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Reading Backwards

Muireann Maguire
Timothy Langen

I. Gogol

1. Something for Nothing: Imagination and Collapse in O’Brien, Krzhizhanovsky, and Gogol1

Timothy Langen

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  • 1 I would like to thank Muireann Maguire, Jacob Emery, Justin Weir, Caryl Emerson, Carsten Strathause (...)
  • 2 Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol (New York: New Directions, 1944), p. 150.

But the other thing—his having been born on the 1st of April—is true.
Vladimir Nabokov, on Nikolai Gogol2

  • 3 Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 261.

He died, aged fifty-four, on April Fool’s Day, 1966.
Hugh Kenner, on Flann O’Brien3

1This essay explores several connections among the imaginary worlds of Flann O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan, 1911–1966), Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887–1950), and Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852). For each writer, the imagination offers the possibility not just of inventing people, things, and events, but also, and more fundamentally, of altering the basic properties of causation, temporality, and proportion that govern existence. This much puts them in the company of a great many other ‘experimental’ writers, such as Borges, Beckett, or, to take an earlier example, Laurence Sterne, but I will try to use Pierre Bayard’s notion of ‘anticipatory plagiarism’ to show some closer, more specific connections. My conceit will be that Krzhizhanovsky interpreted certain key ideas of O’Brien’s, and that Gogol took some of these ideas and adapted them to the concerns of his age. The most important of these ideas is that imaginary worlds can function as a sort of force-multiplier with powerful but destabilizing effects on the real world.


2The premise of anticipatory plagiarism is particularly attractive in the case of O’Brien, of whom it has been observed that the sources he could be imagined to have read are more instructive than the sources he is likely to have read. J. C. C. Mays writes that

  • 4 J. C. C. Mays, ‘Brian O’Nolan and Joyce on Art and Life’, James Joyce Quarterly, 11: 3 (Spring 1974 (...)

Brian O’Nolan’s art lives in a literary area of his own invention to the extent that, while he never read more than a fraction of the writers he might be compared to, comparisons to these same writers are more illuminating than to the sources of his writing in his own life […]. The list of parallels and antecedents could be extended, and they would be no less illuminating because Brian O’Nolan was most likely unaware of them.4

  • 5 O’Brien’s interest in the work of J. W. Dunne, specifically the latter’s ideas about precognitive d (...)

3If ever there were a place to try out the idea of anticipatory plagiarism, this must surely be it: for if O’Brien was unaware of his antecedents, perhaps they were aware of him.5

  • 6 Kenner, A Colder Eye, p. 257.
  • 7 M. Keith Booker, Flann O’Brien, Bakhtin, and Menippean Satire (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Pr (...)

4We might start with O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman, written in 1939–1940. ‘Not only did he not publish it’, writes Hugh Kenner; ‘he spent the rest of his life going back from it, not forward’.6 It eventually came out in 1967, a year after Brian O’Nolan’s death, seventeen years after Krzhizhanovsky’s, and a hundred and fifteen after Gogol’s. The narrator of The Third Policeman commits murder so he can acquire the funds to publish a definitive treatise on the works of a certain de Selby, and the novel is full of footnotes reporting the latter’s various obscure opinions and attempting to track down their origin and veracity. As M. Keith Booker points out, though, ‘the narrator seems to have spent a great deal more time reading de Selby’s critics than reading de Selby himself’. Further, ‘De Selby’s commentators seem to spend more time commentating on (and generally reviling) each other than on explicating the works of de Selby. And the depths of this cross-examination are as bottomless as those presented by de Selby’s own texts’.7

  • 8 Conan Kennedy, Looking for De Selby (Killala: Morrigan Books, 1998).

5The meta-commentary extends even further, for the footnotes have proliferated into the world of books about Flann O’Brien. One thing O’Brien scholars like to debate is where the name and character of de Selby come from. In Looking for De Selby, Conan Kennedy proposes that the name derives from the De Selby quarries, source of the stones used for roads in Blackrock, County Dublin, around 1912. As for the character de Selby, he may, Kennedy argues, have been based on one Walter Conan, a tailor, inventor, chairman of the De Selby company… and Kennedy’s own great-uncle.8 The weight of scholarly speculation, though, seems to lie neither with the De Selby quarries, nor with Walter Conan, nor, for that matter, with the English town of Selby in North Yorkshire, but rather with the German Selbst, or self. Keith Hopper offers the following in a footnote to his own discussion of de Selby’s name, which he associates with the concept of ‘self’, while scrupulously noting a critique by Rüdiger Imhof, all in response to an idea proposed by Mays.

In more recent correspondence with the present author (8 December 2006), Prof. Imhof elaborated further:

‘Selby’ may indeed be derived from the Old High German pronoun ‘selb, ’ which seems to have the same root as the English ‘self’ (the exact etymological determination is unclear). The substantive of the pronoun is ‘Selbst, ’ which corresponds to the English ‘self.’ So, J.C.C. Mays may have been partly right, after all.

Where Mays is wrong is to suggest that ‘de Selby’ is a variation of ‘der Selbe.’ As far as ‘der Selbe’ is concerned, my critical remark still stands: it can only mean ‘the same person.’ It would seem that either Mays or Flann, or indeed both of them made a mistake, namely this: that in order to derive ‘the self’ from a German expression to do with ‘selb, ’ ‘Selbe’ or ‘Selbst, ’ this expression would have to be ‘das Selbst’ and not ‘der Selbe.’ If Flann meant us to see the connection between ‘de Selby’ and ‘the self, ’ he got his German derivation in a twist.

  • 9 Keith Hopper, Flann O’Brien: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist (Cork: Cork Universit (...)

I am grateful to Prof. Imhof for his gracious and erudite scholarship (and apologise for co-opting him into such a de Selbian-style commentary).9

6Here writing itself, nearly unmoored from any particular reference or source because it grazes lightly against so many of them, achieves an almost Nirvanic state of self (Selbst) lessness in the recursive comments and meta-comments of real and fictional scholars. For as Imhof points out, the Selbe that can be inferred from de Selby cannot without lexical violence be made to mean ‘the self’. A name derived from der Selbe must mean not ‘the self’ but rather ‘the same one’, a reference hardly less opaque than the name itself.

  • 10 For some stimulating examples of English-language scholarship on Krzhizhanovsky, see Muireann Magui (...)

