Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings, part of the Northwestern World Classics series, is officially published today!
While today's publication of the book, all by itself, represents the most meaningful validation of my work begun ten years ago as a labor of love, and thus is a reward onto itself, I would of course like to appeal to you to purchase a copy, to recommend it to your friends and on Goodreads, and to like/join the Russian Absurd Facebook page to receive updates as the book goes forth into the world. I want to make it perfectly clear that I am painfully aware of the bitter irony inherent in the fact that, should you choose to support my own work in bringing Russian poetry into English, I stand to benefit from the work of an author written without even a shred of hope of publication in his own lifetime, a writer who had been literally starving to death for the final five years of his life, and who finally did so, during the Siege of Leningrad, in 1942. While I do take this awesome responsibility before the court of your judgment very seriously, I have every intention of pursuing my own work, with or without financial remuneration or even the prospect of the publication of another book; among my next book projects is a Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, perhaps the most important Russian poet of the 20th Century, one who has been most consequential to me personally, and yet another poet repressed by the Soviet regime. With this in mind, this, my last post dedicated to this book, is on DANIIL KHARMS and the STATE.
Pronin said, “You have very pretty stockings.”
Irina Mazer said, “So you like my stockings?”
Pronin said, “Oh, yes. Very much.” And he ran his hand down her leg.
Irina said, “But what do you like about my stockings?”
Pronin said, “They are very smooth.”
Irina lifted her skirt and said, “Do you see how high they go?”
Pronin said, “Oh, yes. Yes.”
Irina said, “They end all the way up here. And there, I am nude.”
“Oh,” said Pronin.
“I have very thick legs,” said Irina. “And I’m very broad in the thighs.”
“Show me,” said Pronin.
“I can’t,” said Irina. “I’m not wearing any underwear.”
Pronin knelt on his knees before her.
Irina said, “Why did you get down to your knees?”
Pronin kissed her leg just above the stocking and said, “Here’s why.”
Irina said, “Why are you lifting my skirt? Didn’t I tell you that I’m not wearing any underwear?”
But Pronin lifted her skirt anyway and said, “That’s alright.”
“What do you mean by that, alright?” Irina said.
At that moment someone knocked on the door of Irina’s room.
Irina quickly righted her skirt. Pronin got up off the floor and went to stand by the window.
“Who is it?” Irina asked at the door.
“Open the door,” a voice commanded.
Irina opened the door, and in walked a man wearing a black coat and high boots. Behind him were two soldiers, armed with rifles, and the apartment super. The soldiers guarded the door, and the man in the black coat approached Irina Mazer and said, “Your last name?”
“Mazer,” Irina said.
The man in the black coat addressed Pronin: “Your last name?”
Pronin said, “Pronin. My last name is Pronin.”
“Are you armed?” said the man in the black coat.
“No,” Pronin said.
“Sit here,” said the man in the black coat, pointing to a chair.
Pronin sat down.
“And you,” said the man in the black coat, addressing Irina, “put on your coat. You will have to take a ride with us.”
“What for?” Irina asked.
The man in the black coat didn’t reply.
“I have to change,” Irina said.
“No,” said the man in the black coat.
“But I have to put on a little something,” said Irina.
“No,” said the man in the black coat.
Irina silently grabbed her fur jacket.
“Good-bye,” she said to Pronin.
“Conversation is forbidden,” said the man in the black coat.
“Do I have to go with you also?” Pronin asked.
“Yes,” said the man in the black coat. “Get your coat.”
Pronin got up, grabbed his coat and hat off the hanger, put them on, and said, “Alright, I’m ready.”
“Follow me,” said the man in the black coat.
The soldiers and the apartment super clicked their heels.
Everyone exited into the hallway.
The man in the black coat locked the door to Irina’s room and sealed it with two brown seals.
“Everybody out,” he said.
And they all walked out of the house, slamming the apartment door shut.
August 12, 1940
Petrov saddles up his horse and declaims, directing himself at the crowd that’s gathered round, what would happen if in place of the public gardens they erect an American skyscraper. The crowd seems to agree. Petrov scribbles something into his notebook. From the throng emerges a man of medium height and he asks Petrov what it was he jotted down. Petrov answers that it concerns no one but himself. The man of medium height continues to pester him and, after words are exchanged, they come to blows. The crowd allies itself with the man of medium height and Petrov has to save his life by flogging his horse and disappearing around a corner. The crowd surges with anxiety and, having no one to sacrifice, grabs the man of medium height and cracks his head open. The decapitated head rolls down the bridge paving stones and becomes wedged in the sewer drain. The crowd, its lust for violence appeased, disperses.
ON UNIVERSAL BALANCE
Everyone knows these days how dangerous it is to swallow stones.
One of my acquaintances even coined an expression for it: “Waisty,” which stands for: “Warning: Stone Inside”. And a good thing too he did that. “Waisty” is easy to remember, and, as soon as it comes up, or you need it for something, you can immediately recall it.
