Metamorphosis & Miniatures: “Stravaging ‘Strange'” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky & “When Women Were Dragons” by Kelly Barnhill

“Pack up your thoughts and be ready at a moment’s notice to move into a new worldview.”
–Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

My observations bordered on the fantastic.   

It seemed absurd yet logical when I began to note similarities between Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Soviet writer of  fantastic short stories, and Kelly Barnhill, an American writer of adult fantasy, science fiction, and children’s books.

These two disparate writers, the former a Russian author whose work was not published in his lifetime, the latter a popular, prize-winning Minnesotan author, have more in common than you’d think:  both are are obsessed with metamorphosis.  

Krzhizhanovsky (1887–1950) is a new writer to me. I used to dislike Soviet fiction, but having exhausted the 19th-century Russian classics I have reluctantly moved forward into Stalinist times. Fortunately, I am fascinated by the title novella of Stravaging “Strange,” a new collection of Krzhizhanovsky’s novellas, stories, and notebooks, translated by Joanne Turnbull and published by Columbia University Press.  

Inspired by Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Krzhizhanovsky entrances us with Stravaging “Strange,” a tale of a magus apprentice’s laborious seventy-foot journey – the longest trip he ever took – after he drinks a potion that shrinks him to the size of a speck. 

The micro-man spends days crossing the floor of an apartment and climbing the wall to the window ledge.  In order to reach the  apartment upstairs where the professor keeps the phial with the antidote, he must wait days for the ivy to grow up to the window above. But it’s not just the phial he wants:  he hopes to seduce the professor’s young wife.

Once upstairs, he takes refuge at one point in the young wife’s watch. Alas, the watch does not prove to be a sanctuary.

A close study of the dial’s fauna led me to conclude that the creatures flustering under the locket glass were time bacilli. Time bacilli, as I soon became convinced, multiplied with every jolt of the hour, minute, and even second hand. The tiny nimble Seconds jostled on the second hand like sparrows on the branch of a hazelnut tree. On the minute hand’s long black perch, their stingers tucked under them, sat the Minutes; while on the sluggish hour hand, their jointed, tapeworm-like bodies wrapped round its black steel arabesques, the Hours swayed sleepily.

The magus apprentice’s adventures are both comic and disturbing, as are the decidedly odd events in the other two stories in the collection. 

Kelly Barnhill, a lighter, more straightforward writer, says that she was inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh to write her first adult novel, When Women Were Dragons.   Barnhill creates an alternate reality where raging, underemployed, unappreciated women leave their homes and metamorphose into dragons in order to be free.  The largest such “dragoning” happens in 1955, at the time of the McCarthy hearings.  Naturally, the government hushes up the incidents and redacts all records of dragons from the newspapers and scientific journals.  

The narrator, Alex Green, is the daughter of a brilliant mathematician, now a housewife.  The Greens’ family is hastily rearranged after Aunt Marla, a mechanic and a former pilot, metamorphoses into a dragon and flies away, leaving Alex’s mother to raise her daughter, Beatrice.    But after her mother’s death from cancer, Alex ‘s father deserts her to raise Beatrice while continuing her schooling.  Without the help of a magically shrewd, brilliant, influential librarian, who provides shelter and assistance to a scholar on dragons, she would not have been able to cope.   

There is some preaching about tolerating “dragons” – who seem to be mostly LBGTQ+ – but not all women choose to become dragons.  Alex does not.   

I am not quite up-to-date on my dragon lore, but Barnhill has written a robust feminist fantasy novel.

Call Him Cookie: When You Can’t Pronounce a Writer’s Name

This week, I received my second NYRB Classics Book Club selection.  The book club curator sends out a new book every month.  The subscriber does not choose the book.

I loved last month’s selection, The True History of of the first Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, by Diane Johnson, a biography of George Meredith’s first wife. (My review is here.)    I have qualms about this new book,  because it is by one of the Dreaded Soviet writers. Although I love 19th-century Russian fiction, the  prose of Soviet writers often seems turgid and clunky. They wrote under ghastly conditions, hence the uneven quality of the writing–or that’s my theory.

The August selection is Unwitting Street, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. A Kirkus Review blurb refers to the short stories in this collection as “tales.” I do hate a tale.  Unless it’s “Gogolesque.”

We shall see if I get along with Mr. KriZZZZZZhisanosssssky. I call him Krisky. Sounds like a cookie.

I do have another book by Cookie, Memories of the Future.  I read about half of the stories.  If I want to be an NYRB groupie, I must adjust to Soviet writing,

N.B.  I did admire one Soviet novel, Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, written in the late 1930s. You can read my review here.

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