7As strange as it may seem, though, the reference is in fact perfectly clear; it merely took a Krzhizhanovsky, the equal of Flann O’Brien in both fantasy and pedantry, to point it out. ‘Known for being unknown’, as he said about himself, Krzhizhanovsky remained so for two decades after his death, until his work was tracked down and championed by Vadim Perel’muter. Following a posthumous trajectory familiar to readers of Mikhail Bulgakov or Mikhail Bakhtin, Krzhizhanovsky is among the last of his generation to be “rediscovered” at home and then discovered abroad.10 What has not yet been discovered, though, is that some ten years before O’Brien wrote The Third Policeman, Krzhizhanovsky produced not just a reworking of, but rather the most brilliant commentary on, the later work. The explication came in a story called ‘Materials for a Biography of Gorgis Katafalaki’ (‘Materialy k biografii Gorgisa Katafalaki’, 1929). Like O’Brien’s narrator, Katafalaki is an intellectual searcher, and he pores through bibliographic material hoping to find a universal mind comparable to Aristotle, Descartes, or Leibniz. Before long he comes across a certain Derselbe, who seems to have published major works in every field, and part of the story concerns his misguided attempts to track down this improbably erudite person. The search can never succeed because its object is not a person at all: Derselbe is, after all, ‘the same one’, referring in German footnotes to the most recently cited source. Herr Derselbe is Mr Ibid.

  • 11 To compound a rhetorical question with a pedantic answer: O’Brien could have chosen (at least) Germ (...)

8After reading Krzhizhanovsky’s story, it becomes clear that this is the origin of de Selby’s name as well. Derselbe, a verbal shifter in a language foreign to the characters, is mistaken for a name, and thus for a real person to be found or researched, a nothing imaginatively transformed into a something, even a someone. The Katafalaki story, then, is what we could call an ‘anticipatory gloss’ by Krzhizhanovsky, and the most acute commentary on O’Brien’s character of de Selby, but in the form of a story written a decade earlier. It would seem that Krzhizhanovsky read O’Brien’s Third Policeman and, frustrated that no one else got the de Selby joke, retold it with a more explicit backstory. If on the other hand we preclude the possibility of some sort of backwards-reaching action in the universe of literary texts, we will be forced to assume (keeping in mind that Flann O’Brien seems to have had no Russian) that our two authors independently came up with exactly the same trick, to turn a bibliographic term in a different language into a proper name, as a pretext for a wild goose chase. Moreover, they chose the same different language, German. What are the odds of that?11

  • 12 Thus N. L. Liederman’s observation that ‘ [t] o the highest degree characteristic of Krzhizhanovsky (...)

9The covert, backwards-reaching significance of O’Brien’s and Krzhizhanovsky’s de Selby/Derselbe does not stop there. For Gogol too is an artist of linguistic shifters—one thinks here of the ‘words with no particular meaning at all’ that comprise so much of Akaky Akakievich’s speech in Gogol’s story ‘The Overcoat’ (‘Shinel’’, 1842), or of Khlestakov in The Government Inspector (Revizor, 1836), a human cipher onto whom others project their own ambitions, anxieties, and preoccupations. And if O’Brien and Krzhizhanovsky turn a convention of writing into a character, Gogol gives the complementary gesture when the postmaster stands in the pose of a question mark during the famous mute scene at the end of the play, a character transformed into a specimen of punctuation. For all three writers, then, the means of depiction and reference (bibliographic terms, letters, punctuation) become thematized elements within the depicted world.12

Spacetimes of Reading

  • 13 Pierre Bayard, ‘Anticipatory Plagiarism’, trans. by Jeffrey Mehlman, New Literary History, 44: 2 (S (...)

10The premise that earlier texts may borrow or steal from later ones, or—as we might add, somewhat less drastically, that they may interpret them—rests on what Pierre Bayard calls a dual chronology. ‘While full-fledged citizens of their age, creators are equally participants in another temporality, that of literature or art, which obeys its own rhythms’.13 Indeed, literary texts could hardly function without complex rhythmic and temporal interactions. For example, the reader of a text may, more or less at will, arrest forward progress and move back to review earlier material—or even look ahead to find particularly informative or juicy parts, only to circle back once again. Separate from the reader, the text itself can enact retrograde motion relative to any posited unidirectional sequence of events depicted within it. This is part of the work of what Russian Formalists called ‘siuzhet’, the artistic manipulation and distortion of the pre-existing narrative substrate, or ‘fabula’, that can be imagined to proceed evenly from A to B to C and onward. Siuzhet, by contrast, can accelerate, skip ahead, slow down, and even go backwards, before resuming its progress. Even at the most elementary, phenomenological level of reading, then, literature operates in a universe with spatio-temporal properties different from our own ordinary entropic universe.

  • 14 T. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot, 2nd edn (New (...)

11Texts encode other texts, of course, and if we want to conceptualize the universe of texts, we must do so in a way that accommodates the sort of retrograde motion I have been describing. T. S. Eliot, for example, suggested that each new addition to the canon subtly changes the relations among all the other texts. ‘Events’ in this universe, the universe of what Eliot called ‘tradition’,14 would appear to move not only in the direction Pushkin→Tolstoy→Nabokov, but also the reverse, from Nabokov→Tolstoy→Pushkin. Or, in our case, from the twentieth-century writers Flann O’Brien and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to the nineteenth-century Nikolai Gogol. This is the universe in which Bayard’s ‘anticipatory plagiarism’ may be imagined to operate.

12Our authors were all interested in this broader question: the properties of imaginative space-time itself, of which the notion of anticipatory plagiarism describes only a subset. To posit a phenomenon of retrograde influence, interpretation, and even plagiarism means to imagine a world that functions in a way that is radically different from the paradigms and models that (tacitly or explicitly) shape ordinary discourse. A glance at the history of astronomy may be useful here. Retrograde motion (albeit through space rather than time) was first observed by the ancients in the wandering of the planets, which did not follow the steady fabula-like course of stars across the sky but seemed to mark out their own individual siuzhets, moving forwards and then pausing, moving backwards for a bit, and then resuming their forward progress. The eventual solution to this puzzle was to reimagine the underlying geometry: the motion of those planets makes sense if we imagine them to be circling something, and after centuries of mutually refining observation and imagination (contending, of course, with social, political, religious, and other forces), the solar system was eventually conceived to have the shape we now ascribe to it. As new physical problems arose, scientists began to posit new shapes and dimensions, not just for things within the universe, but for the universe itself. If we are to entertain the idea of retrograde action among our three authors, then, we ought to ask what sorts of universe-geometries they construct.