Аnd this friend of mine worked as a fireman, that is, as an engine stoker on a locomotive. First he rode the northern lines, then he served on the Moscow route. And his name was Nikolay Ivanovich Serpukhov, and he smoked his own hand-rolled cigarettes, Rocket brand, 35 kopeks a box, and he’d always say he doesn’t suffer from coughing as bad from them, and the five-ruble ones, he says, they make him gag.
And so, it once happened that Nikolay Ivanovich found himself in Hotel Europe, in their restaurant. Nikolay Ivanovich sits at his table, and the table over from him is occupied by some foreigners, and they’re gobbling up apples.
And that’s when Nikolay Ivanovich said to himself: “A curious thing,” Nikolay Ivanovich said to himself, “What an enigma the human being is.”
And as soon as he had said this to himself, out of nowhere, before him appears a fairy and says:
“What is it Good Sir that you desire?”
Well, of course, there’s a commotion at the restaurant, like, where did this little damsel suddenly appear from? The foreigners had even stopped stuffing themselves with apples. Nikolai Ivanovich himself caught a good scare and he says, just for the sake of it, to get rid of her:
“Please, forgive me,” he says, “But there is nothing in particular that I need.”
“You don’t understand,” the mysterious damsel says, “I’m what you call a fairy,” she says. “In a single blink of an eye, I can make for you anything you wish. You just give me the word, and I’ll make it happen.”
That’s when Nikolay Ivanovich notices that some sort of a citizen in a gray suit is attentively listening in on their conversation. The maître d’ comes running in through the open doors and behind him, some other character, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
“What the heck!” Nikolay Ivanovich thinks to himself, “Who the hell knows how this thing will turn out.”
And indeed, no one can understand what is going on. The maître d’ is hopping across the tops, from one table over to another, the foreigners are rolling up all the carpets, and in general, who the hell can tell what’s really going on! Who is capable of what, that is!
Nikolay Ivanovich ran out into the street, forgetting even the hat he’d left behind earlier at the coat check, and he ran out onto LaSalle Street and said to himself: “Waisty! Warning: Stone Inside!” And also: “What haven’t I seen already in this whole wide world!”
And, having returned home, Nikolay Ivanovich said this to his wife:
“Do not be afraid, Ekaterina Petrovna, and do not worry. Only there isn’t any equilibrium in this life. And the mistake is only off by some kilogram and half for the entire universe, but still, it’s amazing, Ekaterina Petrovna, it is simply remarkable!”
September 18, 1934
Kharms, while a pacifist and eventually a "conscientious objector," was strictly apolitical. Before the Oberiu were suppressed, he had toyed around with the idea of positioning the group as a successor to Mayakovsky's Left artist movement (the New Left). In his late anecdotes (“Pronin,” “Mishin's Victory,” etc.,) Kharms comes uncomfortably close to describing the actual horror, to bearing witness, but for the most part, he makes due with parables, like the following, and it is precisely that compression and allusiveness that we love him for so much. (I think you will agree how prescient, timely, and still relevant the first of these just now happens to be).
Theme for a Story
A certain engineer sets before himself the task of building a huge brick wall across all of Petersburg. He ponders how this may be
done, and stays up all night mulling over it. Gradually, a circle of thinker-engineers forms and develops a plan for building the wall.
It is decided to build the wall at night, and in such a way that it is all built in a single night, so that it appears as a surprise. The workers are called together. Assignments are handed out. The civic authorities are distracted, and finally the night arrives upon which the wall is to be built. Only four people are aware of the plan to build the wall. The construction workers and the engineers receive precise assignments, where it is they should stand and what they should do. Thanks to such exact planning, they succeed in building the wall in a single night. On the next day, Petersburg is all up in a topsy-turvy. And the inventor himself is feeling in the dumps. How this wall should be used didn’t occur to him either.
The conclusion of “Let us look out of the window”
So I go to the food cooperative and say: Give me that can of sardines over there. And they tell me: We have no sardines, these cans are empty. And I tell them: Why are you pulling my leg? And they tell me: It’s not our idea. So whose idea is it? It’s due to the shortages, because the Kyrgyz have rustled away all the split-hoofed ungulates. So are there any vegetables? I ask them. No vegetables either. All bought up. Keep quiet, Grigoriev. And the human being finished with a song:
I, Grigoriev, just shut up,
And began to carry binocs.
I look through them and look,
And see the stacks to come.
How strange it is, how inexpressibly strange, that behind this wall, behind this very wall, a man is sitting on the floor, stretching out his long legs in orange boots, an expression of malice on his face. We need only drill a hole in the wall and look through it and immediately we would see this mean-spirited man sitting there. But we shouldn’t think about him. What is he anyway? Is he not after all a portion of death in life, materialized out of our own conception of emptiness? Whoever he may be, God bless him.
June 22, 1931
A gentleman slight in height with a pebble in his eye approached the door of a tobacco shop and stopped. His polished black shoes shone by the stone steps leading up into the tobacco shop. The tips of the shoes were pointing inside the shop. Two more steps and the gentleman would have disappeared behind its door. But for some reason he tarried, as if intentionally, to place his head under the brick that had just fallen off the roof. The gentleman even removed his hat, as if only now discovering his bald skull, so that the brick hit the gentleman squarely on his naked head, breaking his skull bone and getting stuck in his brain....
