Daniil Kharms: Today I Wrote Nothing

For decades Daniil Kharms was known in Russia only as a children’s writer. In fact, he was the last genius of the Soviet avant-garde, providing a link from the giants of Futurism to the underground artists of the 1970s and bestselling controversialist Vladimir Sorokin today.

In 1927, just as his colleagues were being encouraged to forget experimentation and concentrate on extolling the joys of communism, Daniil Kharms and some likeminded friends formed the avant-garde literary organisation OBERIU, ‘The Society for Real Art’ in Leningrad. Knowing that this ‘real’ work was unpublishable the members survived by writing children’s books, while meeting in the evenings to read to each other nonsense poems, stories and plays. Kharm’s work in particular revealed a strange, inner world, full of accidents and disappearances, violent deaths and sudden resurrections, not to mention plummeting old women. The stories were extremely short, sometimes only a few sentences long, such as this little gem which he inscribed by hand in a blue notebook:

“There was a 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.

So we’d better not talk about him any more.”

The difficulty of knowing a man who seemingly exists but in fact does not applies to Kharms’ own biography. His birth name was Yuvachev: ‘Kharms’ was derived from the English words ‘harms’, ‘charms’ and ‘Holmes’, as in Sherlock, the fictional detective whose sartorial style he emulated. He had also consciously developed eccentricities, such as a strange hiccup-snorting seizure that disconcerted the NKVD agents who interrogated him. And finally Kharms himself was to vanish, and along with him all the notebooks containing his works. Only after thirty years did they reappear in samizdat, before finally being officially published in the 1980s.

Nowadays Kharms is a major cult in Russia, but in the West he remains obscure. Though the first translations appeared in 1971, it is only in the last decade that an awareness of his work has started to filter through to a foreign audience.  The most comprehensive edition in English to date, ‘Today I Wrote Nothing’ was published last month—its editor and translator, the Russian-American poet Matvei Yankelevich, is the leading Kharmsian writing in English, and also the grandson of the famous Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. His book is the result of fifteen years’ detective work in archives in Moscow and Saint Petersburg: “The manuscripts are all handwritten, covered in doodles and strange calligraphy. Some notebooks contain stories that have been worked over and copied out neatly in a final form, but even the most complete one, ‘Events’, which he dedicated to his wife, becomes more careless towards the end, as if he accepted it was never going to be published.”

Kharms was first arrested in 1931 in a purge of anti-soviet children’s writers. Kharms detested children, but that wasn’t why he was included. Suspicious of his nonsense, the nervous builders of utopia wondered what it was he wasn’t saying.  “They were looking for monarchist and religious remarks. They found a poem in one of his notebooks that mentioned God. That was religious enough for exile to Kursk.” Though life in the provinces was a torment to Kharms, he might have relished the irony that the first official anthology of OBERIU nonsense writing had been compiled by an NKVD agent. Today it sits in the archives of the secret police in Moscow: “At one time I wanted to publish a limited edition just of that file,” says Yankelevich. “In the end I took one poem from it, ‘I raise my gaze’ and included it in the new book. It exists in no other archive. The NKVD agent rescued it.”

Kharms eventually returned to Leningrad, but it became increasingly difficult for him to publish even his children’s writing. Frequently starving, Kharms nevertheless remained committed to nonsense, writing up to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The stories in particular retain all the hallmarks of his dark imagination—the bizarre violence, alogical digressions and sudden twists—and are written in a style that Yankelevich characterises as “direct, visceral and yet with something hidden.”

Given the details of Kharms’ life, Western critics usually view his works as critiques of Stalinism, interpreting the disappearances and diversions almost allegorically. Yankelevich resists this approach: “I’m not completely against political readings, of course; I just worry about them. When you view the work through that lens you lose a lot of depth.” In fact, Yankelevich goes farther, criticizing the term ‘absurdist’ which is also frequently applied to Kharms’ texts: “I have an instinct that there’s something political in that too, that this is an urge dating back to the Cold War to reduce all Russian literature to an eternal act of protest, a belief that because the writers couldn’t speak the truth out loud they wrote nonsense.” Yankelevich argues that Kharms’ ‘absurdism’, which was influenced not only by Russian Futurism but also by Lewis Carrol, Edward Lear and Nikolai Gogol, differs significantly from the post-war variety of Camus, Beckett and Ionesco: “Kharms’ work continued the avant-garde gesture of nihilism and destruction in the hope that he would break old connections and form new ones. He was interested in finding purity, in meanings that are not absurd. He wasn’t hopeless about communication like Ionesco; he reduced things to absurdity in the hope that he might break through to the transcendent. For Kharms, writing was about exorcising demons, about faith, hope, and belief in the miracle… In his notebooks the anti-logical stories sit right alongside magic spells, incantations, prayers, as though he was trying to change the world.”

Kharms’ father had been a member of the same revolutionary group as Lenin’s elder brother. The connection didn’t save him. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, the NKVD arrested all suspicious characters in Leningrad; Kharms was detained in a hospital and starved to death during the blockade. His work would have been lost forever were it not for the loyalty of his friend Yakov Druskin. He ran to Kharms’ lodgings on Mayakovsky Street (which had narrowly avoided being destroyed by a bomb) and retrieved the suitcase stuffed with notebooks that today comprises the majority of Kharms’ oeuvre. Druskin held onto the suitcase until Soviet scholars became interested in the OBERIU in the 1960s, and worked to promote the work of the group until he died in 1980.

Whether or not all readers will agree with Yankelevich’s de-Stalinised take on Kharms, there is no question that he has done the English-speaking audience a service in compiling this new volume. Kharms’ suitcase is still being pulled from that building by those that love him; finally recognised in his homeland, now his enigmatic blend of laughter and violence will shock, delight and baffle an audience that even he, so dedicated to the impossible and illogical, could never have imagined.

From the Guardian, Dec 07 2007

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