Sausage, Crack, Egg

13With O’Brien, the answer is explicit and easy to find. The earth is shaped like a sausage, according to de Selby, who ‘likens the position of a human on earth to that of a man on a tight-wire who must continue walking along the wire or perish, being, however, free in all other respects’.

Movement in this restricted orbit results in the permanent hallucination known conventionally as ‘life’ with its innumerable concomitant limitations, afflictions and anomalies. If a way can be found, says de Selby, of discovering the ‘second direction’, i.e., along the ‘barrel’ of the sausage, a world of entirely new sensation and experience will be open to humanity. New and unimaginable dimensions will supersede the present order and the manifold ‘unnecessaries’ of ‘one-directional’ existence will disappear. (pp. 94–95)

  • 15 In a January 1940 letter to William Saroyan. See Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (Champaign, IL: (...)

14‘I would have given much for a glimpse of the signpost showing the way along the “barrel” of the sausage’ (p. 95), the narrator goes on to remark, unaware that he is travelling around the barrel of the sausage that very moment. For The Third Policeman itself is a sausage-shaped imaginary universe, full of what its author called ‘back-chat and funny cracks’.15 The funniest and most horrifying is that the narrator turns out to have been dead all along, the weird disorienting story being his special form or experience of perdition. Thus the strange, looping chronology of this story engulfs the very teller, who continuously tries and fails to chart a rectilinear path out of the perverse curvatures of his sausage-shaped text and universe, a universe where the very atoms of bicycles and their riders intermingle and merge, like sausage ingredients passing through a meat grinder. De Selby seeks a way to the ‘second’ dimension; the narrator finds only death and damnation.

  • 16 See Rosenflanz, Hunter of Themes, esp. Chapter Two, ‘Slova: Words’ (pp. 23–55), and A. V. Sinitskai (...)

15It is tempting to suppose that Krzhizhanovsky, polyglot in abilities and sensibilities, picked up on O’Brien’s ‘back-chat and funny cracks’ and re-interpreted them in his early story ‘The Collector of Cracks’ (‘Sobiratel’ Shchelei’, 1922). The inter-lingual pun would have appealed to both writers: O’Brien’s ‘Chapman and Keats’ series is unimaginable without puns, and Krzhizhanovsky attributed great theoretical significance to wordplay.16 Krzhizhanovsky’s main character in ‘The Collector of Cracks’, Lövenix, describes to the narrator how he became interested in the little bits of nothing all around us. He appeals, for example, to the physiology of vision when one watches a film, and through various experiments, manipulating the length of intervals between frames, he trains (in himself and in one other gifted subject) the ability to perceive the interstices through the apparent continuity of motion. Alas, he gets too close to the void, steps on a shadow on his way to meet his beloved, and suffers the loss of his capacity to feel. He believes (referring here to Descartes) that existence itself flickers into and out of being, and he wants to find a way to persist through the blank spots where everything else disappears. Instead the narrator finds Lövenix dead at his desk and throws his manuscript into the fire—negating nothingness, or at least one dangerous way of flirting with it. If in O’Brien’s sausage-verse every path leads to the same place, in Krzhizhanovsky’s crack-verse every instant conceals a trap-door to infinite loss. In both cases a character suspects that his universe contains ubiquitous unperceived domains, and he discovers them, and he experiences not liberation but doom.

  • 17 Nikolay Gogol, Dead Souls: A Poem, trans. by Robert Maguire (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), pp. 2 (...)

16Combining O’Brien’s characteristically terse figure of the sausage with Krzhizhanovsky’s characteristically expansive figure of the crack, Gogol arrived at an even richer analogy for the space-time of the imagination. It comes near the end of Dead Souls (Mertvye dushi, 1842), when Gogol is trying to explain how people should read his novel. In the course of his explanations, he invents a certain Kifa Mokiyevich and gives a sort of transcript of the latter’s speculative musings. ‘Well then’, Kifa Mokieyvich thinks, ‘what if an elephant were to be born in an egg, then the shell, I guess, would be so strong and thick that you couldn’t break through it with a cannon-ball; some new firearm would have to be invented’.17 ‘Don’t be like Kifa Mokievich’, seems to be what Gogol may be saying: tend to your responsibilities and use stories like Dead Souls as an instrument to examine yourself critically, rather than as an occasion for idle fantasy about elephant eggs and similar nonsense. Here the ontology of the text is something like that of the mirror, an analogy Gogol had used explicitly in his epigraph to The Government Inspector: don’t blame the mirror if your face is crooked.

  • 18 On the geometry and ontology of Krzhizhanovsky’s imagined worlds, see especially V. N. Toporov, ‘ “ (...)

17Taken another way, though, the imaginary elephant egg is a microcosm of the whole novel. Eggs have come up before—the governor’s daughter’s pretty face that so captivates Chichikov, for example, is compared to an egg—and once we allow that Gogol may have been thinking of O’Brien and Krzhizhanovsky, it becomes apparent that this egg is the shape of space-time in Dead Souls. For hell really is sausage-shaped in The Third Policeman, the narrator given just enough of a hint of linearity that he feels things might be moving somewhere, when really he keeps traversing the same topoi over and over again. And hell really is a collection of cracks for Krzhizhanovsky, each interpersonal or existential void threatening infinite expansion at every instant.18 Likewise, hell in Dead Souls is really an egg that never hatches, promising no progress in any direction either along the surface, or from the inside out, or from the outside in. In Gogol’s world every Kifa Mokievich will beget a Moka Kifevich, every Nozdryov adventure will lead to another Nozdryov adventure, and no one will ever learn anything. The necessity of inventing new firearms to pierce the elephant-egg space-time is, as Gogol suggests, idle fantasy—but in his world it is desperately necessary idle fantasy. Sensible carriages that could get to Moscow but not Kazan’ will never be able to leave this dreary hellish chronotope, and it is dubious whether even the wild Russia-troika at the very end of the novel can reach escape velocity. But the combination of Krzhizhanovsky’s analogy with O’Brien’s allows Gogol to imply a solution: crack the egg, cut the sausage, change the very topology of space and time. And in each case it is the imagination that must lead the way.


  • 19 It is too much to suggest, except perhaps in a footnote, that any of our writers were stealing from (...)