...Don’t you worry, gentlemen, I’ve already had an inoculation. You see, the pebble sticking out of my right eye? This had happened to me once already. I’ve gotten used to it by now. It’s all a piece of cake now.
And with these words the gentleman put on his hat and went off somewhere, exiting stage right, leaving the confused crowd in complete befuddlement.
Seated at a table, flighty thoughts,
shoulders spread, inflated chest,
I pronounced empty speeches,
still as a statue and just as loved.
From “To Oleinikov”
Wait! Turn back! Where, with your cold and calculated
Thought, are you fleeing, forgetting the law of the crowd?
Whose chest was pierced by arrow so morose? Who’s
Enemy to you, who friend? And where’s your gravestone?
January 23, 1935
This is how hunger begins:
you wake early and full of life
but soon begin to weaken;
the onset of boredom arrives,
the sense of loss impending
of quickening powers of mind,
followed by a peace descending.
And then, the terrifying ending.
You will be murdered by your dreams.
Your interest in this life of struggle will
disperse like the mist. Simultaneously,
the heavenly messenger’s wings will miss.
Your wants and desires will wither and wilt
and the inflamed ideas of your youth scatter.
Let them go! Leave them behind, my friend,
your dreams, so your mind is free for the end.
October 4, 1937
The end is here, my strength expires.
The grave is calling me to my rest.
And suddenly life’s trace is lost.
Quieter and quieter beats the heart.
Death races toward me like a cloud
And in the sky the sun’s light goes out.
I see death. It’s forbidden for me to live.
Good-bye, dear earth! Earth, farewell!
We have been killed in the field of life.
Not even a shred of hope remaining.
Our dreams of happiness are over—
The only thing left for us is penury.
They shoved me under the table,
But I was very weak and a fool.
The freezing wind blew through
The cracks and landed on my tooth.
It was torturous for me to lie so,
But I was very weak and a fool.
The atmosphere is too cool
For comfort at any time of the year.
I would have lain on the floor in silence,
Flung open my coat of sheepskin wool,
But it became insanely dull to lie so,
For I am very weak and a fool.
April 23, 1938
I thought of eagles for a long time
and understood such a whole lot:
the eagles soar above the clouds,
they fly and fly and touch no one.
They live on cliffs and on mountains
and are intimate with water sprites.
I thought a long time about eagles
but confused them, I think, with flies.
March 15, 1939
From the Diaries (1937– 1938)
June 1, 1937. 2 hours 40 minutes.
An even more terrifying time has arrived for me. At the Children’s Literature publishing house, they are up in arms about one of my
poems and have begun to bait and persecute me. They have stopped publishing me, explaining it away with “We can’t pay you because of some clerical error.” My sense is that something mysterious and evil is taking place behind the scenes. We have nothing to eat. We go unbearably hungry.
I know the end has come. I am now going off to visit ChildLit to receive a refusal of my request for payment.
November 16, 1937
I no longer wish to live. I have no need of anything: not a shred of hope left. I have not a prayer for the Lord, let His will be done, whatever He intends for me, be it death or be it life— whatever He intends. Into thine hands, oh, Lord, Jesus Christ, I commit my spirit. Keep me from harm, have mercy on me, and grant me eternal life.
I don’t have the strength to do anything. I don’t want to live.
January 12, 1938
I am amazed by human perseverance. It is already January 12, 1938. Our situation has become even more desperate, but we’re still scraping by. Dear Lord, please send us a prompt and easy death.
How low I have fallen; few have fallen this low. One thing is certain: as low as I’ve fallen, there is no getting up.
All people love money. They pat it and kiss it and press it to their hearts and wrap it in pretty strips of cloth and cradle and rock it as though it were a doll. Some take a dollar sign and confine it to a frame, hang it on their wall, and worship it as though it were an icon or an idol. Some feed their money: they open its mouth and stuff it with the most succulent, fat morsels of their own food. In summer heat they put their money in the cold storage of a root cellar and in winter, in the bittermost frost, they throw the money in the wood stove, into the flames. Others simply hold a conversation with their money, or read to it aloud from interesting books, or sing to it pleasant songs. I personally give money no particular attention and simply carry it around in my wallet or in a billfold and, as need arises, spend it. Yowza!
October 16, 1940
Previously published in Gargoyle 60.
"If a state could be likened to the human organism then, in case of war, I would like to live in its heel." — Daniil Kharms, 1938
And this one final appeal... As I had mentioned in my first post in this series, having edited the Spring 2015 Russia issue of the Atlanta Review, I have been slated to edit the magazine's Spring 2018 Baltic poetry issue, along with Kevin M. F. Platt and Rimas Uzgiris. Given that the sanctions against Russia, and even the future of NATO and the EU themselves, are currently in doubt, there is a great sense of urgency, and I have been given the green light by the journal's new editor, Karen Head, to edit a Special Summer 2017 issue, if we are able to raise $5,000 for it. This link to the Kickstarter campaign to raise that money will go live shortly.