Daniil Kharms (1905-1942)


Russian literature seems always able  to bring forth a crop of  new and
interesting  writers who are experimenting  somewhere at  the  frontiers  of
literary  style,  language or story.  Among our contemporaries,  we think of
Andrey  Sinyavsky (alias 'Abram Tertz'), Vasiliy Aksyonov, Sasha Sokolov and
Yevgeniy Popov, along with the women  writers who  emerged  under glasnost',
during the last Soviet years: Lyudmila Petrushevskaya,  Tatyana Tolstaya and
others.  But alongside the  new writers, we  continue to rediscover the old.
Mikhail Bulgakov and  Andrey Platonov, unexpected jewels from the  Stalinist
period, only came  to prominence  decades  after their own span. Discoveries
from the 'Silver Age' period (roughly the 1890s to 1917) are still coming or
returning to  light.  Neglected  figures  from  even  further back  are  now
achieving or recovering a belated but deserved readership (Vladimir Odoevsky
from the  Romantic  period,  Vsevolod Garshin from later  in the  nineteenth
century). Another  fascinating  figure,  the  contemporary  of Bulgakov  and
Platonov, but  with a  peculiar  resonance  for  the modern, or  indeed  the
post-modern, world is Daniil Kharms.
     'Daniil Kharms' was the  main,  and subsequently the sole,  pen-name of
Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov. The  son of a St. Petersburg political, religious
and literary  figure,  Daniil  was  to  achieve limited local  renown  as  a
Leningrad  avant-garde eccentric and  a writer of children's stories  in the
1920s and 30s. Among other pseudonyms, he had employed 'Daniil  Dandan'  and
'Kharms-Shardam'. The  predilection for 'Kharms' is  thought to  derive from
appreciation  of the tension between the English words  'charms' and 'harms'
(plus the German Charme; indeed, there is an actual German surname 'Harms'),
but  may  also owe  something to  a similarity in  sound to  Sherlock Holmes
(pronounced 'Kholms' in Russian), a figure of fascination to Kharms.
     From  1925  Kharms  began  to  appear  at  poetry  readings  and  other
avant-garde activities,  gained membership  of the Leningrad  section of the
All-Russian Union of Poets (from 1926), one  of the many predecessors to the
eventual Union of Soviet Writers, and published two poems in anthologies  in
1926 and 1927. Almost unbelievably, these were the only 'adult' works Kharms
was able to  publish in his lifetime.  In 1927 Kharms joined together with a
number  of like-minded  experimental  writers, including his talented friend
and close  associate  Aleksandr  Vvedensky  (1900-1941) and  the  major poet
Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-1958), to  form the  literary and artistic grouping
Oberiu (the acronym of the 'Association of Real Art').
     Representing something of  a  union  between  Futurist  aesthetics  and
Formalist approaches,  the Oberiut considered themselves  a 'left  flank' of
the literary  avant-garde.  Their publicity  antics,  including  a  roof-top
appearance  by  Kharms,  caused  minor  sensations  and  they  succeeded  in
presenting a highly  unconventional  theatrical evening entitled 'Three Left
Hours'  in 1928,  which  included  the  performance  of Kharms's  Kafkaesque
absurdist  drama 'Yelizaveta Bam'. Among the  Oberiu catch-phrases were 'Art
is a cupboard' (Kharms normally made his theatrical entrances inside or on a
wardrobe) and  'Poems  aren't  pies;  we  aren't herring'.  However,  in the
Stalinising years of the late  1920s, the time for propagating  experimental
modernist art had  passed.  The rising Soviet neo-bourgeoisie were not to be
shocked:  tolerance  of  any  such frivolities  was  plummeting  and hostile
journalistic attention ensured  the hurried disbandment of  the Oberiu group
after a number of further appearances.
     Kharms and Vvedensky evidently felt it wiser to  allow themselves to be
drawn into the realm  of children's literature,  writing for publications of
the children's  publishing  house  Detgiz,  known  fondly  as  the  'Marshak
Academy',  run by  the redoubtable  children's  writer  (and  bowdleriser of
Robbie  Burns),  Samuil  Marshak,  and  involving  the  playwright  Yevgeniy
Shvarts.  By  1940  Kharms  had  published  eleven  children's   books   and
contributed  regularly  to  the  magazines 'The Hedgehog' and  'The Siskin'.
However,  even in  this  field  of literary  activity,  anything out  of the
ordinary  was  not  safe. Kharms, in  his  'playful' approach to  children's
writing, utilised a number of Oberiu-type devices. The  Oberiu  approach had
been denounced in a Leningrad paper in 1930 as 'reactionary sleight-of-hand'
and, at the end  of  1931, Kharms  and Vvedensky  were arrested,  accused of
'distracting  the  people  from  the  building  of  socialism  by  means  of
trans-sense verses' and exiled to Kursk. However the exile was fairly brief,
the  times  being  what  Akhmatova  described  as  'relatively  vegetarian'.
Nevertheless, little work was to be had thereafter; Kharms was in and out of
favour  at  Detgiz and  periods  of near  starvation  followed.  Kharms  and
Vvedensky (the latter had moved  to the Ukraine in the mid-30s: see Kharms's
letter to him) survived the main purges  of the 1930s. However, the outbreak
of war brought new dangers: Kharms was arrested in Leningrad in August 1941,
while  Vvedensky's  arrest  took  place  the  following  month  in  Kharkov.
Vvedensky died in  December of that year and  Kharms (it seems of starvation
in prison hospital) in February 1942. Both were subsequently 'rehabilitated'
during the Khrushchev 'Thaw'. Most of their adult writings had  to await the
Gorbachev period for  publication in Russia. Both starvation and arrest were
anticipated in  a number  of Kharms's  writings.  Hunger  and  poverty  were
constant  companions;  indeed, Kharms can lay  claim to  being  the  poet of
hunger (not for nothing did he take strongly to Knut Hamsun's novel of  that
name),  as  the following  translation  of  an unrhyming but  rhythmic verse
fragment shows:

     This is how hunger begins:
     The morning you wake, feeling lively,
     Then begins the weakness,
     Then begins the boredom;
     Then comes the loss
     Of the power of quick reason,
     Then comes the calmness
     And then begins the horror.

     On his general situation in life, Kharms wrote the following quatram in
1937:

     We've had it now in life's realm,
     Of all hope we are now bereft.
     Gone are dreams of happiness,
     Destitution is all that's left.

     The arrest of Kharms came,  reportedly, when the caretaker of the block
of flats  in which he lived called him down, in his bedroom slippers, 'for a
few minutes'. He was apparently charged with spreading defeatist propaganda;
there  is evidence that, even in those times, he managed to clear himself of
this charge, possibly by feigning insanity.
     Kharms had been  a marked man since his first arrest in 1931 and he was
probably  lucky  to escape  disaster  when  he  landed  in  trouble  over  a
children's poem in  1937  (about  a  man who  went  out to  buy  tobacco and
disappeared). In addition, his first wife, Ester Rusakova, was a member of a
well-known  old  emigre  revolutionary  family, subsequently  purged;  it is
intriguing to recall that Kharms had been, for several years, Viktor Serge's
brother-in-law.
More here.

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