I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The revelatory rediscovery of Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms.
It’s easy to dismiss grandiose claims about art and the nature of reality, especially when they’re made by a writer who spent time in a mental hospital. This is one reason why the rediscovery of the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms has not led to much serious consideration of his ideas. In America, at least, Kharms’ life and his famous eccentricities have received as much attention as his work, a sad but predictable fate for a writer who enjoyed walking around Leningrad holding a butterfly net and wrote poetry in invented languages.
But a further reason for this neglect is that Kharms’ concerns—mysticism, the irrational, the absurd—are not among the priorities of contemporary American writing. He is an artifact of a literary culture vastly foreign to our own and vastly more radical, one in which publishing a manifesto that makes strange claims about art and reality, as Kharms did, was a reasonable way to start a literary career. But that time has passed, and what we modern Americans now find in Kharms’ work reflects our own priorities. We focus on the things about Kharms that are important within our own culture—his humor, his tragic life story—and generally ignore the effort at the center of his work: his attempt to create a literature of what he called “trans-sense” reality through classical literary means.
In both his personality and his work, Kharms was peculiar mixture of conservatism and radicalism. He was a revolutionary by temperament—he wanted to shock, to destabilize, to reinvent. The Soviet Revolution took place when he was an adolescent, and, whether or not he sympathized with its aims at first (Kharms’ beliefs on most social and political matters are unclear; I think he was simply apolitical), he absorbed the idea that the artists of his era must seek to remake art from the ground up, just as the Soviet Union was allegedly remaking society. But at the same time, he had an aristocratic aversion to the philistinism that the Revolution empowered, and hated the proletarian aesthetic wherever he saw it. “I am against everything that my country holds dear to its heart,” he wrote in a 1928 journal entry while enduring compulsory military service. “Everything that happens here seems foreign to me. My Dear God, free me from the proletariat.”
Kharms also opposed the literary establishment of the Soviet Union. He began his career alternately attacking and, when he wanted help getting published, ineptly cozying up to the reigning literary groups1. This help, unsurprisingly, never came. What is surprising is that he found little in common with groups that were themselves at odds with the establishment. The best-known of the groups Kharms founded was the OBERIU (an acronym meaning “The Association for Real Art”) which he created in 1928 with the poet Alexander Vvedensky and a few others. The OBERIU worked, loosely, at the intersection of nonsense literature and public spectacle, ground that had already been worked over by the Futurists and the zaum (“za-oom,” meaning “trans-sense”) school of poetry centered around Velimir Khlebnikov. The OBERIU, however, hated being compared to these groups, whose writings represented for them a shallow formalism, excessively concerned with language itself. The OBERIU’s goal was to create art that addresses a level of reality beneath what they called in their manifesto “‘mundane’ or ‘everyday’ logic.” They did not want to undermine classical literary language and means of representation; rather, they wanted to use it to create an art of the irrational, to provide access to a world beyond logic and perceptible reality.
That Kharms actually succeeded in this ambition is where he parts ways with the OBERIU, and with context in general. I Am A Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary, released earlier this year by Academic Studies Press, gives the best sense of any book in English of Kharms both within his context and as a deeply fascinating individual whose work can’t be explained away by the circumstances of its creation.
The book’s translators and editors, Anthony Anemone and Peter Scotto, set out to assemble a “creative biography in documents” by including not only a selection of Kharms’ notebooks and letters but contemporary reviews, a handful of works that can plausibly be put in the category of creative autobiography, and official documents concerning his arrest, interrogation, and death. But the book is more than a creative biography—it’s a huge addition to the Kharms canon in English. Because Kharms barely published during his lifetime, and only in a few cases organized his work in any final form, there’s little distinction between the notebooks and his other works. Though many of Kharms’ notebook entries and letters have appeared in earlier collections of his prose, there are dozens of entries translated here for the first time that are just as great, as weird and delightful and mysterious, as his better-known works.
