a musical composition is more than a string of notes. Phrasing, intention, and elicited emotion are less tangible than notes, but are significant elements of any musical composition. Playing Krzhizhanovsky requires hitting notes as tangible, unique, and full of life as the beads on the old man’s rosary in the story. It also requires transmitting the phrasing, the feeling, and the shape of the music: the string holding the beads together. The string winds, is almost impossible to follow, and at times disappears from view—making its path all the more enticing, and its beads shine all the more magically.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s
“The Rosary”
by Sophia Rehm
Click here for the original Russian


I have always preferred the precise and jagged geometry of city streets to the curve and circling of a rural road. Even the suburban semblance of nature, with sagging, dusty grasses at the shoulder of a paved road, with thin-trunked, sickly stands of a dozen little birches, with woods where trees are interspersed with stumps, and on the blades of a fern, the stickum of torn paper — scares me. Nature’s vast, I am small: she is bored with me. And I with her. In the city, in the midst of the squares, brick verticals, cast iron and stone partitions thought up by us, — I, a thinker of thoughts and books, seem to myself somehow more significant and more necessary, while here, in the fields, set beneath the sky, vainly trying to tread-out the expanse, misplaced and tiny, I seem to myself ridiculed and offended. To nature out of a square of canvas, from the clutches of a frame, with, underneath, a glued-down label, I somehow, gritting my teeth, assent: here I look her.[36] But there, in the field lightly covered by sky, — she looks me, or rather, through me, to some personal, eternal distances that, to me, perishable, with a life the length of a blink, are foreign and unintelligible.

And on that day (it was a transparent September pre-evening) I walked out past the city limit not just, not so, not for the sake of a stroll, but after something: I needed to borrow from the skyfields for an hour or two a feeling of smallness and misplacedness. One place in the second chapter of my work, demanding just this emotion, would in no way give itself to me within walls. There was nothing to be done.

I had covered already close to a verst[37] from the city gates. The eye, accustomed to circling with the tangle of streets and walls, to squirming amidst the variegation, drawn to the fragmentedness and incoherence of city perception, vainly sought details and flashes: green — blue, sky — ground — and that’s all. Therefore the eye’s joy is understandable when it nonetheless succeeded, having run over the horizon, to finally find in the field’s expanses — a small thing: a man. The man somehow sprang up all at once and unexpectedly close: he stood in the trampled grass, at the edge of the road, concentratedly feeling with a stick along the ground. The stick patiently picked over and bended to the ground blade after blade of grass. The man (he was quite old), his already stooped back bowed to the ground, was evidently looking for something that had dropped into the grass: dangling from his nose, spectacles were discontentedly enrounding.

Coming abreast of the old man, I touched my hat.

– Can I help you?

The old man was not answering and bent down still lower to the grasses, — and suddenly the spectacles’ round glasses, following a flash of black rim, leapt into the grass. The old man was grasping at the air with his hands in bewilderment, looking as though along with the glasses he had dropped into the grass his very eyes. Quickly having bent down, I picked up, by their thin steel ear-loop, the spectacles:

– You see, there’s no need to be above help. Tell me, what did you lose?

For a long time the old man was wiping the dusty glasses:

– Here…in the grass — la#.

– What?

– That’s right, I dropped — A-sharp: from the first added ledger line.

And he again set about feeling in the grass. Amazed, following the movement of the stick, I noticed: in the green tangle of blades something suddenly gleamed with a bunch of glazy sparks: my hand outstretched to the sparks, I was holding, easily disentangled from the grasses, a tiny faceted vial: on a transparent facet — a little paper sticker; on the sticker the note — “A#3,” in the third octave. Maturity date — Aug. 1, ‘** — and something else — but I didn’t have time to finish reading: knuckly fingers greedily stretched to the find, the glasses of spectacles — to the glass of the vial.

– Ah yes, that’s her. Of course. I thank you.

