Stalinist Russia was a tough place for an absurdist poet, but Daniil Kharms knew you can’t kill a pseudonym.
They came to bad ends mostly, one way or another. Konstantin Vaginov, a member of OBERIU, died from tuberculosis in 1934. Nikolay Oleinikov was arrested in 1937. He died the same year. Alexander Vvedensky, the co-founder of OBERIU who said “our logic and our language skid along the surface of time,” died in 1941, his body pitched into an unmarked grave, surrounded by others like himself, the many, many dead, the purged.
Fifty years later Viktor Shklovsky wrote about his contemporaries: “We used to be young, we were known as the Futurists.” He didn’t mean the Futurists or the Oberiuty specifically. He meant all those Russians who greeted the future like it was a parading elephant.
Daniil Kharms survived the 1930s. He died in 1942, left to starve in the psych ward of Leningrad Prison No. 1. His crime this time involved treason. He spent his last days wasting away as Nazis sieged the city. Kharms was an artist, a dandified gentleman who had a chiseled face and an eccentric style of dress; he is remembered for co-founding OBERIU, the Union of Real Art, an organization of activist absurdists who dismissed realistic writers as purveyors of the drab and demanded a new art that was one-third highbrow language experiment, eight-sevenths freakshow. Kharms is also remembered for his stories, surreal blots like the “Blue Notebook” series and “The Old Woman,” tales that tell of strange occurrences, odd happenings, and dead ends. Very little of Kharms’s writing for adults was published while he was alive.
After the avant-garde heydays of the early 1920s, once RAPP (The Association of Proletarian Writers) commandeered the literary scene and Stalin’s iron-grip closed around the throats of so many, Kharms made a living, and not much of one to be sure, by writing books for children. His writing for adults was considered suspect by the state.
Some of his children’s books have been translated into English. First, Second (translated by Richard Pevear) and The Story of a Boy Named Will, Who Went Sledding Down a Hill (translated by Jamey Gambrell) are tales of adventure, where one person starts off on a journey and others join in, whether they want to or not. There’s plenty of joyousness and great playfulness in the books. In First, Second, when the long man says he needs to find the “right-sized horse” to ride, Pete says, “You don’t need a horse, you need an elephant.” And the narrator says, “And you won’t find any elephants here. This isn’t Africa.” All the sudden there’s a burst of uproar from the street and when the friends look out a window there’s an elephant walking toward them. In The Story of a Boy Named Will, Who Went Sledding Down a Hill, the number of people riding Will’s sled snowballs. Will crashes into a hunter, a dog, a fox, a hare, and a bear, all of whom are captured by the momentum of the ride. They rush onward. The story ends with the sad statement that “And since then, I’ve heard it said, Willie never rides his sled.” Their fun comes to a stop and won’t ever happen again.
As an adult reading Kharms’s books for children, it’s difficult not to read more into the stories, to look for political and aesthetic messages weirdly woven into the text. And yet it’s also frivolous, since these are items of charming nonsense, unmoored from purpose, reason, and meaning. The elephant appears out of the blue, the sled adventure grows linearly then ends. There’s no explaining it. Kharms’s stories are filled with this delightful absurdity, where the apparently rigid logic of everyday life, of cause-and-effect and clear-cut explanations, falls away, revealing another world, one that’s strange and carnivalesque, a shimmering world where the bizarrest stuff can happen and no one takes notice, a world just like the one we live in.
Gabriel Gibain, in his introduction to Russia’s Lost Literature of the Absurd, the earliest collection of OBERIU literature published in English, writes that Kharms’s “children’s stories veer toward adult literature; [his] stories and plays for adults resemble literature for children and the writing of the insane.” Regardless of what he was writing, Kharms cherished the fancifulness of children’s tales in which non-sequitors are accepted like free pastries, violence is blown-up to cartoon proportions, and objects can transform into any old thing. Kind words can turn into a gleeful bird, a candlestick’s wick might be used to brush one’s teeth. These are flights of fancy to be sure, but they are well-earned. Against the gray, oppressive world it takes effort to maintain such wonder.
Kharms’s outlook was bolstered by his friendships, especially his membership in OBERIU. They were wild, fun ones, the Oberiuty—practitioners of their “real art.” Kharms, Vvedensky, Vaginov, Zabolotksy, and others traversed the snow-buried Leningrad to drink tea and conjure up the new. In those days, there were many lively circles of poets, dreamers, critics, and fools spinning around various Russian milieus, the Acmeists, the Futurists, the Formalists, the zaum blasters, and so on. They left wet boot prints on each other’s welcome mats. When the Oberiuty asked old-timer Kazimir Malevich to help with some theatrical productions, he said, “I’m an old troublemaker, and you’re young troublemakers. Let’s see what happens.” There is no camaraderie like the camaraderie of kooks.
A half century later Viktor Shklovsky wrote, “When a person dies we remember or try to remember the person as a whole; the art of seeing a person is a rare thing.” Shklovsky mourned for the gaps in understanding, for how little he knew of his departed friends. Of course, Shklovsky and Kharms weren’t close, but they shared friends and thus love. Their world is gone now, glimpsed only in askance anecdotes and the footnotes of history books. Their lives dash past us like a sled blurring by.