Beyond its value as a selection of Kharms’ work, the book can be read straight through as a postmodern novel of which Kharms is the protagonist. I hope that some of the readers who made Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives so popular a few years ago will read I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary. Not only does the “plot” of Kharms’ life mirror Bolaño’s novel—two friends start a radical literary movement, the movement breaks up, they age, they are battered by life, they die in obscurity—but both books similarly offer an endlessly varied view of their protagonists using a documentary, or, in Bolaño’s case, a pseudodocumentary technique. The difference is that I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary is about a writer greater and more strange than Bolaño or any of his creations, and one whose life story is much more devastating. Kharms was the unluckiest great writer of the early Soviet period, an impressive distinction in the generation of Babel, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and all the others. His bad luck was so excessive and perverse that his life story is almost Kharmsian, combining absurdity and brutality with dark, mordant humor.
The 36 years Kharms lived may have been the worst 36-year stretch in Russia’s history. He was born in 1905, a year of war and revolution, and he starved to death—like his idol Gogol—in the winter of 1942, while residing in the mental ward of a Leningrad prison, right around the time the residents of that besieged city began to eat one another. The years in between were not kind to him. The Soviet state persecuted Kharms for his writings, as it did many others, but Kharms had the ironic misfortune of being persecuted not for works heroically opposing Soviet rule but for what he considered hackwork, the children’s literature he wrote to survive. For his serious work he was not so much persecuted as obliquely threatened, which was enough to prevent him from even attempting to publish for the last twelve years of his life. Of his works for adults, which run to six volumes in Russian and were finally published in full in 2002, he saw a total of two poems appear in print in his lifetime. The bitter comedy of a failed avant-garde writer becoming a half-hearted children’s author is heightened by the fact that Kharms hated children.
Outside of literature, too, Kharms’ chief desires were thwarted. Sexually, he was a libertine in a very illiberal culture, obsessed with fantasies that seem to have been largely unfulfilled, and dissatisfied by his relationships with women who were inevitably too conservative for his tastes. He was a lover of the beach who lived in St. Petersburg, a religious believer under Soviet rule. In his notebooks, he wrote prayers for strength, sex, money, success; in the late 1930s he started praying for death. Mixed in with his prayers to God and the saints is the odd summoning spell.
Kharms’ development as a writer remains a mystery, and I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary contains few clues about how Daniil Yuvachev the mediocre Petersburg student became Daniil Kharms the radical young poet; he is fully formed right from the start. A few of Kharms’ earliest letters have survived, and by the fourth letter in the book, written when he was 12, Kharms is recognizably himself—which is to say, extremely strange. Writing his father2, he sets down some runic symbols in place of the date. “I’ve been writing it this way for 1 year. I already showed you. Be healthy.” Kharms was already inventing new symbolic systems, which would be an obsession throughout his life.
Renaming, subversion, upending. “I want to be in life what Lobachevsky was in geometry,” Kharms wrote in one notebook entry (Lobachevsky was the Russian mathematician who revolutionized geometry by proving that mathematical systems exist in which Euclid’s axioms—previously considered the most basic laws of the discipline—do not apply). Kharms, like Lobachevsky, wanted to expand his field by showing that it had hitherto confined itself to one roped-off corner of reality. Kharms believed that real art must confront phenomena like mysticism and insanity that are beyond rational understanding. In a letter to the actress Klavdia Pugacheva, he contrasted two general types of art, the comprehensible and the incomprehensible. The second category is what excites him.
It is unintelligible, incomprehensible and at the same time beautiful, this second category! But you can never attain it, it’s ridiculous to even seek it, there are no roads leading to it. It is precisely this second category that suddenly forces a man to drop everything and take up mathematics, and then, dropping mathematics, suddenly to become fascinated with Arabic music, and then, having knifed his wife and son, lie on his stomach and examine a flower.
Kharms’ best work, like “The Old Woman” and some of the short pieces collected as Sluchai(“Incidents”), are organized around incomprehensible, but intuitively tangible, sets of relationships. They tread a nearly imperceptible line between nonsense and cause-and-effect. Kafka is the only other writer I can think of who works in this place, and only in his most experimental work, like “A Country Doctor” and some of the parables.