18For all three writers, the creation of spaces by and for the imagination is itself a major and explicit preoccupation, and one that requires effort and risk. Krzhizhanovsky’s short novel The Letter Killers’ Club (Klub ubiistv bukv, 1926) devotes a good deal of space to the preparatory work that goes into telling a story, and the reason why that work is necessary. The narrator meets a former writer who has discovered that committing his conceptions to writing uses up his imagination. He has gathered a group of like-minded ‘conceivers’ to meet on Saturday nights. Each meeting is devoted to one member’s conception, described to his listeners as something like a plan for a story or a play but never written down by any of the members nor disclosed to anyone in the outside world. The ‘letter killers’ are anonymous and referred to by made-up syllables like Zez, Fev, and Rar. The talk-about-talk or story-about-story structure penetrates the work of the individual tellers as well; most of them describe their work—what it is, or, more precisely, what it would or could or perhaps will be—either before or interspersed throughout the telling. What we might think of as the ‘content’ becomes a kind of shimmering possibility whose existence seems ideal and only provisionally incarnated in the actual telling. It is this ephemerality that the president tries to preserve by ‘killing’ letters, with the goal of protecting the conceptions from exhaustion by narrating only the possibility of each future could-be text. It is as if the space of imagination can be approached only obliquely (just as de Selby’s work can be apprehended only via its deflections through the critical scholarship)—the thing itself is too delicate to touch.

  • 20 O’Brien, Third Policeman, p. 74.

19Or too dangerous. A similar predilection for hypotheticals can be observed on the level of rhetorical diction when the narrator of O’Brien’s The Third Policeman asks the policeman MacCruiskeen, ‘before I go back to the day room […], would it be right to ask what you were performing with that small little piano instrument, the article with the knobs, and the brass pins?’20 This is a question asked by asking whether the question could rightly be asked, a nervous recursive space-clearing that Krzhizhanovsky’s ‘conceivers’ re-enact week after week with their stories about the stories one might imagine telling.

20Gogol’s treatment of the theme, of course, is the most familiar and fully developed.

  • 21 Nikolai Gogol, ‘The Overcoat’, in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, trans. Richard Pevear and L (...)

In the department of... but it would be better not to say in which department. There is nothing more irascible than all these departments, regiments, offices—in short, all this officialdom. Nowadays every private individual considers the whole of society insulted in his person. They say a petition came quite recently from some police chief, I don’t remember of what town, in which he states clearly that the government’s decrees are perishing and his own sacred name is decidedly being taken in vain. And as proof he attached to his petition a most enormous tome of some novelistic work in which a police chief appears on every page, in some places even in a totally drunken state. And so, to avoid any unpleasantness, it would be better to call the department in question a certain department.21

21Here Gogol replicates the same thematic-stylistic cluster that O’Brien hinted at and Krzhizhanovsky elaborated: profuse discussion of the terms and conditions of discourse; indirect, hypothetical, or vague discussion of the content of discourse; and reference (only implied, in Krzhizhanovsky’s case) to political/legal authority as a context for verbal nervousness. Here, at the beginning of ‘The Overcoat’, Gogol self-consciously and explicitly marks out space where his imaginary creations can operate without getting tugged downward (and getting the speaker/narrator/author into trouble) by excessively literal connection with the real world.

22It is not only social-rhetorical space that writers have to clear for themselves; they must also find a way to suspend the demands of the physical world so they can launch their fantasies. Characteristic here is the beginning of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939):

  • 22 Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (New York: Signet, 1976), p. 9.

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.22

23The narrator, a college student who applies himself sparingly at best to his studies, is negotiating something like a rate of exchange between the temporality of ordinary life and that of the world of his stories. The former is sequential and governed by time’s arrow in the ordinary entropic world. Here bodily needs must be satisfied according to their own schedule, and when they are, the resulting imaginative freedom can be measured in minutes or mouthfuls. Mental escape is from this perspective necessarily temporary: the organism will reassert its needs again and again, like clockwork. Each time those needs are placated, though, another temporality can take over, a kind of lateral arrangement that begins with the narrator’s mental ‘withdrawal’ while his mouth keeps on chewing. Consciously or not, he is invoking something like Bayard’s dual chronology.

Force Multipliers

24In each of the passages above, the writer’s project can be conceived as an optimization exercise in which the objective is to minimize input (ink on the page, hours writing or reading, bread in the narrator’s mouth) and risk (from readers who might get offended) while maximizing signification and narrative potential. The recursive structure of talking about talking or writing about writing, in turn, operates as a kind of force multiplier in the universe of literary imagination. By discussing the supposed hazards of specific reference, for example, Gogol can expand his realm of signification from the characters’ world to a world which also includes writers and readers. Moreover, the arithmetic is not merely additive but rather compounding, since any event in one world may reverberate in the other, perhaps oscillating between the two and accreting volume with each pass. O’Brien is more explicit about the phenomenon. We might return here to de Selby/Derselbe. The special merit of a footnote reference (of which the shorthand derselbe is only the most concentrated example) is that it compresses entire passages, arguments, even whole works into a compact form that can be incorporated in a new text. The implication, that a text may encompass indefinitely many other texts, had already gripped Flann O’Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds:

  • 23 Ibid., p. 33.

The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before—usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.23

25The ‘wealth of references’ made possible by literary recursiveness is by no means limited to footnote citation, but instead extends to allusions, imitation, and perhaps outright theft. If Krzhizhanovsky and Gogol were looking for an excuse to plagiarize, they could surely have found it here.

  • 24 Examples of twentieth-century utopianism are too many and varied to list; they range (at least) fro (...)

26There is an unmistakably utopian aspect to the ‘modern novel’ as conceived by the narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds: characters can be invoked, explanations implied, audiences purified, and all ‘instantaneously’, with the use of a few well-chosen references. By this means, the signifying power of the literary work expands far beyond what might have seemed possible in earlier times. Indeed, the narrator’s conception of modernity seems imbued with early-mid twentieth-century utopianism. For if this was the epoch of world wars, totalized oppression, and triumphant vulgarity (according to an impressive variety of cultural critics who agreed on this much and little else), it was also the age of the Olympic movement and of theories of liberation in nearly every sphere of human experience.24 The USSR itself, in its early years, witnessed—and tried to harness—many expressions of this expansive utopianism. At the end of his 1924 book Literature and Revolution, for example, Leon Trotsky, not yet exiled and anathematized, argued that the new social arrangement of communism would boost the creative powers of each individual to unheard-of levels.

  • 25 Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, trans. by Rose Strunsky (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Mich (...)

Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.25

27Key to Trotsky’s image is the fact that the new ‘peaks’ of human excellence are not at present visible to us. It is only the imagination, nudged in an alpine direction, that can enlist those peaks into a presentday discussion. And even so, what we can imagine in the present is not the substance of those future peaks; if we could do that, we would already have been transformed. Rather, we can evoke the motion from our present cultural position to the ‘ridge’ of famous names, and then imagine continuing the trajectory.