On the bony shoulder of the old man hung a gray traveling sack: having cracked it open, he threw the vial into the sack and, taking a slow step, was continuing on his way. I walked beside him, keeping pace. Passing by along the ruts, dust roused around it, rolled a telega.[38]

– I still would like to know why you were talking about some kind of A-sharp. Since in the grass there was just a vial: an empty vial.

The old man, not answering, thrust his hand in his sack, and in his fingers again out-gleamed the faceted vial: holding it with his left hand at the little bottom, with his right he carefully turned the ground-in stopper and, slightly smiling, brought it up to my ear: a sad silvery-ringing note of a high very young female voice sounded from behind the glassy facet: a captured, as though ripped from someone’s voice, note — lasting and lasting — draining out in longing for the voice separated from it and powerlessly striking with the silver of trembling on the walls of the glassy prison.

In the vibration of the captured sound there was something strangely familiar: suddenly, footlight blazes were vivified, there began to swing in the black hole of the orchestra — up-down-up — the sharp tips of bows, driven by a pure soprano. Who? Answering, from the twilight of memory shone forth the colossal letters of affiches.

– Clara Reid, — I cried out, amazed, — it’s her A#!

The old man showed his teeth:

– Yes. And in the event of late payment…Let composers write her parts without A#: they know how.

And the vial, after a gleam of its facets, again disappeared. The old man was carefully tightening his straps.

– It’s cruel, — I muttered.

– You think so. Hm…Here I’ve got in my bag — it’s really just a note, not much — one of twenty-seven semitones, one twenty-seventh of a voice. And they tell me: it’s cruel. Well and you, creatures from under roofs, did you really not disensound the celestial sphere, not dumbify the angels and not take songs from the expanses; you circumtangled music with strings, pressed her down with a ceiling, tore out her tongue: is this not cruel…?

He lovingly ran a hand over his sack:

– Well, and as for the nasty little singer’s A# — enough of him dragging himself from ears to ears, from concert hall to concert halls: let him rest here, in the glass, let him wander in the fields for awhile, together with my traveling sack. You think I am keeping the pawn for myself. Oh no, — to the fields I return what from the fields has been seized: for it takes but a turn of this little stopper…Don’t you hear: the fields keep silent; slashed with ruts, stamped down and beaten, deafened by the clangs and crashes of your cities — the fields became mute. But yore…

For a minute or so we walked silently amidst pungent gingers, the green stitches of plantain and dust-drenched grasses. The old man slackened his step. He was, evidently, tired —his breathing was frequent and difficult. He glanced at me:

– But your thoughts are still in the vial.

– No, I’m thinking about you: who are you?

– I — am a man who is met in the fields. Only in the fields. And encountered by me one must answer: what does he seek in them?

The eyes of the old man were as forceful as his words.

I answered:

– I was sent into these marginal lands by book margins: I am here of their will. You see, how should I say…My pen, not I, it, needs words, words of smallness and misplacedness: there, in the city, they are in no way and nowhere to be gotten at. At our writing tables the word “я“[39] has outgrown mountains: it has pushed with its curved little legs into the ground, into an inky loop round the stars — but now, for maybe an hour or two, I need words of self-deprecation, of misplacedness in expanses. And so I came…

-Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, I understand, — the old man abstractedly chewed with his lips. — It might be ungrateful to outpay you with forsakenness for your help in searches. But if you want this… Strange, strange, are people from under roofs. Are you a philosopher?

– Sort of, a ponderer.

– Then… — having come to a halt, for a long time the old man dug with his hand in the traveling sack, — will this suit you?

The edges of the sack, stretched, let out the hand, squeezed into a pinch; in the pinch, threaded on a long thread of silvery glint, were glimmering large, white beadlets of a rosary.

At that instant the sun, cut across by the black of the horizon, having bent low to the ground, was gathering its last dropped rays. Along the moist evening grasses were sliding fog and twilight, — but nonetheless I discerned: the white beads on the knot-enjoined rosary threads were somehow unusually big.

– Strange rosary, — I was amazed, but the old man was already wrapping the present in a black kerchief of matte nap, extracted from the same sack.