The Soviet authorities seem to have been appropriately puzzled by Kharms—they didn’t quite know whether to treat him as class enemy or crazy person. Contemporary reviews of Kharms’ groups’ performances trace the Soviet Union’s slide from the relative freedom of the 1920s to the ideological prison of the 1930s. The first review included here, from 1925, has an amused, ironic tone. Just two years later, a review of a scandalous performance in which Kharms had tried to quiet the unruly crowd by saying he refuses to read in “stables or whorehouses” shows a dark cloud of bureaucratic menace forming over the Soviet literary world. “The students categorically objected to hooliganish attacks of this sort on the part of persons appearing in the capacity of official representatives of a literary organization to student meetings,” the reviewer wrote. “They are demanding the expulsion of Kharms from the Poets’ Union since they consider that there is no place in a legally-constituted Soviet organization for someone who at a well-attended meeting would dare to compare a Soviet Institution of Higher Education to a brothel or a stable.” Kharms’ and Vvedensky’s smart-assed response, calling the whorehouse comparison “entirely apt,” would have been unimaginable even by 1930, when, in a party paper, one “L. Nilvich” published a piece attacking the OBERIU as “class enemies” and calling their trans-sense poetry “a protest against the Dictatorship of the proletariat,” rounding up this considered literary judgment with the ominous, “Why is it that the Union of Writers tolerates in its midst such scum, such … OBERIUTs?” That was it for Kharms’ efforts to organize the avant-garde; from then on, he wrote for children and for his drawer.
The tireless close-readers of the Soviet security forces detected questionable elements in Kharms’ work for children as well. He was arrested in 1931, along with Vvedensky and other members of their circle, in a roundup of authors of children’s books. Kharms was interrogated and confessed to doing “significant damage to the cause of forming the rising Soviet generation” by seducing it away from “contemporary concrete reality.” He did six months in prison and then joined his friend Vvedensky in exile in Kursk, in southeast Russia. This was a terrible period for Kharms, judging from his notebooks. Miserable, nervous, sick, he lay in bed, obsessively recording his temperature and the frequency of his masturbations. He returned to Leningrad and to writing children’s literature, and was arrested again in 1938 for a children’s poem in which a man goes out for cigarettes and disappears—this was not a safe time to write about people disappearing. Kharms managed to convince his interrogators that he was crazy, and spent a short period in a mental hospital. In the fall of 1941, following the Nazi invasion, he was arrested again for counterrevolutionary sentiments and defeatism. The preposterous charges against him show that the Soviet police state had lost its subtlety, its sense of literary nuance, in the ten years since Kharms’ first arrest: “Yuvachev-Kharms said that to improve living conditions in the country, it was necessary to eradicate the entire proletariat or to make them slaves.” He was judged not guilty due to insanity, but the authorities locked him in the prison hospital, where he died.
It is possible that near the end of his life he crossed the line from pretending to be crazy to actually being crazy. “His delusions are characterized by absurdities,” wrote the prison psychiatrist who examined him. “To keep his thoughts concealed he wraps his head in a headband or a small rag.”
How would Kharms have developed as a writer if he’d survived? What’s so peculiar about him is that he wrote his greatest works when his life was at its worst, in the late 1930s through 1940. As Russia was becoming a full-fledged hell of paranoid, societywide violence, and as Kharms was poverty-stricken almost to the point of starvation, his work became less self-consciously experimental, more classical, smoother. He gradually left behind the self-consciously radical work of his 20s. In a 1936 speech, he described the Russian avant-garde that he had once so enthusiastically participated in as an “insolvent” movement that had reached a dead end with Kazimir Malevich. The way forward, Kharms felt, was backward, to artists like Pushkin and Mozart. “The time has come when art can begin to evolve with the strengths of classicism,” he said.
Samuel Beckett’s career is one possible model for how Kharms’ writing may have evolved had he lived. Beckett, too, spent many years hammering out a mature style after deciding that the could go no further in the direction of experimental modernism, which he felt had reached its end point with Finnegan’s Wake3. Both Beckett and Kharms experimented with absurdity, grotesquerie, and black humor in their early works; throughout their lives both were obsessed with logic, mathematics, chess, and arcane knowledge, and both believed that the highest goal of literature is to access the irrational that hides behind conventional language and categories of thought4. Beckett was just three months younger than Kharms, and at age 36 he was working on Watt (1953), a novel whose craziness cedes no ground to anything Kharms wrote, and whose mixture of the bizarre and the pedestrian it recalls. With Mercier and Camier(1946), Beckett began to bring this aspect of his work under control, and his greatest books—spare, classically controlled, but no less artistically or intellectually radical—were all written when he was in his 40s. Kharms’ turn toward classicism in his last years makes me think he might have developed in a similar way.
