Art Is a Cupboard!

Tony Wood

  • Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich
    Overlook Duckworth, 287 pp, £20.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 1 58567 743 6

An old woman leans out of her window and, ‘because of her excessive curiosity’, leans too far: she falls to the ground and shatters to pieces. A second old woman leans out of her window to see what has happened to the first – and also leans too far, tumbling to the same fate. More women follow suit (a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth), a chain that ends only because the narrator of this story, ‘sick of watching them’, breaks off to go to the market.

We are clearly in a fictional world very different from our own, in which curious old women are in infinite supply, and seemingly made of glass. The narrator’s yawning nonchalance towards these events only underlines the distance separating our world from his, where death is cartoonish and commonplace rather than traumatic or terrifying. It is the world of Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer whose work – predominantly written in the Soviet Union in the 1930s – contains countless comic reversals, fantastical or nonsensical outcomes, as well as outbursts of unmotivated violence. Occasionally his characters simply die out of the blue: ‘One day Orlov stuffed himself with mashed peas and died. Krylov, having heard the news, also died. And Spiridonov died regardless. And Spiridonov’s wife fell from the cupboard and also died. And the Spiridonov children drowned in a pond.’ ‘Characters’ is perhaps too strong a word for these unfortunates: we are given no idea of who Orlov, Krylov or Spiridonov are, just the fact of their demise. Here, as with the old women, Kharms’s narrator brushes aside all the tragic ends, closing instead with a brisk judgment: ‘All good people but they don’t know how to hold their ground.’ The story in question is only ten lines long, and reads like a Chekhovian equivalent of the Monty Python sketch where contestants are asked to summarise Proust in 15 seconds – with an incongruous, unforgiving moral added as a punchline. Elsewhere in the world of Kharms, even fraudulent guidance is withheld: after a fight between Comrades Koshkin and Mashkin involving arm-waving, grotesque leg movements, yelps and punches, the bottom line is simply that ‘Mashkin killed Koshkin.’

Kharms’s work has frequently been classed as absurdist, a forerunner to the theatre of Ionesco or Beckett, or else interpreted as a blackly humorous allegory for the dehumanising effects of the Soviet system – as if Kafka had been made to inhabit one of the bureaucracies he invented. But readings of the first kind arguably start at the wrong end, tracking back from comparator to original; and treating Kharms as an Aesopian anti-totalitarian requires some long interpretative leaps. His poetry, plays and prose stand in a complex, uncomfortable relation to his times; indeed, there is about them a strong sense of untimeliness: when Kharms began his literary life in the mid-1920s, the astonishing avant-garde ferment of the pre and immediately post-Revolutionary period had already become an embattled minoritarian trend, as representational art and realism came increasingly to dominate. In many ways, his work represents the limits of the Russian literary vanguard as much as its strengths: its creativity, its formal radicalism, but also its exhaustion and collapse in the leaden years of Stalinism.

Kharms was born Daniil Yuvachev in St Petersburg in 1905, to an aristocratic mother and a father who had been a member of the violent populist organisation Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). Educated in part at the elite Peterschule, where instruction was in German, Kharms was also fluent in English; his anglophilia may explain the pseudonym he adopted in 1924, which echoes the Cyrillic transcription of Sherlock Holmes’s surname. But, much like Kharms himself, the name is an idiosyncratic one-off, unplaceable within any obvious frame of reference, except perhaps some private symbolic universe of the writer’s own. It seems likely that he had one: many of his poems are dated using astrological symbols, and some of the nonsense names that crop up in his work – ‘Nona’, ‘Khniu’, ‘Ligudim’ – have been decoded as references to arcane sources, though more straightforwardly Christian motifs feature in his later work.

