A bit of a change for this week’s newsletter: Today’s poem, story, and prompt are guest-curated by writer Jé Wilson. I’m excited to open the newsletter to a different voice, and welcome others who are interested in guest-curating! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested. —Alanna
Quarantine-confined at home, we’ve all been daydreaming of extra rooms. Adapting to one’s allotted space—not only inside domestic walls but within the larger socio-political framework—involves making psychological adjustments that can be demoralizing and disorienting. The pieces I’ve chosen for Alanna’s newsletter this week inhabit an unruly kind of architecture. In Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s darkly comic story, set in nineteen-twenties Moscow, a product designed to magically “biggerize” a character’s apartment becomes sinister and terrifying. In Jana Prikryl’s pre-quarantine poem, a similar mix of the real and unreal sends inescapable economic realities tumbling into an expansive metaphysics. Both writers imagine a moment when the constraints of one’s small familiar dwelling start to morph and expand, producing a comparable dizzying change in the legroom of the mind.
Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, Interior from Liselund, 1916 (Borrowed from Rabih Alameddine, whose Twitter account showcases some wonderful art and poetry @rabihalameddine)
In which the studio
grows L-shaped, with an alcove
for the bed, you modest dream, in which the railroad
widens sideways, new door
a sudden wing ought to invade the brownstone
next door, but that brownstone loses nothing in the dream
in which another room
it’s huge, with grand piano and French doors
opening on a view of my private beach, why have I never bothered
going in this room before?
Those years obedient to time is money when
it’s space that’s time, every tenant diligently building out the common night
Who is this person?
Jana Prikryl is the author of two books of poems, No Matter (2019) and The After Party (2016). Born in the former Czechoslovakia, she grew up in Canada and moved to New York City in 2003. She works as a senior editor and poetry editor at The New York Review of Books. Her writing has received support from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Yaddo, and the Canada Council for the Arts.
From outside there came a soft knock at the door: once. Pause. And again—a bit louder and bonier: twice.
Sutulin, without rising from his bed, extended—as was his wont—a foot toward the knock, threaded a toe through the door handle, and pulled. The door swung open. On the threshold, head grazing the lintel, stood a tall, gray man the color of the dusk seeping in at the window.
Before Sutulin could set his feet on the floor the visitor stepped inside, wedged the door quietly back into its frame, and jabbing first one wall, then another, with a briefcase dangling from an apishly long arm, said, “Yes: a matchbox.”
“Your room, I say: it’s a matchbox. How many square feet?”
“Eighty-six and a bit.”
“Precisely. May I?”
And before Sutulin could open his mouth, the visitor sat down on the edge of the bed and hurriedly unbuckled his bulging briefcase. Lowering his voice almost to a whisper, he went on. “I’m here on business. You see, I, that is, we, are conducting, how shall I put it…well, experiments, I suppose. Under wraps for now. I won’t hide the fact: a well-known foreign firm has an interest in our concern. You want the electric-light switch? No, don’t bother: I’ll only be a minute. So then: we have discovered—this is a secret now—an agent for biggerizing rooms. Well, won’t you try it?”
The stranger’s hand popped out of the briefcase and proffered Sutulin a narrow dark tube, not unlike a tube of paint, with a tightly screwed cap and a leaden seal. Sutulin fidgeted bewilderedly with the slippery tube and, though it was nearly dark in the room, made out on the label the clearly printed word: quadraturin. When he raised his eyes, they came up against the fixed, unblinking stare of his interlocutor.
“So then, you’ll take it? The price? Goodness, it’s gratis. Just for advertising. Now if you’ll”—the guest began quickly leafing through a sort of ledger he had produced from the same brief-case—“just sign this book (a short testimonial, so to say). A pencil? Have mine. Where? Here: column three. That’s it.”
His ledger clapped shut, the guest straightened up, wheeled around, stepped to the door… and a minute later Sutulin, having snapped on the light, was considering with puzzledly raised eyebrows the clearly embossed letters: quadraturin.