Having pulled together its ends for the kerchief, he handed me the little bundle:

– Here.

We stood at the edge of a ravine. Along the ground, together with the fogs, were spreading, as a low rumble, distant church bells. The old man turned his face to the ravine:

– Right here, walking round the fields, I one day found a corpse: a young girl, a damsel. Around the neck — little blulets from fingers: strangled. In her eyes squeezed outwards I managed to catch sight of the tiny, glassified image of the tormentor. This, of course, is just a particular case. But did you ponder, ponderer, over the fact that all deaths are violent: a bullet in the heart, fingers round the throat, caverns in the lungs, decrepitude, woodened veins, — all are varieties of violence. Everything kills, seizes life, even joy. But the maximum of violence — is when the killer is: everything. As such. I am speaking about people fallen ill with…the world. Yes, there is indeed such an illness. And was it not of this that Socrates said: “To philosophize — is to be dying?” However, my present, — the old man barely touched the little bundle, — will explain without words.

And, having nodded at me, he suddenly turned sharply into the roadlessness; the grasses rustled at his feet; fog closed in.

I knew that nowhere nearby in the field was there any kind of dwelling. To where did the strange old man go off, and who was he, appearing in the fields? The answer, tied into the black kerchief, was in my hands. I quickly headed for the city.



Having drawn the lamp bud up closer, I untied the bundle: the black kerchief came unrolled; on its matte nap were glowing white the large, closely drawn-together beads.

“Strange rosary.” I cut the thread: two or three of the outside beads rolled on the table. I took one of them in my fingers: from my hand, straight at me, was staring, glassified-up and with a half-stuck-together white pupil, an eye. In disgust and fear I drew back from the table: it can’t be. No, it’s the truth: before me, on the black kerchief, in a serpentine bend outstretched the thread; on the thread, threaded on it by the holes of narrow pupils, lying in line — staring into each other — eyes of deadmen.

For a long time I didn’t know how to proceed. There came to mind the last words of the man, met in the fields.

Finally, I made up my mind. Somewhere in the cupboard, amidst mathematical and physical instruments, turned up an ophthalmoscope.

I unstrung, not without a feeling of squeamishness, one of the slimy eye-beads and drew it up toward the little mirror of the ophthalmoscope. At first I didn’t manage to discern anything through the black slit of the deadened pupil. But I wasn’t letting it out of my field of vision: bit by bit the hole of the pupil began to dilate, certain contours and spots showed through and began to loom on the incurvature of the retina: then they merged into one. I touched the screw of the ophthalmoscope, searching out with the little mirror the best beam angle and, little by little as though pushing with the living eye into the depths of the dead one, I saw: toward me were spreading glasslike-deathlike empty expanses. Neither patches, nor lines, nor even points. Tohu va vohu.[40] And at the same time — such tension, such fullness, that it was burning brain and eye.

“Strange, — I thought, squeezing my eyes shut for a minute, — after all, a retina, indeed even a dead one, still ought to give a reflection.”

I took from the table the shining lid of the inkwell and brought it closer to the broken beam of the instrument: nothing changed, nothing arose in the kingdom of the unmoving, which was glassily staring into me from the dead empty pupil: things had no power over it.

And the longer I looked — with a living pupil and into a dead one — the more peace entered into me from there. But the fact was too strange: it needed to be verified with a repeat of the experiment. Not breaking eye contact, I outstretched my hand to the table and mechanically seized the object first fallen into my fingers.

Now, as soon as the object entered the beam of the instrument, into my field of vision dimly started arising: through the glazy expanses was unrolling a gray road. On the road — the shield-like shell of a turtle: four short webbed feet slowly drag the shield. Behind, at a step’s distance, a naked warrior, with a shield at his left elbow, with shoulders tilted in a run: the runner’s muscles overknotted, his breathing draws apart and brings together his nipples. By quick bounds he throws his body forward, to pass the turtle. The latter doesn’t rush: four webbed feet sleepily shift under the shield. The warrior has drawn the last of his strength, he quickens his run, — but the shield of the turtle is still ahead. A minute, another: nothing changes. The now wrathful warrior, strenuously and brokenly breathing, tears off his run. Behind his back — a quiver and bow: having swept back the bowstring, he aims at the turtle’s body (it’s three feet from the point of the arrow) — the arrow has jerked in the air: its shaft trembles from the quickness of the flight, feathers pressed by the air’s flow, but between turtleshield and arrow — are still the same three feet. And the warrior once again begins his run.