Throughout his life, Kharms cultivated an eccentric public persona that reinforced the singularity of his written output. This involved such oddball stunts as perching on the façade of the Singer building on Nevsky Prospekt in plus fours and spats to invite the passing crowds to a poetry evening. One visitor to his apartment reported seeing a contraption made of bits of metal, wooden boards, springs, a bicycle wheel and empty jars; Kharms said it was ‘a machine’, and, when asked what kind, replied: ‘No kind. Just a machine.’ He also seems to have collected unusual friends: in her 1982 monograph on Kharms, Alice Stone Nakhimovsky mentions a Dr Chapeau; apparently ‘ideally attentive’ as a physician, Chapeau also ‘drank a great deal and tended to urinate on the floor’. An obliging Kharms, we are told, ‘simply kept a mop on hand’.

Kharms’s studiedly outlandish behaviour belonged to the world in which he operated. In 1925, he joined the Writers’ Union, having dropped out of engineering school the year before, and became involved in the avant-garde poetry circles of the newly renamed Leningrad. The most radical pre-Revolutionary poetic tendency had sought to liberate the word from stale, conventional meaning through jarring juxtapositions of sound. The combinations of words and fragmented phonemes supposedly constituted a ‘transrational’ – zaumnyi – language that would better express the true nature of the world. Its leading exponent, Velimir Khlebnikov, had died in 1922, but Kharms joined the group that had formed around Khlebnikov’s self-professed heir, the now largely forgotten poet Aleksandr Tufanov. Through these connections, Kharms met a number of other poets and writers, with whom he founded an experimental theatre group in 1927; this in turn was the basis for a new literary movement called the Society for Real Art. Oberiu, its slightly contorted acronym, doubled handily as a nonsense word in its own right, signalling a debt to the earlier zaum poets.

The ‘Oberiu Declaration’ was presented in January 1928 at a theatrical soirée involving circus acts, juggling and a pipe-smoking Kharms sitting on top of a cupboard. It urged listeners to ‘look at an object with bare eyes and you will for the first time see it cleansed of its crumbling literary gilding … To cleanse the object of the rubbish of ancient, decayed cultures – is this not the real requirement of our times?’ The combination of clowning and seriousness – painted faces claiming to represent, through broken verses, an ultimate, ‘true’ reality beyond conventional appearances – is typical enough of the Russian avant-garde. But the Oberiu was hoisting the standard of radical experimentation at a time when more conventional modes and mores were resurgent. Its founding manifesto starts on a revealingly defensive note, protesting at the marginalisation of painters such as Malevich and Pavel Filonov, to whom the group were close, but who were under increasing attack from artists and critics close to officialdom for their continued attachment to abstraction and formalism.

Responses to the Oberiu were similarly critical: in 1928, Krasnaya gazeta described the on-stage antics of Kharms and Co as ‘obscene’, objecting to their daubed faces and alogical slogans (‘Art is a cupboard!’). That year, the First Five-Year Plan was announced, inaugurating a period of forced-pace industrialisation and massive social mobility across the USSR. The Oberiu continued to put on events until 1931, but was often treated with hostility: a 1930 performance in a student dormitory was described as ‘reactionary juggling’. The audience was ‘indignant’, the reviewer claimed, because ‘in a period of the most intense efforts of the proletariat on the front of socialist construction, the Obereuts [sic] stand outside the social reality of the Soviet Union.’ Even at the time, the Oberiu was seen as a belated arrival on the avant-garde scene that was only repeating earlier provocations, and in a context where they were at best likely to be ineffective. The Futurist escapades of the 1910s – face-paint, garbled language, a manifesto entitled ‘A Slap in the Face of Public Taste’ – had taken place in a bourgeois culture whose conventions they were designed to disrupt; but as the Krasnaya gazeta correspondent observed of the Oberiu, ‘in 1928 no one will be épaté by a red wig, and there is no one left to scare.’

But it was not simply barriers of class consciousness that the Oberiu confronted: it had also arrived at an unbreachable literary limit. The 1928 manifesto had sharply distanced the group from their former mentor Tufanov, who by this time had decided to lead poetry away from the word altogether, proclaiming the phoneme as its medium; it was Tufanov the Oberiu were targeting when they announced themselves to be ‘the first enemies of those who castrate the word and turn it into an impotent and senseless mongrel’. The task, rather, was to liberate the word from its mundane representational burdens by breaking the associative chains that conventional usage imposed. A 1927 text by Kharms contends that ‘every object has four working meanings and a fifth, quintessential meaning’, described as ‘the free will of the object … The fifth meaning of the cupboard is the cupboard. The fifth meaning of running is running.’ The incongruous juxtapositions of objects in Kharms’s poetry were intended to sever the connections between the object and its ‘working’ meanings, leaving a free-floating ‘verbal series’ of independent essences which would only seem ‘nonsensical from a human perspective’.