On closer inspection it turned out that this zinc packet was tightly fitted—as is often done by the makers of patented agents— with a thin transparent paper whose ends were expertly glued together. Sutulin removed the paper sheath from the Quadraturin, unfurled the rolled-up text, which showed through the paper’s transparent gloss, and read:
Dissolve one teaspoon of the quadraturin essence in one cup of water. Wet a piece of cotton wool or simply a clean rag with the solution; apply this to those of the room’s internal walls designated for proliferspansion. This mixture leaves no stains, will not damage wallpaper, and even contributes—incidentally—to the extermination of bedbugs.
Thus far Sutulin had been only puzzled. Now his puzzlement was gradually overtaken by another feeling, strong and disturbing. He stood up and tried to pace from corner to corner, but the corners of this living cage were too close together: a walk amounted to almost nothing but turns, from toe to heel and back again. Sutulin stopped short, sat down, and closing his eyes, gave himself up to thoughts, which began: Why not…? What if…? Suppose…? To his left, not three feet away from his ear, someone was driving an iron spike into the wall. The hammer kept slipping, banging, and aiming, it seemed, at Sutulin’s head. Rubbing his temples, he opened his eyes: the black tube lay in the middle of the narrow table, which had managed somehow to insinuate itself between the bed, the windowsill, and the wall. Sutulin tore away the leaden seal, and the cap spun off in a spiral. From out of the round aperture came a bitterish gingery smell. The smell made his nostrils flare pleasantly.
“Hmm … Let’s try it. Although …”
And, having removed his jacket, the possessor of Quadraturin proceeded to the experiment. Stool up against door, bed into middle of room, table on top of bed. Nudging across the floor a saucer of transparent liquid, its glassy surface gleaming with a slightly yellowish tinge, Sutulin crawled along after it, systematically dipping a handkerchief wound around a pencil into the Quadraturin and daubing the floorboards and patterned wallpaper. The room really was, as that man today had said, a matchbox. But Sutulin worked slowly and carefully, trying not to miss a single corner. This was rather difficult since the liquid really did evaporate in an instant or was absorbed (he couldn’t tell which) without leaving even the slightest film; there was only its smell, increasingly pungent and spicy, making his head spin, confounding his fingers, and causing his knees, pinned to the floor, to tremble slightly. When he had finished with the floorboards and the bottom of the walls, Sutulin rose to his strangely weak and heavy feet and continued to work standing up. Now and then he had to add a little more of the essence. The tube was gradually emptying. It was already night outside. In the kitchen, to the right, a bolt came crashing down. The apartment was readying for bed. Trying not to make any noise, the experimenter, clutching the last of the essence, climbed up onto the bed and from the bed up onto the tottering table: only the ceiling remained to be Quadraturinized. But just then someone banged on the wall with his fist. “What’s going on? People are trying to sleep, but he’s …”
Turning around at the sound, Sutulin fumbled: the slippery tube spurted out of his hand and landed on the floor. Balancing carefully, Sutulin got down with his already drying brush, but it was too late. The tube was empty, and the rapidly fading spot around it smelled stupefyingly sweet. Grasping at the wall in his exhaustion (to fresh sounds of discontent from the left), he summoned his last bit of strength, put the furniture back where it belonged, and without undressing, fell into bed. A black sleep instantly descended on him from above: both tube and man were empty.
—Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, trans. Joanne Turnbull (Read the rest here)
Who is this person?
Born in 1887 in Kiev, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky lived in Moscow from 1922 on, where he freelanced, lectured, and worked as a theater consultant. Almost none of the fiction he wrote was published in his lifetime, since his “experimental realism” (as he termed it) was not favored by Soviet censors and editors. A collection was finally slated for publication in 1941 but the Second World War thwarted that plan. He died in 1950. His fiction was preserved by his wife but then languished in State Archives and did not appear in full until the early 2000s. His works have been translated into English by Joanne Turnbull.
Try writing something in which architecture plays a key role. Maybe the room becomes a kind of character, maybe a building’s strange design is central to the plot, maybe the psychology of a character hinges on something architectural? Architecture and horror are old bedfellows but architecture and comedy seem to get paired less often. Maybe try for something comic, absurd, and/or ironic?
Jé Wilson was born in Canada and has lived in New York for 14 years. Her work has appeared in The Public Domain Review, Books in Canada, The Globe and Mail, The Halloween Review, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @jewilsn