  • 26 In an irresistible echo of the de Selby/derselbe quest, the origins of this assertion seem impossib (...)

28Similarly giddy claims were made on behalf of various transformational artistic or meditative disciplines. The individual was understood to possess enormous untapped inner resources, and one common way to express this idea was to claim that people typically use only ten percent of the brainpower available to them, and that the proper mental, physical, or social adjustment could liberate the remaining ninety.26 In this context it would have been easy to conceive of the imagination itself as a kind of force-multiplier, something that can take the paltry present and transform it into the magnificence it always had in potential; it can be a device for stealing a glimpse of the peaks that rise beyond the ridge, or of the potential of creative minds boosted, as it were, from ten to one hundred percent of capacity. Typical here are the musings of the narrator of The Third Policeman about a mysterious substance called ‘omnium’.

  • 27 O’Brien, Third Policeman, p. 189.

Sitting at home with my box of omnium I could do anything, see anything and know anything with no limit to my powers save that of my own imagination. Perhaps I could use it even to extend my imagination I could destroy, alter and improve the universe at will.27

29In this sort of work, to imagine an imagination-extending substance is to imagine the removal of any and all limitations. ‘Omnium’ is in this sense the ultimate force-multiplier, potentially generative, with any imaginative input, of any output. In a 1987 essay called ‘Quantum Physics and Thought’, Roger Penrose observes that ‘the totality of all possible universes may be thought of as a single structure’, a structure he proposes calling the omnium (a name suggested to him by the classicist Peter Darow). It may strain credulity to claim that O’Brien plagiarize the term (anticipatorily) from Penrose and Darow, but the superposition of possible worlds is in any case crucial to the imagination of all three of our writers.

30They were aware, too, that their imaginary chronotopes encompassed at least as many dystopian potentials as utopian ones. An important point of entry to the hyper-world of At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of Dermot Trellis, a preternaturally lazy writer producing a morality tale full of licentious characters and acts, the better to sell the product. His characters, drawn from various sources, are put through a number of torments and can do nothing about it until he falls asleep, at which point they highjack the story and subject him to a range of hideous tortures inflicted by a demon called Fergus MacPhellimey, or ‘The Pooka’. Narrative has become nearly detached from the world that generated it; it is almost free of the need for an author, Flann O’Brien or anyone else, to keep himself fed and able to work. But the potentials liberated by this narrative table-turning are frankly demonic and horrifying. O’Brien’s light tone, and that of the Pooka, serve only to intensify the ghoulishness.

  • 28 O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, p. 250.

It is my mission here this morning [says the Pooka] to introduce you to a wide variety of physical scourges, torments, and piteous blood-sweats. The fullness of your suffering, that will be the measure of my personal perfection.28

31The Pooka proceeds to detail the woes that betide poor Trellis, admonishing him all along to put on his coat because it’s cold outside. The room starts rearranging itself phantasmically, and in the course of Trellis’s appalling bodily torment he flies out of the window and falls on the cobblestone street.

To inquire as to the gravity of your sore fall, would that be inopportune?

  • 29 Ibid., p. 255.

You black bastard, said Trellis.
The character of your colloquy is not harmonious, rejoined the Pooka, and makes for barriers between the classes. Honey-words in torment, a growing urbanity against the sad extremities of human woe, that is the further injunction I place upon your head; and for the avoidance of opprobrious oddity as to numerals, I add this, a sickly suppuration at the base of the left breast.
I find your last utterance preoccupying to my intellect, said Trellis, and I am at the same time not unmindful of that last hurt upon my person.29

32Honey-words are the torturer’s artistic flourish, a utopianism of form wedded with power to maximize the experience of suffering.

33In this connection we might think of Das’s story in The Letter Killers Club, where the mechanism of control is not recursive narrative but technological refinement. A machine is built to control the actions of human beings, who become automatons, save for the agony that we know their spirit—whatever that vanishing entity might really be—is experiencing as their bodies move independent of their will. As with O’Brien’s Dermott Trellis, they are all forced to suffer, do, speak, and feel without having any say in the matter.

  • 30 O’Brien, Third Policeman, p. 70.

34The technology of control in Das’s story depends on the action of microscopic vibrophages that enter the body of every person, and there is something about fineness itself that evokes nauseating terror in our authors. O’Brien’s The Third Policeman gives a kind of emblem for the horrors of artistic overreach when Officer MacCruiskeen shows the narrator an exquisite box he has made. ‘I do not often look at boxes or chests’, says the narrator, ‘but this is the most beautiful box I have ever seen and I will always remember it. There might be something inside it?’ ‘There might be’, answers MacCruiskeen,30 and shows him a smaller version of the same box inside the first one. This second one has another inside it, and so on past twenty-nine of them.

  • 31 Ibid., p. 73.

At this point I became afraid. What he was doing was no longer wonderful but terrible. I shut my eyes and prayed that he would stop while still doing things that were at least possible for a man to do. When I looked again I was happy that there was nothing to see and that he had put no more of the chests prominently on the table but he was working to the left with the invisible thing in his hand on a bit of the table itself. When he felt my look he came over to me and gave me an enormous magnifying-glass which looked like a basin fixed to a handle. I felt the muscles around my heart tighten as I took the instrument.31

35More boxes follow, inevitably, so small that the very tools needed to make them are invisible. The scene suggests something like a craftsman’s utopian dream, the production of a thing so fine that it shades from the improbable to the impossible to the inconceivable, and O’Brien’s increasingly horrified narrator feels physically ill as MacCruiskeen moves to open the smallest of them.

  • 32 The Russian source is N.V. Gogol’, ‘Portret’, in N.V. Gogol’, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v (...)

36The demonic potential of art is a major theme of Gogol’s story ‘The Portrait’ (‘Portret’) as well, a work written under the unmistakable influence of German Romanticism and appearing in a collection of essays and stories, Arabesques (Arabeski, 1835), with no shortage of breathless, one might say utopian, claims on behalf of art (as well as history, geography, and other concerns). A whisper of the twentieth century might come through when the artist and main character Chertkov first begins to betray his talent and is rewarded with a stream of wealthy visitors, ‘all wishing to see their likenesses doubled or, if possible, increased tenfold’.32 The tenfold increase is, of course, not an exclusive property of twentieth-century dreams, but it may sensitize readers to other parallels with O’Brien and Krzhizhanovsky: the extraordinary fineness of detail in a depicted artwork, the story that eventually moves to an explanation of its own origins, the main character whose very passion—philosophical in ‘The Collector of Cracks’, scholarly in The Third Policeman, artistic in ‘The Portrait’—damns him.