There are some obvious problems with this: the human perspective is the only one we have, and if we are to grasp an object’s quiddity through poetry, it will have to be through linguistic conventions of some sort. (Would the object notice its liberation from the bonds of language?) The fact that an aesthetic project was impossible was, of course, never an obstacle to the Russian avant-garde. But there seems to be something especially forlorn about Kharms’s ideas here: as if what he wanted was not to remake language or the world of social relations underpinning it, but rather to have both language and the world become something wholly other than what they were. In his excellent 1991 study, Daniil Harms et la fin de l’avant-garde russe, Jean-Philippe Jaccard noted the differences between the Oberiu’s aspirations and those of its predecessors. The zaum poets had attempted to create their ‘transrational’ language the better to grasp reality: in Kharms, ‘this disintegration of language went in tandem with the disintegration of the world itself. A zaum which was supposed to help understand the world now did no more than describe its incoherence.’

This sense of a disordered world is shared by Kharms’s poetry, much of which now seems rather dated and awkward, and his prose of the 1930s, which has retained a taut freshness, its humour always teetering on the brink of something altogether more sombre. The reason perhaps is that the poetry depends on arbitrary suspensions of conventional meaning, whereas the prose relies for its effect on an ambiguous interaction between the accepted range of references and a wild zone where all logical connections have unravelled. It is the possibility of their abolition, the threat of senselessness, that gives Kharms’s work its energy.

The Oberiu was dissolved in 1931. Later that year, Kharms was briefly arrested, as part of a sweep targeting avant-garde writers linked to the Children’s State Publishing House (Detgiz), the only place where he’d been able to secure paid work. (The same is true of many Soviet writers, including Andrei Platonov.) After a few months in exile in Kursk, Kharms returned to Leningrad in late 1932, and spent the remaining ten years of his life there, struggling to earn a living writing nonsense rhymes for children. Poems such as ‘Ivan Ivanich Samovar’ and ‘A Million’ were for decades his most widely known work in Russia, but his reputation now rests on what he wrote ‘for the drawer’ in these years, work never published in his lifetime.

Kharms’s diaries from the 1930s detail recurrent bouts of hunger, paranoia and helplessness as well as prayers for salvation. A line in his ‘Blue Notebook’ from 1937 reads: ‘We’ve died on the fields of the everyday’ – an echo of Mayakovsky’s suicide note of 1930 (‘The boat of love ran aground on the everyday’). Though they distort and transform it often in hilarious ways, Kharms’s prose fragments convey a great deal about the everyday reality of 1930s Russia: queuing for food, overweening bureaucracy, a pervasive sense of vulnerability; violence erupting constantly and inexplicably. A father carries his daughter’s body to the building superintendent and asks him to certify the death, which he does by rubber-stamping her forehead; a man named Kalugin is judged unsanitary, folded in half and thrown out with the trash; after a pointless argument, one man beats another to death with a cucumber: these are only a few examples drawn from a series entitled ‘Sluchai’, which translates as ‘instances’, ‘events’, ‘happenings’ – as if Kharms were calmly chronicling the world outside his window.