They were seen as rabble-rousers and jabberwocky dissidents, so-called “literary hooligans” by the police, because the members of OBERIU staged madcap events, precisely the opposite of what the socialist realists wanted. To uphold the worker, to depict the grinding oppression of capitalism, to praise Stalin and other heroes—these were the goals of RAPP and the socialist realists. The Oberiuty were more interested in chaos and antics atop armoires. In 1928, they staged “Three Leftist Hours,” a flagrant event that began with a poetry reading involving tricycles, dressers, and ruffled costumery, and concluded with a screening of the now-lost but certainly enjoyable Film Number One: Meat Grinder. Energetic discussion ensued. Naturally, this much nonsense irked the social realists. Anything related to the “left” was linked to Trotsky and thus tainted. Anything that could not be easily categorized was considered indulgent and therefore criminal. It was not the best time to be a kook.
In 1931, Kharms was arrested and charged with anti-Soviet activities. His children’s books, the police said, were too absurd; they didn’t embrace the new reality. Stalin’s ruffians wanted to live in a world where elephants would not appear out of the blue. They did not approve of extravagant sledding activities. A man screaming poetry from atop an armoire was worse than criminal; it represented a tear in the new reality. In one of Kharms’s children stories, the porcupines shout, “Cock-a-doodle-doo.” In another, Brazil is only a short drive from Leningrad. These impossible occurrences were unacceptable, weird whack-a-moles popping up and poking through the veneer of ordinary life. Who could tolerate such mischief? Kharms’s writing is a testament to the absurd protruding into the everyday. In his stories, the components of usual life abound—there are the streets, loaves of bread, sleds; the bland and bureaucratic are all around—but there is also a zone where the regular boundaries of adult life do not exist, where the wackiness is wildly active. Everyone lives under the sovereignty of the non-sequitor. Kharms’s writing is ridiculous surely. But look out the window, there’s an elephant grinning at you.
Translators Eugene Ostahevsky and Matvei Yankelevish warn against reading too much into the political context when trying to understand OBERIU. It’s too simplistic, they say, to reduce the oddity of Kharms’s and Vvendensky’s writing to an act of pitiful political rebellion. The kooks will keep on, even when the nooses are being strung from the tall branches of trees and even when the melancholy settles in. Like German journalist Karl Kraus looking after his commas while Shanghai burns, Daniil Kharms had to keep his imagination well-stocked with silly strangeness even as the horrors mounted. Someone has to maintain this wonder. And anyway, the essential problem is not the Soviets. It is a world where everyone insists porcupines cannot shout “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”
Kharms died young. This is nothing special. Most of his friends did too. In 1930, Mayakovsky played a game of Russian roulette with himself and lost. In 1941, Marina Tsvetaeva hung herself because life could only get worse. Mandelstem, Babel, and Vvendensky were left for dead in the name of progress and the new reality. By the second time Kharms was tossed in jail, the promise of the revolution had unraveled. The bright future was taken out back and shot. A few years later this fellow Kharms was buried deep. The snow covered another unmarked grave; the porcupines crowed at daybreak. In their dreams, the living fled to Brazil. Luckily, Kharms’s vision survives. After his death, a friend named Yakov Druskin snuck into the old apartment and stole a suitcase of manuscripts. Druskin kept this suitcase hidden like a secret love for years and years. Someone has to maintain Shangri La while Shanghai burns.
Don’t worry. They say Kharms didn’t die. His real name was Daniil Yuvachev. Kharms was a pseudonym, and you can’t kill a pseudonym. In some of his stories, there’s the sense of heaven tingling about us. The scent of burnt feathers is strong. It is a heaven Kharms looked at with deep-socketed eyes; his cheeks looking like they’d been carved from ungainly stone—it is a heaven composed of everyday objects rearranged into a weirder world just like the one we live in. He was an eccentric man with his contrived ticks and lackadaisical habits, to be sure. He wore funny hats and treated his melancholy as an unpleasant mistress; he named her Iganvia. It’s the name of a lady who wears galoshes in the summer and makes her own stinky perfume. Still, the scent of heaven lingers.
Here is one moment of Kharms’s writing: “I suddenly had the impression that I had forgotten something, some incident or important word. I would painstakingly try to remember this word, and it even seemed to me that the word began with the letter ‘M’. No, no! Not with an M at all, but with an R.”
The snow fell on Leningrad and the kooks kept quiet for a bit. But even if only in the theaters of their own minds, the wackiness persisted.
More than one of Kharms’s stories ends with the line, “That’s the story, more or less.” It’s a last line that defies climax and negates purpose, as if the storyteller said with a wicked grin, “Forget I mentioned it! It’s only a frivolous tale after all.” When thinking of Kharms’s life, it’s easy to think this too: He lived for a while then died. That’s the story, more or less.
Yet the Soviet ruffians can’t kill what they can’t imagine. Somewhere still, whether it’s in the blink of a child’s imagination or right outside your window, the elephants are on parade. The gray atrocity that took Kharms’s life could never comprehend how quickly one can get from Leningrad to Brazil. All the world’s pseudonyms live on in an enormous boarding house that’s a few blocks up from that park just north of here. In fact, if you know the right knock you can call on Kharms at any time. They say if you go on the right night you can catch him at the theater. Kharms, like any dandified gentleman, frequented the theater.
Here is another moment from Kharms’s writing: “A dog in a small hat came up. Footsteps sounded and splashed. A fly was throwing the windows open. Let’s look out the window!”
Kharms was a man about town, a man full of twitches and winks, glimpses of a weirder way, a man who collected trinkets the way he collected eccentricities. He had a machine in his room. It was a homemade machine. When friends asked what’s it do? “Nothing,” Kharms said. “It’s just a machine.” He wore a fake moustache to the theater. He said it was indecent for a man to be seen without his moustache.
Photo of Daniil Kharms courtesy of the Architectural Association.