37In ‘The Overcoat, ’ Gogol takes the theme still further, adding conceptual nuance to what he might have found in his own earlier work or in his later sources. Much of the story is taken up not just with Akaky Akakievich’s dream of a new overcoat, but with the process of planning and making it. It is thus another story concerned with making, both its own making and the making of its eponymous garment (a point elaborated in Boris Eikhenbaum’s 1919 essay ‘How Gogol’s Overcoat Is Made’, or ‘Kak sdelana Shinel’ Gogolia’). Akaky Akakievich does not have the money to replace his threadbare overcoat, which is itself beyond repair. By dint of heroic economizing and the mobilization of the tailor Petrovich’s full range of skill and imagination, though, a nearnothing set of resources is mobilized to produce something really nice, an overcoat that immediately raises Akaky Akakievich in the eyes of his co-workers and, perhaps, in his own eyes as well. Once again, a story of improbable leverage gained by craftsmanship.

  • 33 On the demonic aspects of the tailor Petrovich, see Dmitry Chizhevsky, ‘About Gogol’s “Overcoat”’, (...)
  • 34 Gogol, ‘Overcoat’, p. 416.

38In another unmistakable echo of O’Brien and Krzhizhanovsky, the craftsman himself is depicted in subtly demonic terms.33 But here we can see that Gogol distributes his themes among many characters: Akaky Akakievich himself, after all, is an intricate craftsman, a copy clerk who forms letters at home for the sheer joy of it, perhaps the one character in literature equipped to appreciate MacCruiskeen’s miniscule inventions. The latter is also refracted in the important person whose virtuosic tongue-lashing scares Akaky Akakievich to a feverish death. Yet this important person himself suffers in the larger social-narrative mechanism where he plays his oppressive part. Among subordinates and inferiors ‘he kept silent, and his position was pitiable […] in his eyes there could sometimes be seen a strong desire to join in some interesting conversation and circle, but he was stopped by the thought: Would it not be excessive on his part, would it not be familiar, would it not be descending beneath his importance?’34

  • 35 Ibid., p. 415

39It is the important person’s lot to oppress others, or so he understands it (his motto is ‘strictness, strictness—and strictness’),35 but in so doing he oppresses himself in a more dialectical, less sequential way than a character like O’Brien’s Dermott Trellis, who abuses and then suffers abuse. Likewise, the nominal enforcer of order in ‘The Overcoat’—the policeman described near the end of the story—is subject to the same fear and confusion as any other character. Finally, the hypothetical police chief in Gogol’s famous digressive opening is yet another refracted image of O’Brien’s MacCruiskeen, this time lodging a petition of complaint against his depiction in The Third Policeman. By distributing the themes and qualities of craftsmanship, generative potential, oppressive capacity, and terror more broadly among his characters, Gogol deconstructs, as it were, the polarized artistic worlds of O’Brien and Krzhizhanovsky.


40Apart from the fear that artistic powers may have demonic origins or intentions, our three authors share another anxiety as well: that the gains may be lost at any moment. In ‘The Portrait’, Gogol gives Chertkov a prodigious force-multiplier in the form of inauthentic, uninspired art, the kind of art that makes him rich—and in the end, Chertkov uses all his money to buy up and destroy real art. Some irresistible law of ethical or aesthetic symmetry converts rapid, unearned gains into catastrophic destruction. There are other ways for the whole thing to crash as, for example, Das’s dystopian world eventually falls apart in apparent obedience to some accelerated entropic principle. In O’Brien’s work the prospect of imminent collapse often becomes apparent with the humorous reassertion of the physical, as when the narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds comes to suffer the predictable consequences of his slothfulness.

  • 36 O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, p. 60.

It was in the New Year, in February, I think, that I discovered that my person was verminous. A growing irritation in various parts of my body led me to examine my bedclothes and the discovery of lice in large numbers was the result of my researches.36

41The author’s imaginative constructs avail him nothing against the indignities of the real world; the dream of bootstrapping one’s way to an artistic paradise, or even some sort of oasis, is subject to refutation by lice at any time.

42The theme of collapse is more complex and total in Krzhizhanovsky’s story ‘The Unbitten Elbow’ (‘Neukushennyi lokot’’, 1940), which recounts the attempts of an unnamed protagonist to bite his own elbow. The treatment is frankly philosophical, with direct references to Kant as well as to a philosopher called Kint and a columnist named Tnik. Biting one’s own elbow is to be taken as a physical version of the more general and abstract notion of doing what can’t be done. And the story itself is part of this project, as is clear from the very beginning.

  • 37 Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, ‘The Unbitten Elbow’, in Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse, trans (...)

This whole story would have remained hidden inside the sleeve and starched cuff of a jacket, if not for the Weekly Review. The Weekly Review came up with a questionnaire (Your favorite writer? Your average weekly earnings? Your goal in life?) and sent it out to all subscribers. Among the thousands of completed forms (the Review had a huge circulation) the sorters found one, Form No. 11,111, which, wander as it would from sorter to sorter, could not be sorted: On Form No. 11,111, opposite ‘Average Earnings’, the respondent had written ‘0’, and opposite ‘Goal in Life’, in clear round letters, ‘To bite my elbow’.37

43We thus start at zero in both story (which would never have been told) and money (zero earnings). Subsequent narration is as much about how the events were reported and discussed as about the elbow-biting quest itself. ‘The Unbitten Elbow’ is therefore in large part a story about a story, where words chase the possibility of something new and end up chasing each other, destined for collapse like O’Brien’s circular Third Policeman, the hypothetical construction of a deceased narrator.

44Near the end of the story, Krzhizhanovsky offers an image that might reasonably be understood as a parable within a parable about forcemultipliers and collapse.

  • 38 Ibid., p. 133.

An avalanche, they say, may begin like this: A raven, perched high on a mountain peak, beats its wing against the snow, a clump of which goes sliding down the slope, gathering more and more snow as it goes; rocks and earth go crashing after it—debris and more debris—until the avalanche, goring and gouging the mountainside, has engulfed and flattened everything in its path.38

45The raven has attained the unattainable, altering the landscape out of any proportion to its physical capabilities. A miniscule input can, under the right conditions, turn into a huge commotion—as happens with the story of the elbow itself.

46Speculative economies are especially vulnerable to avalanchelike crashes. In ‘The Unbitten Elbow’, a bankers’ trust, including both government officials and leading capitalists, uses the spectacle of No. 11,111 (as the protagonist is known in the story) trying to bite his elbow as a way to raise money. Citizens can buy a ticket and get a huge payout if he ever does get to the elbow.

  • 39 Ibid., pp. 133–34.

One day the fractions of an inch separating mouth from elbow so diminished (triggering yet another surge in ticket sales) that at a secret government meeting the ministers began to fret: What if the impossible were to happen and the elbow were to be bitten? To redeem even a tenth of all the tickets at the advertised rate of 11,111 to one, the finance minister warned, would leave the treasury in tatters.39

47Here again, the essential dynamic is a form of leverage, involving a tiny input to gain a colossal output. In the financial world as well as the world of narrative, speculation carries the potential for freakish growth and the danger of sudden collapse.

  • 40 The theme is familiar, for example, from a scene in Chapter Nine of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and M (...)
  • 41 For a discussion of Pound and monetary theories related to the themes of the present essay, see Ric (...)

48Recursive financial speculation, moreover, recapitulates the same kind of problem we saw with narrative recursiveness in At Swim-Two-Birds: it brackets the material world from consciousness and encourages a forgetting of the fact that materiality—whether in the form of lice or debt collectors—will inevitably return and demand its own compound interest. In ‘The Unbitten Elbow’, the speculative and enabling functions of investment are cut off from one another: buying a ticket does not help No. 11,111 get to the elbow the way that buying a share in a bakery helps the oven get bought in a simplified version of capitalism. Even buying shares in the banks that buy those bakery shares can be said to enable construction. But with each layer of speculation the connection becomes more dubious, until the main things getting constructed are the instruments of financial leverage themselves. The stock market becomes a complex lottery drawing resources from the world of human values and returning only the whiff of hope that a given individual might profit fabulously. While the most obvious context for the lottery episode is the early Soviet campaign against speculation and economic ‘parasitism’,40 the theme was spread as wide as modern economic life itself. One thinks here of the particularly fraught case of Ezra Pound’s obsession with banking.41 More recently, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007–2008, John Lanchester argued that finance,

like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts—a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English. In poetry, this moment took place with the publication of ‘The Waste Land’. In classical music, it was, perhaps, the première of ‘The Rite of Spring’. Jazz, dance, architecture, painting—all had comparable moments.

49For Lanchester the ‘modernist’ moment in finance came in 1973 with Fischer Black and Myron Scholes’s groundbreaking paper on the pricing of derivatives. But derivatives themselves, which had been around long before the paper, already imply something like the alienation of discourse from its referent.

  • 42 John Lanchester, ‘How Money Went Postmodern’, The New Yorker, 10 November 2008, 80–84 (p. 83).

With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense. It is difficult for civilians to understand a derivatives contract, or any of a range of closely related instruments, such as credit-default swaps. These are all products that were designed initially to transfer or hedge risks—to purchase some insurance against the prospect of a price going down, when your main bet was that the price would go up. The farmer selling his next season’s crop might not have understood a modern financial derivative, but he would have recognized that use of it. The trouble is that derivatives are so powerful that—human nature being what it is—people could not resist using them as a form of leveraged bet.42

50The underlying objection to financial leverage in this sense is that it becomes functionally disconnected from any productive activity or meaningful discourse: it’s just money talking to money. From this perspective, the lottery is simply the realization of the recursive utopianism of financial markets, their desire to liberate themselves from the friction of reference and materiality, to inhabit a realm as ‘pure’ as that of the imagined imaginary—and as unsustainable.

51Here it becomes easy, perhaps irresistible, to see Gogol’s Dead Souls as something of a compendium of Krzhizhanovskiana and O’Brien leavings. Chichikov is one more in a line of people, characters, writers, ideas, trying to make something out of nothing, trying to make themselves out of nothing, using the special metachronotope of paper—the de Selby codex in The Third Policeman, the lottery slips in ‘The Unbitten Elbow’, the deeds for dead serfs in Dead Souls. Chichikov’s scheme is to utilize the instruments of mortgage and the census to get papers to talk to papers in a way that can eventually generate an actual, material estate. Gogol’s stated intention was to build the narrative itself into something positive, to turn the spiritual emptiness of the first volume into substance—just as he wanted the products of his pen to be of positive use to the fatherland. But the second volume collapsed under the weight of these expectations, never escaping its origin in Gogol’s fantasy or its destiny in his fireplace. The hellish expanding and collapsing geometry of such speculative places, whether generated by stories about stories or by analogous financial meta-processes, had been O’Brien’s and Krzhizhanovsky’s great theme, and in Dead Souls Gogol brought that part of the tradition to its culminating annihilation.


1 I would like to thank Muireann Maguire, Jacob Emery, Justin Weir, Caryl Emerson, Carsten Strathausen, Mike Barrett, and Trudy Lewis for valuable comments on this essay and some of the ideas behind it.

2 Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol (New York: New Directions, 1944), p. 150.

3 Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 261.

4 J. C. C. Mays, ‘Brian O’Nolan and Joyce on Art and Life’, James Joyce Quarterly, 11: 3 (Spring 1974), 238–56 (pp. 240–41).

5 O’Brien’s interest in the work of J. W. Dunne, specifically the latter’s ideas about precognitive dreams, suggests another reason he might have embraced the idea of anticipatory plagiarism. See J.W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1927). Dunne’s ideas were fruitful for another writer, Vladimir Nabokov, who took them beyond the scope of this essay. See Gennady Barabtarlo, Insomniac Dreams: Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018),, and Eric Naiman’s afterword to this volume.

6 Kenner, A Colder Eye, p. 257.

7 M. Keith Booker, Flann O’Brien, Bakhtin, and Menippean Satire (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995), p. 52.

8 Conan Kennedy, Looking for De Selby (Killala: Morrigan Books, 1998).

9 Keith Hopper, Flann O’Brien: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist (Cork: Cork University Press, 2009), p. 243, fn. 19,

10 For some stimulating examples of English-language scholarship on Krzhizhanovsky, see Muireann Maguire, ‘The little man in the overcoat: Gogol and Krzhizhanovsky’, in Russian Writers and the Fin de Siècle, edited by Katherine Bowers and Ani Kokobobo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 180–96,; Karen Link Rosenflanz, Hunter of Themes: The Interplay of Word and Thing in the Works of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskij (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), and articles by Rosenflanz, N. L. Liederman, Alisa Ballard, and Caryl Emerson in a special issue of Slavic and East European Journal [SEEJ], 56: 4 (Winter 2012), Especially relevant to the present essay is Maguire’s remark that Krzhizhanovsky’s ‘Quadraturin’ and Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ are both ‘ “untimely”’, in the sense that they were radically misunderstood by critics of their own time’ (182).