But these short pieces do much more than parody the observational mode. There are wonderful send-ups of any number of genres. The epistolary: ‘I am writing to you in answer to your letter, which you are planning to write to me in answer to my letter, which I wrote to you.’ Literary biography, as in the deliberately misspelled ‘Anegdotes from the Life of Pushkin’, in which the poet writes abusive poems about his friends – ‘He called these poems “erpigarms”’ – and where we discover that ‘Pushkin had four sons and all of them idiots. One didn’t even know how to sit on a chair and was always falling off. Pushkin himself was not so great at sitting on chairs.’ Here the principal foil for Kharms’s wit is the Russian literary tradition, irreverently plundered and distorted, as in the novella ‘The Old Woman’, which effectively reverses Crime and Punishment by having an old woman turn up and die unaided in the narrator’s flat. Perhaps the most brilliant piece in ‘Sluchai’ is the pseudo-play ‘Pushkin and Gogol’. Gogol falls onto the stage from behind the curtain and lies still; Pushkin enters, trips over Gogol and falls, crying: ‘What the devil! Could it be Gogol!’ Now Gogol gets up, walks and immediately trips over Pushkin, who gets up again, only to trip over Gogol. And so on until the two exit the stage, each still exclaiming his annoyance at tripping over the other.

Kharms is particularly fond of tantalising comic negations: the beginning that is not a beginning, information that is not information, the story that is not a story. ‘Once upon a time there lived a four-legged crow. Strictly speaking, it had five legs, but that’s not worth talking about.’ We are told that ‘at two o’clock on Nevsky Prospect, or rather on the Avenue of October 25th nothing of note occurred.’ ‘The Meeting’ in its entirety reads: ‘Now, one day a man went to work and on the way he met another man, who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was heading back home where he came from. And that’s it, more or less.’ As with the tumbling old women, the narrative breaks off precisely when we would be expecting it to develop into an exploration of the facts it has previously placed before us; instead, we are left with meaningless specifics, with context and backdrop removed. Sometimes Kharms builds the process of subtraction into the fabric of the story, as in the case of the redheaded man ‘who had no eyes or ears’:

He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.

He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.

He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.

We’d better not talk about him any more.

In his notebook, on the page facing this entry, Kharms wrote ‘Against Kant’: an indication that he was playing a more philosophical game. In ‘On Phenomena and Existences #2’, Nikolai Ivanovich Serpukhov sits before a bottle of vodka, yet behind him there is nothing: ‘There isn’t even any air-less space or, as they say, universal ether.’ In front of him there is ‘the complete lack of any sort of being, or, as they used to joke, the absence of any presence’.

Daniil Kharms

Kharms is not interested in merely pulling the ontological rug from under our feet, however; his recurrent fascination with being and non-being is of a piece with the religious preoccupations that surface with increasing frequency in his later years. ‘The Old Woman’, written in 1939, ends with the (male) protagonist kneeling on the ground in a forest, at one with nature; he bows his head in prayer, seemingly redeemed. But such positive portents are rare. ‘How I Was Visited by Messengers’ betrays a gnawing anxiety about whether we can recognise or even perceive the arrival of the otherworldly: ‘I began looking for the messengers. But how is one to find them? What do they look like?’ In a diary entry from 1939, Kharms wrote that ‘only miracle interests me, as a break in the physical structure of the world.’ The role of miracles in Kharms’s work is not to occur: in ‘The Old Woman’ the narrator plans to write a story ‘about a miracle worker who lives in our time and does not work miracles’. The story doesn’t get written either, the narrator here a transparent proxy for Kharms himself, who was both compelled to write and heavily afflicted by the compulsion. A diary entry reads: ‘I was most happy when pen and paper were taken from me and I was forbidden from doing anything. I had no anxiety about doing nothing by my own fault, my conscience was clear, and I was happy. This was when I was in prison.’

In August 1941, Kharms was rounded up by the NKVD once again. He feigned mental illness to avoid a sentence of hard labour, but died in a prison hospital in 1942, during the siege of Leningrad. After his rehabilitation in the 1960s, some of his unpublished work began to trickle out, much of it in samizdat, but it was only in the 1980s that Russians started to rediscover Kharms. English translations of his poetry were included in anthologies from the 1960s, but anglophones had to wait until the late 1980s for his prose.