I tore myself with difficulty from the vision. I did not understand: what could have disturbed the peace of thinglessnessI cast a glance. I had — directly opposite the eye drawn near to the ophthalmoscope — another eye glowing white. Then I understood: feeling along the table, I took another specimen from the old man’s collection; and the second eye, having been reflected by retina on retina, superimposed its own vision over the vision of the first.

I took them both and carefully threaded them by the holes of the pupils on the free end of the thread: “Sleep, Eleatics.”

It was clear: before me, on the black kerchief, threaded on the rosary thread, lay the eyes of deceased metaphysicists.

Agitation seized me. With a push of my palm I flung open the window: and from there too — out of the black overground fields — were staring thousands of intent eyes.

Closer to them, — at least by perhaps three feet; having unwound the cord of the lamp, I drew near, with the ophthalmoscope in my hands, to the windowsill: next in line was the third. Now I turned the little mirror in such a way as to tangle the short yellow beams of the lamp with the long beams of the stars.

Eye to eye: and all at once struck with bright blue-white light; the floorboards yanked themselves out from under my feet, dropping me into an abyss. In terror, not having had time even to cry out, I just squeezed my eyelids, but strangely, my back — was to the back of the chair, my soles — were firmly to the floor. Overcoming my fear, I carefully half-opened my eyes: at my very eyelashes, having tangled blue, white, emerald beams, were shining vast, flashing into the whole sky, fires. At first — only they; but, little by little, growing accustomed to the blinding blow of light, squeezing with my gaze through the weave of the beams, I began to distinguish: somewhere from afar was crawling toward my eye a weak yellow beam; the beam was threaded through a tiny square; on the square — a small little body, the height of a dot; screwing up my eyes, I stirred, striving to better perceive the misplaced dot; the little body also stirred. Still trying to get a good look, I lifted my hand, protecting my eye from the peripheral beams dimming my vision; and from the little body, too, a short little tentacle yanked itself out, attempting to cover it somewhat. Then I understood: before me was a world of inverse perspective, a world in which the seemingly small and distant — is huge and near, and the near and large shrivels, smallens and crawls away into the distance. Even before, in dreams, in premonitions, I knew about this world. Now I was seeing it; the toppled perspective was calling me: to enter it and to mount the crust of distant otherorbital planets, to live unburnt within its suns pushed away beyond the black voids of interplanetary space by the upright perspectives of this world of ours. I knew that an inverse perspective threatens with deaths: the abyss at a half pace from the traveler seems to him far and unreachable. But perishing in it is easy: for the body and the very “я” there, in the inverse world, seem distant, foreign and unnecessary.

I sharply pushed the ophthalmoscope away from me: once again the square of the window began coming at me, the beam of the lamp stole up to my eye, and the starry fires, having sucked in planes, contracted into tiny blue dots and burst into the black sky.

“Yes, the old man kept his word. Let’s continue with the experiment.”

But when, having unthreaded the fourth eye from the thread, I tried to bring it into the beam of the apparatus, the eye suddenly sharply yanked its pupil from the light. Thinking that the eyeball simply slid in my fingers, I fixed it in a metal clamp and was searching with the beam of the ophthalmoscope for the opening of its pupil. But the eye, continuing to resist, all at once tightly squeezed its pupil.

“Aha, so that’s how you are.”

Bringing tweezers close, I tried to force their point into the hole of the pupil: but the eye, desperately roving with its iris, was closing its edges. It looked as though it, repelling beam, tweezers, hand, was defending, with its last strength, some kind of world, hidden in itself for itself.

