There are two memories of the future. I had, for a time, thought there was only one, but as I examined that memory I learned of the second. Or maybe that should be the first since it came earlier. So now I had to consider both, in case one remembered the other.
Both are urban memories. One is of Moscow in the 1920s, when it was a city of small, cramped apartments, when life was lived on the streets and the people you might encounter sitting beside you on a bench may be mad, shysters or visionaries. The other is of New York in the 1970s, when it was a city of small, cramped apartments, when life was lived on the streets and the people you might meet in any subway train may be mad, shysters or visionaries.
Ah, but is this an echo, or simply a consequence of the place and the time? Probably; isn’t that kind of city liable to be what it takes to inspire this kind of fiction?
Except that to say these two fictions are of a kind would be odd. One, after all, is a collection of stories or, to be more accurate, the title novella in a collection of stories: Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. The other is a novel: Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt. One, the Krzhizhanovsky, was written in the 1920s but not discovered until twenty-five years after the author’s death, and not published for a further fifteen years after that. The other, the Hustvedt, was written within the last couple of years and is set partly in the present and partly in the late 1970s when Hustvedt’s character, impenetrably named “S.H.”, first arrived in New York.
Each contains inventions that lodge in the mind. Krzhizhanovsky’s “Quadraturin” tells of a lotion that will increase the size of the central character’s dark and poky apartment. But there is a spill and the apartment continues to grow, until the light from the dim bulb in the ceiling is too weak to reach the walls, the small dirty window is so far away that it sheds no light, and the central character gets lost within the dark shadows of his own home.
Hustvedt has an aside: what if the hero in a novel is handed a key, the key opens a hidden door, and when he goes through the door he finds himself a minor character in a different novel. Oh that is an idea far far bigger than the couple of sentences in which it is expressed.
These are places, books, full of voices. Krzhizhanovsky has us meet people in the street who tells us about the Eiffel Tower uprooting itself and rampaging across Europe, or who sell logic to those prepared to queue for a syllogism. Hustvedt has us listen to voices through thin apartment walls, voices that talk indistinctly about murder and witches.
There are, of course, political undercurrents that run through both books, occasionally bursting to the surface. In Krzhizhanovsky it is the issue of the seemingly endless questionnaires that the Soviet regime requires everyone to complete: everyone lies, of course, but the questionnaires will determine their status in the new regime. And then there is the title story, in which the life of Schterer is reconstructed, from his time at university in Tsarist Russia when he first conceived the idea of a time machine, through his failed experiments, the interruption of the First World War, his post-war attempts to continue his experiments against official obstruction, and the final success which sees him journey a few years into the future only to find that nothing has changed, and when he returns no one is interested in the future.
Krzhizhanovsky gives us a series of separate stories that together paint a picture of a world in which the wildness of imagination provides the only hope for individual survival. Hustvedt also provides a wealth of story, but here interlinked and interwoven to form one novel. SH is a novelist in her mid-sixties who comes across the journal she kept when she first moved to New York in 1979; she is about to take up a place at Columbia, but is having a year out first in which to write her novel. We are given, therefore, SH now, SH then, and extracts from the novel she was trying to write but never finished. A novel in which the two central characters both imagine themselves as Sherlock Holmes (another SH) though in fact the mysteries they investigate are unresolved, and the characters bear the significant initials of IF, IS and ID. But the journal presents the greater mystery, also unresolved, in which voices through the wall carry indistinct tales of a child dead, perhaps accident, perhaps murder, and of other conflicts with unknown others. Then, at the exact mid-point of the book, SH is the victim of an attempted rape, only to be rescued at the last minute by the women from the next door apartment bursting in and chasing off the attacker. She is then drawn into their circle, and the novel takes on issues of female independence and empowerment without ever forgetting or solving the mystery surrounding her neighbour.
Siri Hustvedt’s previous novel, The Blazing World, acknowledged and drew on the influence of Margaret Cavendish. I don’t think, in this new novel, that Hustvedt either drew on or even knew of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s identically titled collection. And yet there are resonances that seem to link them, as if the similarities between the cities in which they are set themselves generated similarities that fed into the fictions. Hustvedt’s book is wonderful, the opening passage, a long bravura account of her arrival in New York and of the impression the city made upon her, is one of the most glorious pieces of writing I’ve encountered for a long time. But I am particularly grateful that Hustvedt’s novel also led me to discover the extraordinary stories of Krzhizhanovsky.