11 To compound a rhetorical question with a pedantic answer: O’Brien could have chosen (at least) German, Latin, or Irish for this trick; Krzhizhanovsky could have used (at the very least) Polish, German, French, English, or Latin. The odds that both writers would choose a language different from the base language of his own or the other’s text (the effect would have been lost if Krhzizhanovsky had chosen English), but the same as the language of the other’s joke, are therefore something on the order of two in fifteen. The odds that they would both choose to make the exact same joke in that language remain incalculably small.

12 Thus N. L. Liederman’s observation that ‘ [t] o the highest degree characteristic of Krzhizhanovsky’s poetics is a tactile perception of phenomena that have been created for the specific purpose of signifying’. See Liederman, ‘The Intellectual Worlds of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’, SEEJ, 56: 4 (Winter 2012), 507–35 (p. 513).

13 Pierre Bayard, ‘Anticipatory Plagiarism’, trans. by Jeffrey Mehlman, New Literary History, 44: 2 (Spring 2013), 231–50 (p. 233), The original may be found in Pierre Bayard, Le Plagiat par anticipation (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2009), p. 108.

14 T. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot, 2nd edn (New York: Harcourt, 1950), pp. 3–11.

15 In a January 1940 letter to William Saroyan. See Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1999), p. viii.

16 See Rosenflanz, Hunter of Themes, esp. Chapter Two, ‘Slova: Words’ (pp. 23–55), and A. V. Sinitskaia, ‘Emblematicheskii printsip i prostranstvennye formy v tekste’, Literaturovedenie [Vestnik SamGU] (2003), 1–10 (p. 3).

17 Nikolay Gogol, Dead Souls: A Poem, trans. by Robert Maguire (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), pp. 279–80.

18 On the geometry and ontology of Krzhizhanovsky’s imagined worlds, see especially V. N. Toporov, ‘ “Minus”-prostranstvo Sigizmunda Krzhizhanovskogo’, in Toporov, Mif. Ritual. Simvol. Obraz: Issledovaniia v oblasti mifopoeticheskogo: Izbrannoe (Moscow: Kul’tura, 1995), pp. 476–574; and Karen Link Rosenflanz, ‘Overturned Verticals and Extinguished Suns: Facets of Krzhizhanovsky’s Fourth Dimension’, SEEJ, 56: 4 (Winter 2012), 536–52.

19 It is too much to suggest, except perhaps in a footnote, that any of our writers were stealing from Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), even if this film does share themes of warped reality and unexpected mind-to-mind contact that we have been discussing, and some economic connections that we will explore later. By ‘inception’ here I simply mean the initial creation of an imagined space.

20 O’Brien, Third Policeman, p. 74.

21 Nikolai Gogol, ‘The Overcoat’, in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, pp. 394–424 (p. 394).

22 Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (New York: Signet, 1976), p. 9.

23 Ibid., p. 33.

24 Examples of twentieth-century utopianism are too many and varied to list; they range (at least) from the rise of Taylor’s Scientific Management to Scriabin’s planned Mysterium, an unfinished multi-media piece which was to bring about Armageddon when performed in the Himalayas. For a study of the utopian aspects of the Russian Revolution, see Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

25 Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, trans. by Rose Strunsky (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1960), p. 256.

26 In an irresistible echo of the de Selby/derselbe quest, the origins of this assertion seem impossible to find. It may have begun in a remark by William James around the turn of the century, or even earlier, in the years just following the American Civil War. In its earliest forms the claim had no percentage; by 1929, readers of the World Almanac could read a self-improvement advertisement claiming that ‘scientists and psychologists tell us we use only about TEN PERCENT of our brain power’. See Berry L. Beyerstein, ‘Whence Cometh the Myth that We Only Use 10 % of our Brains?’, in Mind Myths, ed. by Sergio della Sala (Chichester: Wiley, 1999), pp. 3–24 (p. 11).

27 O’Brien, Third Policeman, p. 189.

28 O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, p. 250.

29 Ibid., p. 255.

30 O’Brien, Third Policeman, p. 70.

31 Ibid., p. 73.

32 The Russian source is N.V. Gogol’, ‘Portret’, in N.V. Gogol’, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v dvadtsati trekh tomakh, ed. by Iu.V. Mann (Moscow: Nauka, 2001-), III (2009), pp. 46–80 (p. 59). The English source is cited from Nikolai Gogol, Arabesques, trans. by Alexander Tulloch (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1982), pp. 56–97 (p. 72).

33 On the demonic aspects of the tailor Petrovich, see Dmitry Chizhevsky, ‘About Gogol’s “Overcoat”’, in Gogol from the Twentieth Century, ed. by Robert A. Maguire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 293–322 (pp. 319–20).

34 Gogol, ‘Overcoat’, p. 416.

35 Ibid., p. 415

36 O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, p. 60.

37 Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, ‘The Unbitten Elbow’, in Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse, trans. by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov (New York: New York Review Books, 2013), pp. 125–35 (p. 125).

38 Ibid., p. 133.

39 Ibid., pp. 133–34.

40 The theme is familiar, for example, from a scene in Chapter Nine of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, where speculation in foreign currency gets Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, chairman of a tenants’ association, arrested.

41 For a discussion of Pound and monetary theories related to the themes of the present essay, see Richard Sieburth, ‘In Pound We Trust: The Economics of Poetry/The Poetry of Economics’, Critical Inquiry, 14: 1 (1987), 142–72, For a sympathetic explication of Pound’s economic thinking, and the underlying theories of Clifford Hugh Douglass, see Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 301–17, For an extended treatment of these theories in the context of Pound’s antisemitism, see Leon Surette, Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

42 John Lanchester, ‘How Money Went Postmodern’, The New Yorker, 10 November 2008, 80–84 (p. 83).


Teaches Russian language, literature, and cultural history at the University of Missouri. His research interests include the writings of Nikolai Gogol, Andrey Bely, and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and the intellectual history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russia. He is author of The Stony Dance: Unity and Gesture in Andrey Bely’s “Petersburg” (2005) and co-editor and co-translator, with Justin Weir, of Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays (2000).


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