“You are in my hands, — I thought, turning the screw of the clamp. — One blow of the blade — and yours will be mine.”

In the cupboard I found a scalpel: bringing the blade to the eye grasped in the steel vise, I was going to plunge the steel: the eye of the metaphysicist didn’t flinch; not unclenching its pupil, not giving up its world, it was awaiting the blow. Suddenly the scalpel rang out against the floor. Someone’s thin fingers squeezed into my throat, and a new world, my world, tearing open my pupils, with sharp scalpels cutting into my brain, was entering me. Tears were flowing toward the settling-in universe, meeting with it at the outcurve of my eyelashes.

Meanwhile the eye, caught by the steel of the clamp and waiting to be slashed by a blade, was probably perplexed: it carefully cracked open its pupil, peering at me glassily with an unmoving stare. I freed the prisoner, took it in my fingers and suddenly — put my lips to the slimy chill of its enveloping tissue.

“Now let change the days and change be within the days: that which entered my eye does not know changes: glassified, etched in, forever, just as in these.”

I pressed my head to the black kerchief, I closened my own still living eyes to the dead eyes of the metaphysicists, in a quiet circle closed around me: sweet, sweet darlings, finally I too am dead, like you, finally I too am irrevocably alive, like you.

But it was time to finish. Having lifted my head, I gathered the eyes and gave them back to the thread. The thread I tightened in a knot.

I was probably very tired. A nervous reaction sharply turned my pegs, and I don’t remember where reality ended and sleep began. Precisely now, when the gift of the old man, having assumed its own original form, was dangling in a line of beads from my fingers, one extraordinarily simple thought finally made itself known: why the old man needed the semblance of a rosary. For if abacus beads on a rod are for counting out numbers, beads on a thread are for counting out prayers.

And, overcoming my tiredness, I set about the last experiment. My memory had long ago shed the words of prayers learned by heart in childhood. Barely managing to hook ends with beginnings, I began to revolve the ramshackle ourfathers — and all at once the eye, clutched in my fingers, tightening and petrifying, slid from the phalanx and down along the thread, I was continuing the mechanical rotation of words — and with each “amen” yet another eye, hardening and tightening, as a stony bead, fell downward. The monotony of the turns finally tangled my thoughts, my eyelids were sticking together, the rosary slipped from my hands: a short soft knock, the knock of stone on wood — was the last perception to reach my sleep-darkened consciousness.


Now I lead life from a chair. There is no point in going into the fields after expanses: expanses are everywhere — round me and in me. Every speck of dust is as significant as the sun. Before, everything beyond my window seemed to me a cheap little picture, glued to the glass from the outside. Now evenings I fling open the shutters straight into the stars and into thought: centuries were needed in order to understand these tiny specks. To conceive of them as worlds. But to understand — is not enough. It is necessary to see.

I rarely step over my threshold now. Having descended down, passing about ten houses, I usually turn into a narrow crooked alley: along both sides of the jagged line[41] of the alley, leading out to the grey oval of the gate and the yellow cross of a monastery, to the right and to the left —little wooden shops and trunks: everywhere on the crossbeams, slanted stands, little hooks — little icons, crosses, crucifixes, colored little icon lamps and rosaries — rosaries — rosaries. Rosaries everywhere: they hang like grapes, threaded on threads, glimmering with opal, red, black — from coral, rosewood, mother-of-pearl and agate — beads. The wind gently rocks on the hooks their lazy curves of beaded threads. Sometimes I go up to the rosary bundles, I examine, carefully touch them: yes, yes, just exactly like mine. I need only to close my eyes, and it seems: here orbits, stuck together with spun rotten threads, having submissively allowed themselves to be tied with a knot and wound round pitiful hooks, — having abandoned captivity, unroll their ellipses, and here coral beads, having flashed as blood-red suns, ascend to distant zeniths. Black agate pebbles swell into black planets, sliding along long, long rosary threads — from stars to stars.

