"I can’t imagine why, but everyone thinks I’m a genius; but if you ask me, I’m no genius. Just yesterday I was telling them: Please hear me! What sort of a genius am I? And they tell me: What a genius! And I tell them: Well, what kind? But they don’t tell me what kind, they only repeat, genius this and genius that. But if you ask me, I’m no genius at all.
Wherever I go, immediately, they all start whispering and pointing their fingers at me. What’s going on here?! I say. But they don’t
let me utter a word, and any minute now they will lift me up in the air and carry me off on their shoulders."
[Daniil Kharms, 1934– 36]
Just a little over a year and a half ago, I had the great pleasure to blog in these pages for my first time, on the occasion of having edited the Contemporary Russian Poetry issue of the Atlanta Review (Spring 2015). When I wrote David Lehman, almost exactly a year ago now, to tell him that my first full book, Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings, was forthcoming early this year from Northwestern University Press, I could not have remotely expected his response, an offer to blog about Kharms and my book, today and for the remainder of this week. And so ... here we are, the book's official release is this Friday, February 17, and I am just back in New York City from yet another overwhelming AWP, this time in Washington, DC that is largely unchanged (other than the construction boom in its Midtown and all the newly gentrified neighborhoods) from that summer of 1984 when, as a budding Sovietologist, I walked every day from my GWU dorm room in Foggy Bottom to my internship at the Georgetown Center for Strategic Studies on 17th and K Street. I had every intention then to pursue a career in the diplomatic service and my special interest was arms control, and though the town is little changed, the world and each one of us in it have been utterly transformed in the space of only several months.
1984: what an exciting year that was for all of us, but especially for those with a keen interest in Russian and East European Studies. In May, the USSR had boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics as payback for the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, all of it, the consequence of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That war, which would become known as "the Soviet Union's Vietnam," was later thought to have been a major factor in the collapse of the USSR. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev would inherit the helm as the General Secretary of the CPSU, after the deaths of three septuagenerian leaders within the space of three years (Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko) and the rest, as they say, is history. It seemed, then that the collapse of the Russian Empire was imminent, and that the shape of things to come, as predicted by George Orwell in his eponymous novel was farther away than it had ever been throughout that bloodiest of all, our 20th Century. Some had even gone so far as to diagnose the idyllic 90s as "The End of History". But then, just as the 21st Century had dawned, 9/11 happened, followed by perhaps our own second Vietnam, the War in Iraq and, at the end of its first decade, a market collapse that threatened to spawn a second Great Depression, and now, "seemingly" all of a sudden, history has come back, full circle and with a vengeance, to bite us all in the ass.
No one could have predicted even a year ago, when I signed on for this task, that this book would be as timely, cogent, and once again relevant as I had believed it would be when I began work on it ten years ago, and I myself only know this for certain now. As I had written in my introduction: “Covering the entire range between the merely unpleasant, the disturbing, and the hilarious, [Daniil Kharms's] protoexistentialist works succeed in bearing, if only tangentially, remarkable witness to the unspoken and unspeakable reality of life under Stalin.... Getting Kharms, I think, requires cultivating a visceral sense of the sociopolitical-cultural context of the repressions and deprivations of the 1920s and 1930s, and the suppression of Kharms and his immediate circle, the OBERIU ... [who] had assumed, in their generation, the “Slap in the Face of Public Taste” mantle of the Russian Futurists, literally adopting Kazimir Malevich’s encouragement to them as their motto— 'Go and stop progress!'” And so, before proceeding, I must begin my week-long residency here by first briefly establishing the links between the so-called Russian Absurdists and their spiritual and aesthetic "fathers" of the preceding generation, the Russian Futurians (so-called because they wished to distinguish themselves from the nationalistic and militaristic Italian Futurists).
In preparation for doing so, as we approached the turn of the year, in the run up to the Trump Inauguration and the book's official release, having assumed that most if not nearly all of us are also members of Facebook, I had started a Russian Absurd on Facebook book page, as well as a Russian Absurd on Twitter page and a Goodreads page,) where for the foreseeable future, I will continue posting selections from and news about the book, as well as links to "all things Kharmsian," some of which I will also be sharing here in the coming week. For now, I invite you to explore the following links and to join/like, follow, and share the group with your interested friends. I very much look forward to this, our journey together, as I prepare, as it where, to "take this show on the road" and to read from, i.e. "perform the book" to various and varied kinds of audiences. In my design of the book, I had made a very conscious effort to represent, within my own space constraints (280 pages,) as many of the different types of materials present in his notebooks as possible (diary entries, letters, one of his NKVD confessions, etc.) My main purpose in doing so was to pay particular attention to Kharms’s development as a writer over the short span of some decade and a half of his creative life. So that the development I am speaking of become self-apparent, I structured the book to follow as much as possible a strictly chronological order. The chapters that emerged, corresponding roughly to the “Early,” “Middle,” and “Late” periods, could also have been provisionally titled “The Theatre of Cruelty,” “The Theatre of the Absurd,” and “Protoexistentialism.” The brief "biographical sections," taken from Kharms’s notebooks, etc., and interspersed at the beginning and end of every section, were intended to cement a more personal relationship with the author, as well as to establish connections between his creative output and the circumstances and events of his life. I hoped that these "section breaks" would also provide “pacing” and some "breathing room" as it were, as well as a sense of a "life lived," so that these mileposts in Kharms’s biography could be used by the interested reader to map these events -- the initial suppression of the OBERIU (late 1920s), the breakup of his first marriage and his exile to Kursk after his first arrest (1931–32), and the growing desperation of his final years (late 1930s) -- over to his writing. Kharms’s poetry, like the prose that precedes it, likewise arranged chronologically, placed at the end, offers a kind of summation.