Kharms was carrying a copy of Vvedensky’s “Elegy” when he was arrested for the final time, according to the police’s inventory of his personal effects. This detail would be too perfect to be plausible in a novel. This poem5, Vvedensky’s most classical work, is an elegy for the destroyed Russian avant-garde, a kind of dystopian vision in which the great tropes of Russian romantic poetry—knights, carriage drivers, singers, forests, streams—are corrupted and broken. What’s striking is that Vvedensky blames the avant-garde themselves, his peers, for the ruin he sees. Vvedensky accuses “us”—his generation of writers—of cowardice, betrayal, passive obedience, self-pity, and, above all, of lacking vision, of failing to fulfill their great promise:
We cultivated the flower of grief,
ourselves to ourselves forgave,
we, who like ashes have grown cold,
prefer the carnation to an eagle.
Our own intellectual culture cherishes the idea of the oppressed writer, the martyr to tyranny. Nothing could be further from this notion than Vvedensky’s bitter poem. It’s even a little hard to imagine that what he wrote in “Elegy” is what he believed. Did Vvedensky—who would himself die in prison less than a year after Kharms’ arrest—really think that the Russian avant-garde was responsible for their own failure, or would it simply have been too dangerous for him to write a poem blaming the state? And what about himself and Kharms—are they included in this indictment? Did Vvedensky consider the two of them lukewarm, complacent, accommodating? It’s hard to imagine somebody accusing the OBERIU of this, but there it is. It’s sort of humbling. What would Vvedensky say about contemporary literature if he considered the Russian writers of his generation too conventional, too compromising, too obedient?
How Kharms himself understood his generation’s destruction by the state is not clear. I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary includes entries in a code of Kharms’ own invention, in which he wrote what were presumably his secrets: his infidelities, his despair over his marriage, his sexual fantasies, his preference on the subject of genital grooming and hygiene. But the subject that dominated nearly every aspect of his life, the Soviet state, is one that his surviving diaries hardly address. It’s a measure of the pervasive menace and paranoia of the times that there is just one direct reference to politics in his diary entries of he purge years. In 1934, he jotted down notes from the radio broadcast on the funeral procession of Kirov, the Leningrad party boss whose murder marked the beginning of the worst period of Stalinist terror. The notes are banal: “Carrying medals on a little red pillow. Small procession,” Kharms wrote. But what made Kharms sit by the radio and record these banal details—a sense of fear and foreboding? Contempt for state ceremonies? Boredom? or was it simply his usual compulsion to record quotidian details? His attitude toward the real world, the world of politics, history, war, and revolution, remains a puzzle. And his reticence on the great events that swallowed him up adds to the pathos of his diaries. He was killed over a game he had no stake in. “I’m a tiny little bird who’s flown into a cage with big angry birds,” he wrote in 1935.
“I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary”: The Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms, selected, edited, and translated by Anthony Anemone and Peter Scotto, is available now from Academic Studies Press.
1. He wrote to Boris Pasternak, for instance, but misspelled the famous poet’s patronymic and never got a reply.
2. Kharms’ parents are one possible root of his weird mix of radicalism and conservatism. His father had been in the People’s Will terrorist group as a young man, but converted to Christianity in prison; in later life he wrote books on religious themes. His mother was a member of the former aristocracy, a biographical fact that the Soviet state turned against Kharms during his interrogations.
3. Malevich seems to have been for Kharms what Joyce was for Beckett—the worshipped mentor who represents the terminus of the movements they had followed in their youths.
4. Take this statement on language and the irrational, from a 1937 letter by Beckett: “[M]ore and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it. Grammar and style! To me they have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is best used where it is most efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through — I cannot imagine a higher goal for today’s writer.” Quoted in The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: 1929-1940 (2009).
5. The translation here is by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich in Alexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think, released earlier this year by the New York Review of Books.
Chris Cumming is a writer living in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee