Wednesday, May 20, 2009



(The Overlook Press/Peter Mayer Publishers, New York, 2007)

Because of the terrible attempt after the Communist Revolution to raze history, Russia has had to recreate much of her amazing literary legacy after the fact. Yankelevich has spent his career struggling to do just that, mining and discovering invisible veins of the buried twentieth century. Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms is a landmark in that project; it is more than translation.

In his introduction, Yankelevich asks us to reconsider the ‘subversive’ label stuck on Kharms’ forehead. But the label that I attach first and then have to peel off with my fingernails is ‘children’s writer’—a special case of subversion that is both resistant to and welcoming of all the labels and comparisons it invites. Kharms reminds us of Carroll, of Seuss, of Milne, of Chukovsky and Marshak (the last two only if we were ever Russian children), as much as of Gogol, Nabokov (specifically the Nabokov of Invitation to a Beheading), Beckett, Kafka, or Ionesco. In a way, he is easily assimilable as a children’s writer. I have a Russian friend who named his own son Daniil after him, and who with his friends loved to act out Kharms’ stories and plays when he was a boy himself. In Russia, you can buy Kharms picture books. It takes a paradigm shift to think of him as a dangerous or political writer, though I think that view of him has undeniable validity, even if it is somewhat of a cliché to talk about the artist as a victim of Stalinism, as censored by terror, as a man whose hopes for the Revolution were destroyed by Soviet realities. Yankelevich tries to revise both these images for something subtler and more complex, which is natural: we never want our heroes to be clichés.

Yankelevich says he sincerely hopes Kharms will “always stay in the margins of modern literature, slightly out of reach of the omnivorous canon,” in spite of these translations. My feeling is that it is a little too late, and Yankelevich’s work here is a little too good. This book, and the work of Yankelevich and company on all the OBERIU poets, makes the case for canonization, and proves to me at least that Kharms’ work is essential. Not only that, but from my own anecdotal evidence, it seems that Kharms has become that dreaded thing—an “important writer”—here, and in Russia.

The story “The Old Woman,” at just over twenty pages, is epic compared with the rest of the one- and two-page pieces in Today I Wrote Nothing, and constitutes a legitimate milestone in the development of Russian literature, fitting almost perfectly on a trajectory from Pushkin and Gogol, through Dostoyevsky and in an ignorant foot race with Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (ignorant, because Bulgakov had a manuscript of his masterpiece completed in 1938, which he continued to edit until his death in 1940, though, as was typical, it couldn’t be published until decades later; and Kharms’ story is dated the spring of 1939). Its diverse allusiveness (in the notes Yankelevich calls it an ‘all-encompassing meta-fiction”) is overwhelming, and yet at that point in the book—“The Old Woman” comes about halfway through—only an inkling of what Kharms is capable of has been put on display. In the first half of these selected writings, we’re introduced to what I can only describe as a logic of poetics in Kharms’ fiction. One story is called “Sonnet,” and in its anecdote of a man who can’t remember if seven comes after eight or the other way around—in Russian, they rhyme—several methods of inquiry are tested out: he asks his neighbors, a cashier, tries counting trees. He’s still at a loss, but is suddenly distracted when “somebody’s child toppled off a park bench and broke both of its jaws.” This immediate counteraction and resolution, echoing the argument structure of a verse sonnet, is a vital key to Kharms’ unique vision of the absurd. In another story, a succession of violent and depraved demonstrations in the public arena marks “The Beginning of a Very Fine Summer’s Day.” Kharms wields a dark and ravenous vision against the reader. The syntactic interruptions and radical alogic that is pervasive as well are harder to describe and trace (e.g., “At two o’clock on Nevsky Prospekt, or rather on the Avenue of October 25th nothing of note occurred” hints simultaneously to a space-time confusion, and to the glorification of a most-unglorious revolution). Error shades into meaning, where ‘world’ and ‘we’ are grafted onto a typo: ‘werld.’ By the end of the book all the mistakes and disruption have worked themselves up into a virtuosic crescendo of significance at the edge of meaning, and Kharms has taken his gifts to another power, has factored his talent by imaginary figures. I was initially convinced that Kharms suffered in comparisons to Ionesco or Beckett or Camus or Carroll, or even to his friend Vvedensky. But as the work went about its task of “creating opacity, fighting against the mimetic function, battling meaning, and parrying interpretive attacks” my initial impressions were overcome by a severe reverence and love for what Kharms accomplished.

And he won me over completely when he reminded me of Büchner, and Woyzeck:
“The Window” by Daniil Kharms

   I stare out the window
   and see bird battalions.

   You should be staring at the bottom of the mortar
   and grinding the grains with your pestle.

   I can no more grind these little pebbles:
   Teacher, they are so hard
   and my hand so tender.

   Who would have thought, a princess!
   You must study the hidden warmth
   of vaporization.

   Teacher, I am worn out with exhaustion
   by this unending chain of experiments.
      Five days and nights I grind. And the result?
   My hands have gone numb,
g    one dry my chest,
   O God, o God!

   Soon your torments will be done.
   Your mind will become clear.

   Oh, how my spine does creak!

   Make sure the mortar keeps chiming
   and the grains cracking under the pestle…
   I see: you’ve turned green
   and crossed your legs.
   I recollect eleven cases
   similar to this. What a parable!
   The poor girl strains to make a final effort—
   and there she lies, a cold little corpse.
   How heavily this weighs on me!
   While I had clambered up the chair
   to still the pendulum and set
   the clock correctly,
   she expired, the poor wretch,
   before she could finish up her education.

   Oh, my dear teacher,
   I have grasped the hidden warmth of vaporization.

   I’m sorry, but I can’t hear you anymore,
   though I’d listen gladly!
   You, my girl, have become incorporeal,
   and are mum, sadly.

   I opened suddenly.
   I’m a hole in walls of buildings.
   The soul spills out through me.
   I’m the air-vent of enlightened minds.

(March 15, 1931)


J.H. Stotts is a writer and photographer living in Boston and starting a family. His essays, poems, and translations have been published in Circumference, Hanging Loose, The Atlantic, and numerous e-zines. He's exhibited his photography and paintings in Boston, Russia, and Mexico. What he can't publish elsewhere he posts on his blog, The Fugue Aesthetics of J.H. Stotts. He finished an 'inauspicious' shotgun anthology of Russian poetry, from Fet to Esenin to Ryzhii, in formal and experimental translations and is currently at work on a selected poems of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, to come out in '09 from Whale and Star Press.

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