David Bulyuk, a world-class painter and the self-proclaimed "Father of Russian Futurism," spent the second half of his long life in the Ukrainian community of NYC's East Village and, among a group of painters, including Arshhile Gorky, in Long Island's Hampton Bays.
Along with Velimir Khlebnikov, whom Roman Jakobson, the father of Structuralist linguistics, had called "perhaps the most important modern poet," no other poet made such a lasting contribution to Russian and World poetry as Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Aleksei Kruchenykh's best known work is the first Russian Futurist Opera, “Victory Over the Sun” (1913,) for which he collaborated with Kazimir Malevich.
The Russian Futurians: A Group Portrait. Vasilisk Gnedov, Igor Severanin (Ego-Futurists), Vasily Kamensky, Elena Guro, Vassily Kandinsky, Nikolai Aseev, Boris Pasternak (Tsetrifuga,) Anatoly Mariengoff (Imaginist), Simeon Kirsanov, et al.
Daniil Kharms (photo gallery) was born on December 29, 1905 and died on February 2, 1942. Today, this one last time, we may celebrate his 111th BIRTHDAY and the 75th anniversary of his DEATH.
As I retell in the introduction to my book, the "Russian Absurdists," the Oberiu (“Obyedenenie Real'nogo Iskusstva” or “Union of Real Art,”) were essentially the second generation of Russian Futurists, and their initial "launching pad," Velimir Khlebnikov and his Zaum' (Za-um, literally”beyond the mind, or the “trans-rational). In that spirit, I'd like to offer you these three very short Kharms poems so close in spirit to Khlebnikov's own miniatures, I believe them to have been intended as homages. Of the section of roughly 50 poems that close the book, many, perhaps most of the others are likewise "in this spirit,” and Daniil Kharms, at least in his poetry, remained a “Khlebnikovian” and a “Budetlyanen” (Khlebnikov's “person of the future”) to the end of his life. The Russian Futurian strategy of epatage, or “shocking the bourgeoisie,” was also at the heart of his personal style: in his dress, his dandyism, and particularly in his early, performative, improvisational, expressionistic theatrical work. (The accompanying photo is Daniil Kharms dressed as one of his personas, his "imaginary older brother".)
A cuckoo sleeps in a tree
A lobster dreams under a rock
In the field lies a shepherdess
And the wind is a two-way street.
In every church bell there is spite
In every red ribbon there is fire
In every young woman shivering
In every young man his own steed
I was watching a slowly eyelid
that was being lazily lifted
and with its lazy glance
circling the affectionate rivers.
[after August 13, 1937]
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]
Previously published in B O D Y.
Daniil Kharms was the pen name of Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev (1905–1942). With his friend, the poet Alexander Vvedensky, Kharms cofounded the OBERIU, a group of second-generation Russian Futurist or so-called Absurdist writers active in the 1920s and 1930s. Not permitted to publish his mature work in Stalinist Russia, he survived, for a time, by composing poems for children. At the beginning of World War II, he was arrested (a second time) on the absurd charge of espionage and, feigning insanity to avoid summary execution, starved to death in a psychiatric hospital during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Most of his writings survived only in notebooks, rescued fortuitously from a burned-out building by a friend and fellow OBERIU member, the philosopher Yakov Druskin. His short sketches, illegally circulated in Russia after the war, influenced several generations of underground writers who broke into the mainstream with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Some of the essays, poems, and prose in Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings first appeared and may be sampled in B O D Y, Eleven Eleven, (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image 1 (pg. 134-141), Gargoyle 66, Green Mountains Review, Little Star Journal, MAYDAY Magazine, Narrative Magazine, New American Writing 34, Numéro Cinq, Off Course 41, PEN America 12: Correspondences (pg. 100), The International Literary Quarterly 18, and The Literary Review 56.3.
"Reading this book makes me want to put myself in Kharms’s way." – Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story
“Kharms’s obliquely allegorical dark comedies are both mystical and mythic, Daoist and Dadaist, daring and deranging, surrealist and satiric, metaphysical and metafictional. Charting the experience of everyday life in Russia in the 1920s and ’30s, Kharms is an (anti-)Soviet realist. In a world gone mad, Kharms is, ironically, a last refuge of sanity. Alex Cigale’s sparkling translations bring these works into a new life in English.” – Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at U. Penn and author of A Poetics, Girly Man, and Pitch of Poetry
"Absurdism — the ridiculous as a reaction and an alternative to revulsion and resignation before an absurd age." – Alex Cigale, 2015 NEA Fellow in Literary Translation, from the Introduction
N.B. An update: After 22 years at the helm, this past year, founding editor Dan Veach passed the reins of the Atlanta Review, to its new editor, Karen Head, and the magazine is now newly affiliated with Georgia Tech University. In the coming year, I will be editing a Baltic Poetry issue of the magazine (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania,) and hope to officially announce it in these pages by the end of this week.