A while back one of my friends suggested a book. At first I had my doubts, but then decided I shouldn’t reject such a gesture without at least a few minutes of browsing.
I did so, and a tad intrigued, proceeded to purchase Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms and to read the book cover to cover in a week’s time, proving yet again how much there is for us to learn, even when it comes from unexpected or obscure places.
And Kharms (1905-1942), a Russian writer from so far away that it might as well be a different galaxy, was the very personification of obscurity.
To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t heard of Kharms at all until now, even though a big chunk of my life 35 years ago was consumed by studying Russian and Soviet culture. Then again, Kharms wasn’t really known by his own countrymen until the post-Soviet era, a mere 60 years too late for this recognition to matter.
As an aside (or else there won’t be enough words to fill this column) I might have gotten serious back then about learning the Russian language, and perhaps taken the youthful obsession further, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen. My interests shifted, and that’s the way it goes.
The fascination remains, albeit muted; pushed back a bit to one side, waiting to be aroused again, as it was a few years back when the brewery at Bank Street Brewhouse was active, and we began receiving regular e-mails from locales in the former USSR asking us to send them bottle caps, labels and various collectibles — at our expense, naturally.
However, it struck a chord with me. This request is from 2014; I described it in a brief series at my beer blog.
If you own a brewery or work for one, you’ve probably fielded e-mail inquiries from overseas asking for keepsakes … to me, there is something compelling and yet haunting about these foreign requests, which tend to come from Central/Eastern European locales, places of longtime personal interest to me historically and geographically. They speak to my inner melancholic. Lately, I’ve been pasting their addresses into Google Maps and seeing what their places of residence look like.
Yekaterinburg lies a thousand miles to the east of Moscow, and is the fourth-largest city in Russia, now boasting 1.3 million inhabitants and a skyscraper-filled city center. You may remember Yekaterinburg as the place where the Romanov dynasty came to a barbaric close.
Oleg lives in one of the classic “rabbit hutch” blocks of flats constructed during Soviet times.
“I collect souvenirs from various beer companies and brands,” writes Oleg. “I’d love to get some items from you, if it is possible. I am interested in labels, stickers, crown caps, beer mats, openers, lanyards and other branded items.”
Ironically, given that only recently I name-dropped Klement Gottwald (the first Czechoslovak Communist kingpin), Oleg lives on Gotvalda Street.
Is there a Tsar Nicholas II Street in Yekaterinburg?
Kharms (the name was his own later invention) was born in St. Petersburg, later recast by the Soviets as Leningrad before changing back when the USSR disintegrated.
His father was a revolutionary who eventually was incarcerated, emerging from prison as a sort of born-again Orthodox Christian. Still, St. Petersburg was one of the most cosmopolitan locales in Tsarist Russia, and perhaps because of this Kharms displayed artistic inclinations from the start.
As a writer, Kharms eventually became somewhat known for authoring children’s books, although he was said to have disliked children. Any income stream in a storm, because Kharms’ times were tumultuous, and he could never be sure of a paycheck.
It is often forgotten that during the very first post-civil war years of Soviet rule in the 1920s, there was a flowering of the progressive and avant-garde in literature, art, music, even architecture. After all, Russian society had been liberated from Tsarist and capitalist repression. Freedom had arrived. Artistic expression wasn’t necessarily counter to Marxism, was it?
As time passed and the screws of Communist Party control tightened, the answer to this question changed radically, from “not necessarily” to “yes, in fact it is — always.”
The gray areas yielded to black and white, and if artistic expression was not precisely suiting the party’s present needs, then by definition it was hurting them. Middle ground didn’t exist with outright sabotage.
Unfortunately Kharms chose the role of the eccentric, roaming the streets in a sort of Sherlock Holmes outfit, staging counter-cultural events, poetry readings and various other stunts. The authorities were not amused, but Kharms managed to stay upright on thin ice until the late 1920s, when Stalinism began.
After Lenin’s death in 1924 it wasn’t clear who would succeed him at the apex of the apparatus. Amid a group of aspirant Bolshevik intellectuals, the peasant Joe Stalin wasn’t expected to be in the running, but Stalin, like many a psychopath, specialized in precisely the sort of rules-free amok scrums that many of his better qualified comrades shunned as beneath their skills.
In a classic case study of divide-and-conquer, Stalin quickly climbed the ladder and instituted a dictatorial career of eliminating rivals, from the highest communist apparatchik to the lowest dishwasher at a dumpling dispensary in a Siberian province. The idea was to instill fear via the sheer randomness of cruelty.
