A Strangely Funny Russian Genius

The Old Woman

by Daniil Kharms, adapted by Darryl Pinckney, directed by Robert Wilson
Brooklyn Academy of Music, June 22–29, 2014

An Invitation for Me to Think

by Alexander Vvedensky, selected and translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky, with additional translations by Matvei Yankelevich
NYRB/Poets, 135 pp., $12.95 (paper)
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Daniil Kharms, early 1930s

Russia is the funniest country in the world. Some countries, like America and England, are funny mostly on purpose, while others, like Germany and France, can be funny only unintentionally. (But that counts! Being funny is tricky, so any way you do it counts.) Russia, however, is funny both intentionally (Gogol, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov) and unintentionally (Vladimir Putin singing, as he did at a televised event a few years ago, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”). Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.

Surveys that measure such distinctions often rate Russians among the world’s least happy people. To judge from the Russians I know, this information would hold little interest one way or the other. To Russians, happiness is not the big deal it is to us; the Declaration of Independence they don’t have makes no statement about it. On the street or otherwise encountering strangers Russians don’t paste big grins on their faces, the way we tend to do. They look sternly upon reflex smilers. Their humor is powerful without a lot of jollity, and it’s hard to imagine Bulgakov, say, convulsed and weeping with laughter, as I have been when reading certain scenes in his novel Heart of a Dog.

Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who came of age in the worst of Soviet times, is categorized as an absurdist, partly (I think) because it’s hard to know what else to call him. To me he makes more sense as a religious writer.

He is really funny and completely not ingratiating, simultaneously. I believe he knew he was funny and tried to be funny in his work, but I can’t find a single instance of him using the word “funny” in any of his writings, except at some distance from its straightforward meaning. In his personal notebooks, published for the first time in English in 2013, he never exults in how funny he has been or boasts that a witticism he said or wrote had ’em rolling in the aisles. For an American humorist or comedy writer such diffidence would be out of character, if not unheard of.

Kharms’s life gave him a lot not to be jolly about. He was born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov in St. Petersburg in 1905. Formerly his father had been one of many young revolutionaries plotting against the life of Tsar Alexander III, a pastime that got him imprisoned for four years and then sent to a labor camp on Sakhalin Island for another eight. Later, Ivan Yuvachov became a Soviet in good standing and head of accounting at a power station. Kharms’s mother, Nadezhda Kolyubakina, was from an aristocratic background and a graduate of St. Petersburg’s Smolny Institute for Noble Girls.

Kharms offered a number of stories about his birth, such as that he was pushed back in after he came out, or that he hatched from caviar. Hunger to the point of starvation recurred in his youth, as he moved among relatives during World War I, and in his twenties and thirties in Leningrad when his notebooks record periods of going without food for days. He often got kicked out of things: from the city’s preparatory-level Peterschule at sixteen, from a college of engineering at twenty, and from the Leningrad Union of Poets at twenty-three.

He took the name Kharms when he was nineteen and he wrote under it for the rest of his life. A connection may have existed between it and the English words “charm” and “harm,” both evoking his interest in magic. It is pronounced with the same hard, throaty h that enlivens the Russian pronunciation of names like Hemingway and Huckleberry Finn. At that point his life was more than halfway over. The next year he met Alexander Vvedensky, Leonid Lipavsky, Yakov Druskin, and Andrei Oleinikov, his future literary collaborators and friends. Kharms wrote hard-to-categorize plays, published two poems (the only works of his for adults to come out in his lifetime), and with Vvedensky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and others formed a movement called OBERIU, an abbreviation made from letters in the words “Union for Real Art.” Public performances by OBERIU participants angered audiences to near riot and received threateningly negative reviews.

Much of Kharms’s published writing in his lifetime appeared in the children’s magazines Ezh (Hedgehog) and Chizh (Siskin). Russians of the later Soviet era knew him only as a writer for children, an age group he professed to despise, though his poems and stories for them have become wild classics of Russian literature. In 1931 he was arrested for putting anti-Soviet ideas in his children’s writing. He spent part of his brief sentence of exile in Kursk with Vvedensky, who was also exiled there. Esther Rusakova, his first wife, to whom he had been married in the late 1920s, received a five-year Gulag sentence in 1936 and later died in prison. His friend Oleinikov was shot in 1937. In 1939 Kharms was diagnosed as schizophrenic and given an exemption from military service. In August 1941 he was arrested and charged with spreading panic and anti-Soviet propaganda. Held in a psychiatric prison hospital in Leningrad during the first and hardest winter of the German blockade, he starved to death on February 2, 1942, at the age of thirty-six. In 1956 he was rehabilitated, but his poems, prose pieces, and plays did not begin to be published in Russia until the late 1980s.

It can be hard to explain why I like Kharms’s writing, or why anybody does. His appeal is unique. Joseph Brodsky once quoted Anna Akhmatova, about an improbable Kharms sentence, “Only with Kharms could that ever work. Never with anyone else.” I had never heard of Kharms before my first trip to Russia, in 1993. I spoke no Russian then and was kind of at sea. A Russian friend showed me a small paperback edition of Starukha (The Old Woman), a collection of Kharms’s pieces edited by Vladimir Glotser, which had come out in 1991. My friend translated a few for me. Works of humor are the hardest part of a literature to translate—even harder than poetry, because although you can think you understand a poem when you don’t, with humor you must not only understand but also laugh, and you can’t fake that. The difficulty of humor’s crossing cultural lines makes the laughter all the sweeter on the rare occasions when it succeeds.

As my friend translated Kharms’s two-page “Anegdotes from the Life of Pushkin” for me, I laughed out loud. In the dizzy incomprehensibility of Russia I had found something I could hold on to. The “Anegdotes” were short, and numbered one through seven. Anegdote number six began, “Pushkin liked to throw rocks.” That sentence struck me, and still strikes me, as sublime. It reminded me of the subgenre of cheerfully moronic writing (see the brilliant “Deep Thoughts” books by Jack Handey) that I’ve always enjoyed and try to contribute to myself. I did not know that Kharms’s piece had been written at the time of the overblown 1937 celebrations of the centennial of Pushkin’s death. (In that abysmal year of the Terror, Stalin’s press heaped crocodile praise on the great poet.)

I wrote down the translations that my friend dictated for “Anegdotes from the Life of Pushkin” and for several other pieces, and when I returned I raved about Kharms to everybody. Garrison Keillor let me read “Anegdotes” on his show at Macalester College, where it got almost no laughs. In 1998 my friend Katya Arnold and I published a children’s book, It Happened Like This, a collection of ten translated Kharms stories and poems accompanied by Katya’s illustrations. That also did not do well. My disgruntled editor told me it sold eight hundred copies.

Here, as translated by Eugene Ostashevsky in his OBERIU anthology, is the last paragraph of a 276-word Kharms piece titled “A Magazine Article”:

Adults get offended by nothing so much as the sight of children. And so, at the time of the great emperor Alexander Vilberdat, to show a child to an adult was taken to be the highest possible affront. It topped spitting into someone’s face; and even, say, hitting the inside of the nostril in the process. A “disgrace by child” could be washed off only in a duel, by blood.

The two-paragraph story “The Adventure of Katerpillar” begins:

Mishurin was a katerpillar. For this reason, or maybe not for this reason, he liked to lie under the sofa or behind the wardrobe and suck dust. Since he wasn’t an especially neat man, sometimes for the entire day his mug was covered with dust like down.

Last summer I went to a production of a two-character play based on Kharms’s work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe played the characters, A and B, who were interchangeable and who both represented Kharms, according to a program statement by Robert Wilson, the director. Titled The Old Woman, the play expanded on the longest story in the collection Starukha. The plot or nonplot involves old women falling out of a window, and subsequent awkward developments. Wilson’s staging relied on weird, oversized furniture, splashes of gorgeous light, and props such as a string of pink hot dogs long enough to disappear up into the flies. The action started with Baryshnikov and Dafoe, in tuxedos and with kabuki-white faces, striding onto the stage and making shrill, grating noises. Your average theatergoer might have lost heart right there, but the people in the almost full house at BAM did not fit that description. We battened hatches and waited for whatever avant-garde rush might be in store.

Exaggerated, silent-movie-style gestures and facial expressions, bursts of strange music, and sentences repeated over and over—“The miracle-worker was tall”—kept everybody guessing. Just watching Baryshnikov stand there was a delight; his every gesture had something cool about it. Dafoe’s New York City accent gave an interesting local flavor to Kharms passages that I’d never heard in any language, only seen on the page. There were laughs, but not a lot. I felt a bit better about the dead air I’d played to when I read “Anegdotes” for Garrison Keillor. Most people stayed through the whole performance, but a small stream of defections began after about twelve minutes. I had an aisle seat and occasionally heard huffs of indignation as the disaffected hurried by. This made me admire Kharms even more—still to be upsetting people after almost a century, and in a different language and country, seemed an accomplishment few writers could claim.

But as it turns out, approaching Kharms from the standpoint of humor gets you only so far. He was a writer and poet of huge ambition, as his surviving notebooks, noncontinuous from 1924 to 1941, make clear. They include a copy of the statement he signed in the course of his interrogation after his 1931 arrest. No doubt written by his NKVD interrogator, it summed up Kharms’s personal philosophy as being “profoundly hostile to the contemporary world,” and said Kharms believed that a “utilitarian and practical” science (e.g., Marxist socialism, as applied in the Soviet Union) could never “attain the absolute heights or be capable of penetrating to the depths of the universe’s mysteries.” This laying-out of his crimes against the state accurately named his life goals. Kharms rejected not only Soviet systems of materialism, but plain rationality of any kind. He lived by his own mystical faith, sometimes turned to random pages in holy scripture for advice, and when exiled in Kursk, wrote, “my only comfort is the Bible.” As a Soviet team player he couldn’t have been more ill-suited.

The OBERIU poets’ rejection of plot, sense, logic, and the other consolations of meaning came out of a deep asceticism. “I’m always suspicious of everything comfortable and well off,” Kharms wrote to a friend in 1933. Their aspirations were also, in a sense, patriotic. To their critics, they replied that they were seeking “a genuinely new art” for all of Russia. Their methods tapped the spirituality that Russians have turned to before in drastic times. Kharms admired contemporary mathematicians of the Moscow School who used mystical, nonrational thinking to crack previously unsolved problems in set theory and the nature of infinity. He idolized the formalist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, twenty years his senior, who had cofounded an artistic movement called zaum, from the Russian za um, “beyond mind.” Kharms’s friend and close OBERIU collaborator Vvedensky declared his three themes to be “time, death, and God.” As Eugene Ostashevsky explains, “Vvedensky strikes one as a religious mystic in that very modern manner which, identifying religion with doubt, regards the absence and even nonexistence of God as facets of His infinite transcendence.”

Or to put it another way: the absurdity and chaos of existence, and the manifest absence of God in the whole ongoing mess, are themselves proofs of a transcendent God. And, may one add, of a funny God? Of a God possibly enjoying a laugh at our expense? In any event, at this point in the OBERIU philosophy we are somewhere deeper inside or underneath the group’s humorous effects.

Kharms possessed a kind of ESP that saw beyond daily commonsense life; his clairvoyance reminds me of the occasional gifts of prophecy that visited the Hunkpapa Sioux chief Sitting Bull. Kharms’s second wife, Marina Durnovo, in her book Moi Muzh Daniil Kharms, describes the official summons she received to enlist in the squads of women laborers who were digging trenches to defend Leningrad in the summer of 1941. Marina had severe health problems and knew she could die from the toil. Kharms promised to tell her something that would save her. For days he went to the grave of his father in a cemetery outside the city. Repeatedly he came back with nothing and said that she must keep waiting. Finally he announced that his father had revealed two words to him: “red shawl.” She made her way through the throngs at the enlistment center repeating “red shawl” to herself and was given an exemption, while weeping, pleading mothers and wives more deserving than she were not.

Whatever powers he had, Kharms could not save himself. One Saturday morning in August, as Marina recalled, “three strange little guys” from the NKVD arrived at their apartment to take him away in a van. She begged them to take her, too. She and Kharms sat in the van, shaking. At the “Big House”— the NKVD prison on Liteynyi Prospect—the van drove through the entrance to a place out of sight of the street. The couple were removed and brought into a reception area where two guys hustled him away and left her alone. She and Kharms had only a moment to look at each other before he was gone. She never saw him again. For months afterward she did not know where he was being held. She heard he had been sent to Novosibirsk, in Siberia, and wrote letters to friends in eastern Russia who might have information about him. Finally she learned he was at the Crosses, a prison hospital on the banks of the Neva in Leningrad.

She made two long treks from her apartment to the hospital bringing packages, which were accepted, indicating he was there. The third time she went, two starving boys along the snowy path on the Neva’s ice begged her for help but she clutched to herself the tiny package of bread she was holding. When she reached the hospital the person at the window took the package and told her to wait. A few minutes later he returned, pushed the package back at her, and told her that Kharms had died. Walking home she wished she had given the package to the boys, though it would have been impossible to save them.

In the excellent introduction to Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, Matvei Yankelevich, the book’s editor and translator, argues against reading Kharms’s works as “parables of totalitarianism” or commentaries on “the absurdity of Soviet life.” He concedes that the interpretation is tempting. As one hip critic wrote of the OBERIU poets, “Their shit is hilarious. But it got them killed.” For years, I saw Kharms in that light—funny writer, martyred by Stalin. In the children’s book of Kharms pieces I coedited, we used KGB arrest papers as the background for his spooky poem about the man who left home and never came back.

Inevitably, this kind of politico-biographical interpretation accompanies Kharms’s work. In the play at BAM, large mug shots of a haggard Kharms in prison appeared on a screen as part of the backdrop. The story of suffering and martyrdom is true. But that way of looking at him can be as pat as the rational artistic conventions he disdained. Yankelevich insists, “Kharms consistently denies us our desire to draw any moral conclusions from his work…. His texts confront the desire to interpret head on.”

Nowadays, at least in America, writers often describe themselves as storytellers. They may add that stories are how human beings live, and that we connect with one another through stories, and that every one of us has a story, and that we need to take ownership of our stories, and that we share our stories as people have always done sitting around the campfire in the evening, and that then the stories blend into one overarching, inclusive story, etc.

Whatever Kharms is, he’s not a storyteller. In fact, he is so far from being a storyteller that his work shows up all this story-storyteller-storytelling business for the humdrum received wisdom it is. Other pleasures for me in reading Kharms are that he does not give us likable characters, explore hidden trauma, claim his own identity, heal damage done to him in childhood, or write in a prose style so beautiful that one reads it with a sharp intake of breath. Kharms remained playful and unmoved in the face of all Soviet imperatives; he’s just as unsatisfying for the ordinary expectations of what writing is today.

Instead, he gives us a short tale about a crow who had four legs, or actually five legs, “though there’s no reason to mention that”; and a four-page play called “Fenorov in America,” which begins with the stage directions “An American street. AMERICANS are walking along the street”; and anecdotes that fall apart and give up almost before they start; and sentences like “Since ancient times, people have wondered about what was smart and what was stupid.”

During my first infatuation with Kharms I expected he would soon become a craze. When that didn’t happen I went the other direction and assumed he would fade away. Somehow that hasn’t happened, either. He keeps coming back. Eugene Ostashevsky, in the introduction to his collection of Vvedensky translations, notes that the women of the punk feminist collective Pussy Riot look to the OBERIU poets for inspiration, and he quotes Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in her closing statement at the group’s trial on charges of “premeditated hooliganism” in 2012:

At the cost of their lives, the OBERIU poets inadvertently proved that their basic sensation of meaninglessness and alogism was correct: They had felt the nerve of their epoch. Thus art rose to the level of history…. The poets of OBERIU are thought to be dead, but they are alive. They are punished, but they do not die.

Kharms might have been gratified by these sentiments, or he might have made fun of them. Or both.

Letters

It Wasn’t Lyubyanka June 18, 2015