The principal difference between the new selection of Kharms, Today I Wrote Nothing, and those previously available is the number of poems Matvei Yankelevich, the translator, includes; this makes it more representative of Kharms’s output as a whole, but the poetry is undeniably patchy. Neil Cornwell’s Incidences (1993) is a stronger volume since it includes some of Kharms’s letters and theoretical writings, as well as the dramatic work Elizaveta Bam, which was performed at the first public Oberiu event in 1928. There are few real errors in Yankelevich’s translations (though I would question whether ‘God bless’ is the best rendering of the Russian Bog s nim, essentially a dismissive locution indicating a desire to change the subject rather than to bless anyone). But in an attempt to convey the colloquial, informal flavour of Kharms’s prose, Yankelevich has made some poor decisions that place us rather too squarely in the present-day US: at one point we are told to ‘check out this scene’, at another that the narrator was ‘shaking so bad that [he] couldn’t answer’; it’s unlikely Kharms would have said ‘gnawing on the goddamn dark’, and unclear who might actually use the expression ‘make my eyes with surprise’.

Yankelevich has, however, written a sensitive introduction that treads a careful path through the many interpretative possibilities open to Kharms readers. What emerges most strongly from the selection is the character of Kharms’s world: both the one he created, in which Gogol and Pushkin tumble across a stage cursing each other and four-legged crows have five legs, and the one in which he was uncomfortably living. It would be wrong to draw too direct a line between the two, but their most obvious shared feature is the violence: carried out, in the case of the stories, or misanthropically imagined, in the case of diary entries and other writings. ‘I hate children, old men and old women, and reasonable older individuals,’ Kharms wrote in the late 1930s. An undated piece begins: ‘When I see a man, I want to smack him in the face. It’s so much pleasure to pound on a man’s face.’ In ‘The Hunters’, six men go hunting and for no good reason begin to tear each other’s limbs off; in ‘The Lecture’, Pushkov expounds on the nature of woman and is constantly interrupted by blows from a silent crowd, who beat him senseless, without the motive for their attacks ever becoming clear.

The violence is often what makes the stories so funny: we laugh at the febrile rage of Kharms’s muzhiks or the pointless arguments of his intelligenti. And we can laugh because the characters are not people but abstractions: the tumbling old women are made of words, they only fall out of the word for a window. But the stories still generate unease, as if the fantastical could at any moment tip over into something horribly real, with our laughter making us complicit. The casual brutality is all the more shocking because it can only be a partial reflection of possibilities latent in reality; it re-creates in fragmentary form the disordered world in which Kharms felt he lived – déréglé, in Rimbaud’s sense. Where zaum poetry took words apart, Kharms’s prose describes a condition in which all meaning has been dismantled, leaving the way open both to comic flights of fancy and to the arbitrary and endless use of force.

The consequences of this were appalling enough in reality; in ‘Rehabilitation’, they are the stuff of terrifying black comedy. The story takes the form of a statement from a multiple murderer, in which he simultaneously outlines his actions in explicit terms and exculpates himself. First he kills a man named Volodya – but ‘it was already evening when I beat him with the clothes iron. Therefore his death was not at all sudden. The fact that I had already cut off his leg in the daytime is no evidence at all.’ Then Andryusha and Elizaveta Antonovna are killed because they got in his way; but, he says, ‘I did not rape Elizaveta Antonovna. First of all, she was not a virgin anymore and, secondly, I was dealing with a corpse, so she has no cause for complaint.’ He also kills her unborn child – but ‘he was created not for this life’ – and their dog; but ‘isn’t it cynical to accuse me of the murder of a dog when, one could say, three human lives were annihilated.’ As for the fact that he drank the blood of his victims and defecated on them, the first was out of a rational desire to cover his tracks, the second the product of a perfectly natural urge, ‘and for that reason not a criminal act’.

In its blithe brutality – the killer refers to most of his victims with friendly diminutives – the story seems to be suggesting that boundless violence is part of the normal repertoire of behaviour; that no reasonable person could have acted otherwise. The cheerful legalism of the conclusion is meant to reveal the full extent of the criminal’s delusion. But its more disturbing effect is to raise the possibility that he might be right; that in both Kharms’s world and ours, justice has as much substance as the non-existent redheaded man: ‘Thus, I understand the apprehensions of my defence, but still have hope for a complete acquittal.’