I open my eyes, and once again: trunks, on the trunks, hooks, on the hooks, clusters of scarlet, white and black rosaries. But I do not believe my eye: for it only lied about the stars, showing them to me as tiny emeralds. Now, too, it lies.

Sometimes I walk farther: along the rotted wooden sidewalks, between a thousand worlds, being sold by people to people for some five- and ten-kopeck pieces, I enter — through the oval gate — under crosses: there — in the blue-gray fog of incense, by black icon faces and yellow candles — simple women — peasants, and between their gray-brown, cracked fingers — all the very same submissive, having allowed themselves to be tied into knots, orbits: on the orbits, pushed by a dirty fingernail, rayless, petrified, squeezed into tiny dots — powerless worlds.




Sophia Rehm would like to express her gratitude for the help of Professors Valentina Pichugin and Malynne Sternstein. Professor Pichugin, a native Russian speaker and a professional translator and interpreter from English into Russian, devoted many hours to guiding her through the process of translation and discussing Krzhizhanovsky’s language. Professor Sternstein introduced her to Krzhizhanovsky’s work and oversaw this project from beginning to end.


[1] Vadim Perelmuter, “Posle katastrofy,” in Sobraniye sochineniy v pyati tomakh, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, ed. Vadim Perelmuter (Saint Petersburg: Symposium, 2001), 1:64-65. Translated by author.
[2] Ibid, 65.

[3] Joanne Turnbull, introduction to Memories of the Future, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, trans. Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), xiv.

[4] Karen Rosenflanz, Hunter of Themes: The Interplay of Word and Thing in the Works of Sigizmund Kržižanovskij (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2005), 18.

[5] Perelmuter, “Posle Katastrofy,” 9.

[6] Ibid, 9-10.

[7] Ibid, 14.

[8] Rosenflanz, Hunter, iv.

[9] Ibid, 31.

[10] Ibid, 137.

[11] Ibid, 102, 46.

[12] Perelmuter, “Posle Katastrofy,” 54.

[13] “Fragmenty o Shekspire,” in Krzhizhanovsky, Sobraniye sochineniy, 4:376. Translated by author.

[14] Ibid, 377. Translated by author.

[15] Ibid, 378. Translated by author.

[16] Rosenflanz, Hunter, 12.

[17] Ibid, 14-16.

[18] Ibid, 8.

[19] Ibid, 16.

[20] Ibid, 20.

[21] The following volumes of translation have been published:

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse, trans. Joanne Turnbull with

Nikolai Formozov (New York: New York Review Books, 2013).

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Letter Killers Club, trans. Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov (New York: New York Review Books, 2011).

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future, trans. Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov (New York: New York Review Books, 2009).

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Seven Stories, trans. Joanne Turnbull (Moscow: Glas, 2006).

[22] Perelmuter, “Kommentarii,” in Krzhizhanovsky, Sobraniye sochineniy, 1:593.

[23] Ibid, 593.

[24] “Чётки” appeared in “Человек,” no. 6 (1990). See Perelmuter, “Kommentarii,” 618.

[25] My translation of “The Rosary” is based on the text of “Чётки” as it appears in Krzhizhanovsky, Sobraniye sochineniy, 1:164-175. The story can be found online here.

[26] For further discussion of the contrast between city and country in this story, and the role of the city in Krzhizhanovsky’s later work, see Perelmuter, “Kommentarii,” 619.

[27] Rosenflanz, Hunter, 24.

[28] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 77.

[29] Большая советская энциклопедия online, s.v. “Село,” accessed January 7, 2014,книги/БСЭ/Село/

[30] Benjamin, “Task,” 75.

[31] Yves Bonnefoy, “Translating Poetry,” in Schulte and Biguenet, Theories of Translation, 188.

[32] Ibid, 188.

[33] Benjamin, “Task,” 79.

[34] Rudolf Pannwitz, quoted in Benjamin, “Task,” 81.

[35] Amaia Gabantxo, “Translation Conversation with Laura Freixas and Amaia Gabantxo,” (Lecture, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, April 6, 2012).