Stalin’s charges against his victims routinely were trumped-up and fictitious, although with Kharms they didn’t really need to be imagined. Artists of his obtuseness and spirited independence weren’t Stalin’s cup of Joe. Unwilling to toe the line, Kharms was doomed in the workers’ paradise, and the only question was how the end would come — quickly or slowly, with bureaucratic creativity, or just the standard, requisite bullet to the brain in a KGB cellar somewhere.
In 1931 Kharms was sent to prison, survived the sentence, and returned home to start over again, whereupon he ran headlong into one of the perverse ironies of the Soviet system. Marxist-Leninist ideology decreed universal employment. It was illegal to be unemployed, and everyone was required to work; otherwise, those without jobs were parasites subject to arrest, but since the the government was in effect the only employer, it decided who worked and who did not.
As such, the state owned the printing presses, newspapers and publishing houses, denying access to these by Kharms, who was not sent to the gulag to break rocks, but isolated at home, blackballed from being published. The hoary “publish or perish” dictum became literally true, and the ensuing impoverishment grew increasingly desperate during the 1930s. Hunger was a constant specter hovering above Kharms and his second wife Marina Malich.
We all understand that chronic malnutrition is a ticking time bomb, affecting mental health as well as physical well being. Consequently Kharms’ output was erratic. His exhibitionist behavior always had been calculated. Now it wasn’t as clear that he had complete control over it.
Accordingly Kharms’ short stories, poems and notes (“absurdist” may or may not be the correct term) were written for “the drawer” alone, this implying the desk drawer, and those surviving writings of his from the period prior to World War II, some fully formed, others just fragments, were lucky to have been saved from Leningrad’s devastation by Malich and friends — or else there’d be almost nothing to remember him by.
When the Nazis invaded the USSR, the gloves came off. Stalin quickly rounded up those viewed as potential liabilities in wartime. It is thought that Kharms had at first avoided conscription by being declared mentally ill; he’d already spoken openly against the coming war and vowed to avoid military service, leading some to surmise that by this point the many years of physical deprivation really had led to Kharms losing his mind. We’ll probably never know for sure.
As the war turned dire for the Soviets, Kharms was jailed in an insane asylum in Leningrad, which promptly was surrounded by the Germans in what became a 900-day-long siege, human history’s longest and most costly in terms of civilian lives lost. There was a feeble plan to try to evacuate mental detainees, but Kharms already was gone. Officially the cause of death was starvation, although in truth, at the age of 36 there wasn’t much left of him, anyway.
This calls to mind one of Kharms’ most enjoyable, brief jewels, referred to now as “Blue Notebook No. 2.”
Once there was a redheaded man without eyes and without ears. He had no hair either, so that he was a redhead was just something they said.
He could not speak, for he had no mouth. He had no nose either.
He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach either, and he had no back, and he had no spine, and no intestines of any kind. He didn’t have anything at all. So it is hard to understand whom we are really talking about.
So it is probably best not to talk about him any more.
For an idea of Kharms’ literary range, interested readers can visit the Google Books repository and see enough there to get an impression. There is a lengthy introduction by the translator, who provides much biographical information. At the end of the book is a small section of notes providing explanations for certain people associated with Kharms, concepts, geographical references, and the like.
One of them is about Kharms’ wife, Marina Malich, which left me wanting to know more about her.
Kharms married his second wife Marina Vladimirovna Malich (1909-2003) in 1934 soon after they had met through her sister Olga, whom Kharms had been courting. In 1942, after finding out that her husband had died in prison, Malich managed to escape the blockade of Leningrad, but was later taken captive by the Germans. Through a series of seemingly miraculous events, she escaped Germany to Paris as the Allies were bombing Berlin. Her mother, who had abandoned her as a child, lived in Nice with a man named Wycheslavzoff. When Marina came to see her mother in Nice, Wycheslavzoff took a liking to her, and soon she becae pregnant. She moved with him to Paris, and later Venezuela. After they separated, malich married Yury Dournovo, a taxi driver of Russian aristocratic lineage living in Caracas in a community of Russians and other displaced emigres. Malich lived more than half her life in South America. She left a memoir about her life with Daniil Kharms and about her miraculous World War II journey (co-written with Vladimir Glotzer). She died in Atlanta, Georgia, shortly after the millennium.
What a story! It’s an amazing life. For more background on Malich, read “Together in love, work and legacy” at Rossiyskaya Gazeta, where the essay includes information about Nadezhda Mandelstam and Elena Bulgakov, the wives of poet Osip Mandelstam and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov.
Let’s drink to the life of Daniil Kharms, who fully anticipated social media during a pandemic.
I am interested only in “nonsense”; only in that which makes no practical sense. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestations.