Few people knew the writing of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky during his lifetime, virtually none outside the samizdat readership of Soviet Russia, and really not many more know him now. He was not translated into English until about 10 years ago, and I largely discovered his work by accident, via the New York Review Books catalog, one of the best, most consistent sources of works by long-forgotten Hungarian and Sicilian writers, and dove in with the near-guarantee that a writer with a name that unfriendly to non-Slavic mouths and a habit for writing books with names like Autobiography of a Corpse would be someone I'd dig.
But when I read his Adventures of Munchausen not long ago, I was at something of a loss. Not because it was badly written, or anything like that, but because I was so absolutely not the intended readership. As with so many novels from that rough time period in that region of the world, there were the intertextual links to poems and novels popular among the Russian intelligentsia of the interwar period (it should be noted that the very concept of a writing that takes place in dialogue with other pieces of writing crystallized in interwar Russia, with the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin), clever allusions to Bolshevik phraseology, and wordplay from a language I don't speak. All of these facts were dutifully explained in the footnotes, which, like explanations of jokes, do a great deal to increase understanding of the context, but radically fail to place the reader actually within the context.
I felt a bit like the students of Nabokov's Professor Pnin, who sit there in respectful confusion as Pnin makes a point to laugh out loud at the satirical poetry he's reciting, and tries to pretend he still lives in a land and a time period in which the targets of that satire were relevant.
More importantly than that specificially Russian milieu, though, Krzhizhanovsky's novel engages with one of the most persistent storylines of post-Enlightenment Europe, that of Baron Munchausen, who first entered the world of print in 1785, with the publication of The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe. This, in turn, was based on a baron by the name of Freiherr Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen who gained a reputation as a teller of elaborate, exaggerated stories of military prowess. In his tall-tale adventures, whether going to the Moon or wrestling bears with his hands or pulling himself out of a swamp by his own hair or whatever, the literary version of Munchausen (always transcribed into English in that decidedly less Germanic fashion) describes the goings-on stone-faced, as if he was casually mentioning that he ran into Jenny from Accounting at H&M. Whether we are supposed to believe that Munchausen is a master raconteur, utterly self-deluded, or a pathological liar is up to the reader, I suppose.
As the Munchausen character became a standard fixture of European literature, his stories changed and multiplied. They were modified for different audiences, different languages, for children, for adults. Like the Bible, the Greek myths, or Shakespeare, they became part of a common narrative tradition across Europe, a sort of folklore for the nascent middle class following the Industrial Revolution. From Raspe's original text, tales were added, subtracted, embellished, and diminished, until the name could be applied to any situation in which fantastical events with straight-man delivery.
But, like most Americans, and I'm guessing most people in this century, my knowledge of the Munchausen tradition comes from (a) the Terry Gilliam movie featuring the dude with the creepy mustache – a symptom of the 1980s fetish for campy Victoriana – and (b) the familiar tabloid TV bogeyman of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, whereby parents or caregivers would keep their dependents sick as a way of drawing attention to themselves (à la the puking girl in The Sixth Sense), frequently covered by big-haired anchors with reels of grainy footage of poisonings and dramatic sound effects.
And in this way, the Munchausen concept has again become re-defined, until it's something that, in case (a) bears a great deal of similarity in terms of context, but little in terms of effect, and in (b), bears absolutely fucking nothing in common in terms of context, but in terms of being a legend that we tell ourselves to bring order to our perception of the world, delivered with deadly earnestness, is spot on.
So the modern-America Munchausen is a morph of the many morphs that sprung from the original Munchausen novel, which is a series of within-that-world false tales told by a within-that-world real narrator, which is a morph of Baron Münchhausen, and his supposedly similar habits. Rather like the metamorphosis in Munchausen's stories themselves.
This is the game of Chinese whispers that we call culture.
I started by wanting to write about a book and how I didn't understand it, and how it referred to a story I didn't know much about, and it turned into a different story altogether. What stories have I read, participated in, inhabited? What stories do I tell myself? And what echoes will reverberate into the future?