[36] Here and in the next sentence, Krzhizhanovsky omits the preposition на (at) afterсмотреть (to look).

[37] An obsolete Russian unit of length, equal to about two-thirds of a mile.

[38] A four-wheel, typically horse-drawn cart.

[39] Я, [Yä] is Russian for “I.”

[40] Krzhizhanovsky’s word is безвидие, the Russian translation of the Hebrew phrase “Tohu va vohu,” the Biblical description of what existed before God said “Let there be light.” On the translation of “Tohu va vohu” into Russian, see Valentina Pichugin’s, “O Vyrazhenii ‘Suyeta Suyet’ v Russkom Yazyke,” Russian History/Histoire Russe 33 Nos. 2-3-4 (2006), 488.

[41] Russian сломанной линииrecalling the ломаные линии (translated as “jagged geometry”) of the first sentence. The echo, present in the translation, is stronger in the Russian.



Works by or about Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Krzhizhanovsky, Sigizmund. Memories of the Future. Translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov. New York: New York Review Books, 2009.

Krzhizhanovsky, Sigizmund. Sobraniye sochineniy v pyati tomakh. Compiled and edited by Vadim Perelmuter. 5 vols. Saint Petersburg: Symposium, 2001-2010.

Manskov, Aleksey Anatol’yevich. “Poetika ‘Muzykal’nyx novell’ S.D. Krzhizhanovskogo: intertekstual’nyy aspekt.” Candidate of Sciences diss., Barnaul, 2007. Web.

Perelmuter, Vadim. “Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Sobraniye Sochineniy v Pyati Tomakh. Chto  Dal’she?” Toronto Slavic Quarterly 19 (Winter 2007). Web.

Rosenflanz, Karen Link. Hunter of Themes: The Interplay of Word and Thing in the Works of  Sigizmund Kržižanovskij. Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature, vol. 67. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2005.

Literature on Translation

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Translated by Harry Zohn. In Schulte and Biguenet, Theories of Translation, 71-82.

Bonnefoy, Yves. “Translating Poetry.” In Schulte and Biguenet, Theories of Translation, 186-192.

Boyd, Brian and Stanislav Shvabrin, ed. Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry. Selected and Translated by Vladimir Nabokov. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2008.

Gabantxo, Amaia. “Translation Conversation with Laura Freixas and Amaia Gabantxo.” Lecture, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, April 6, 2012.

Harman, Mark. Translator’s Preface to The Castle, by Franz Kafka, xiii-xxiii. Translated by Mark Harman. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

Kundera, Milan. Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. Translated by Linda Asher. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.

Lefevere, André, ed. Translation—History, Culture: A Sourcebook. London, New York: Routledge, 1992.

Mitchell, Breon. Translator’s preface to The Trial, by Franz Kafka, xv-xxvi. Translated by Breon Mitchell. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

Pichugin, Valentina. “O Vyrazhenii ‘Suyeta Suyet’ v Russkom Yazyke.” Russian History/Histoire Russe 33, Nos. 2-3-4 (2006): 488.

Schulte, Rainer and John Biguenet, ed. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.


Selected Reference Works Used in Translation

Browning, Gary, David K. Hart and Raisa Solovyova. Leveraging Your Russian with Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes. Bloomington, Indiana: Slavica Publishers, 2001.

Herman, Louis Jay, comp. and ed. A Dictionary of Slavic Word Families. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

Preobrazhenskiy, Aleksandr Grigor’yevich, Etymological Dictionary of the Russian Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.

Wolkonsky, Catherine A. and Marianna A. Poltoratzky, comp. Handbook of Russian Roots. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.


About the author

Sophia Rehm

Sophia Rehm graduated from the University of Chicago in 2012 with a BA in Russian Language and Literature. She studied Russian as a Second Language in St. Petersburg in 2010 and is currently in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan as SRAS's Home and Abroad Scholar. At the time she wrote for this site, she hoped to pursue graduate studies in Slavic Languages and Literatures, as well as literary translation.

Program attended: Home and Abroad Scholar

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