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.