[ poetry - august 10 ]
There is a debt to Daniil Kharms. Though what that is, is hard to say. He prefigures much of what follows him, and yet those followers, most would not have read him. The debt then is? To be paid in what currency? A man quite beyond recognition, we cannot thank him. Certainly it matters not if we speak of him, or write books about him, or remember how he was in his youth. If Russia has birthed bravery in its writers, I refer to style and language, then it has done so with a hammer. Kharms shows the signs of more than a few blows. Like so many of his fellows, in his prime, he wrote for the desk drawer, active during what Akhmatova described as the lean and poisonous 'vegetarian years.' Kharms' works were only discovered by the literary public after the great thaw of Kruschev, and even then not meaningfully published until the Gorbachev years. It is a posthumous light of appreciation that has shone upon Kharms (and it remains a faint bulb at that).
Full of grotesquery, violence, defiance and mortal humour; there are prescient slivers of the avant-garde to come in all Kharms writings - dada, futurism, surrealism. But he is none of these. He is not a destroyer. He is a leveller, an explosion to clear the ground for a new art, a modernist. The last modernist before newness became a death sentence. Kharms began at poetry readings in Leningrad before gaining membership of the All Russian Union of Poets. Almost unbelievably, Kharms published only two poems for an adult audience, before being denounced as a reactionary. He survived writing children's books, just as his compatriots, Aleksander Vvedensky and Nikolai Zabolotsky, members of the Oberiu group, were able to find survival in this form of literary pursuit.
Kharms belongs to the tradition of the futile murk and jaundiced hope, but somehow he is beyond these tags and bunches; his is an incessant laughter. Urbane, nutty, without exclamation, he wants to open his vein to show us his own limpid limitations and to compromise himself first, before he can destroy tradition as he sees it, slow witted, craven and knotted.
What follows is an interview with Daniil Kharms (his answers are lifted from his writings, eclectically placed, and as such, speak for him)
We may as well begin with your birth and your general childhood, and how you see yourself. I suppose this is where I wish to begin. When were you born? Tell me what you think you look like?
Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a small boy, they moved to Petersburg, and there he graduated from the German school on Kirochnaya Street. Then he had a job in some kind of store; then he did something else; and when the Revolution started, he emigrated. Well, the hell with him. I'd better tell you about Anna Ignatievna.
But it is not so easy to tell you about Anna Ignatievna. First of all, I know almost nothing about her, and secondly, I have just fallen off my chair and forget what I was going to say. So I'd better tell you about myself.
I am tall, fairly intelligent; I dress meticulously and in good taste; I don't drink, I don't go to races, but I like ladies. And ladies don't dislike me. They like it when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna invited me to her place more than once, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also said that she was always glad to see me. But a funny thing happened to me with Marina Petrovna that I want to tell you about. An absolutely ordinary thing, but an amusing one. Because of me, Marina Petrovna lost all her hair - bald as the palm of your hand. It happened this way: one I went to see Marina Petrovna, and bang! She lost all her hair. That was all.
And your birth?
Now I will describe how I was born and how the first signs of genius were discovered in me. I was born thrice. This is how it happened. My father got married to my mother, but my parents brought me into the world only three years later, because my father was adamant that his child should be born at New Year. Dad calculated that conception had to take place on the first of April and only on that day did he get round my mum with the proposition of conceiving a child. My dad got round my mum on the first of april two years after their wedding. Mum had been long awaiting this moment and was terribly thrilled. But dad, as it seems, was in a very playful mood and could not restrain himself, saying to mum 'April fool!'
Mum was absolute furious and didn't allow dad anywhere near her that day. There was nothing for it but to wait until the year. On the first of april the next year dad again started getting round mum with the same proposition. But mum, remembering what had happened the year before, said that she had no further desire to be left in that stupid position and again would not allow dad near her. It didn't matter how much dad begged, it got him nowhere. Only a year later did my dad manage to get his way with my mum and beget me. However, all dad's calculations broke down because I turned out to be premature and was born four months before my time. Dad created such a fuss that the midwife who had delivered me lost her head and started to shove me back in, from where I had only just emerged. Dad again started creating a fuss, saying that, surely this couldn't be called a birth, that this surely couldn't yet be called a human being, but rather a semi-foetus, and that it ought to either shoved back again or put into an incubator. So I was born again and put into an incubator. They took my out of the incubator at New Year. My third birth.
Why did you start writing?
Horror. I saw terrible things. A big nosed woman was beating up her kid with a trough. A fattish young mother rubbed a pretty little girl's face against the brick wall. A little dog broke its thin leg and rolled around on pavement. A little boy ate some kind of loathsome thing out of a spittoon. At the grocery store there was a long line for sugar. The women swore loudly and pushed one another with bags. The peasant Khariton got drunk on denatured alcohol and stood in front of the women with unbuttoned trousers and said bad words. Thus began a beautiful summer's day.
I have no other reasons. I have heard the phrase 'seize the moment.' It's easily said but hard to do. In my view, it's a meaningless expression. And really you can't call for the impossible. I say this with complete certainty, because I have tested everything on myself. I have grabbed at the moment but not managed to seize and have merely broken my watch. Now I know that it's impossible.
Knowing very generally about the conditions in the soviet state at the time you were most prolific, you must have known that your works were totally unpublishable and that could not have begun to try to do so. And yet you wrote them anyway?
I write to express my preferences in the moment in which I have them. I don't like children, old men, old women and the reasonable middle aged. To poison children - that would be harsh. But, hell, something needs to be done with them…I respect only young, robust, and splendiferous women. Splendiferousness and a certain lack of bodily hygiene are what is to be particularly valued in a woman. The remaining representatives of the human race I regard suspiciously. Old women who are repositories of reasonable ideas ought to be lassoed. Which is the more agreeable sight: an old woman clad in just a shift, or a young man completely naked?
I find it hard to imagine a man writing knowing those works would not be able to be read.
One must be philosophical and wise and understand that anything can happen. Blessed is he who has wisdom. Kurov doesn't have wisdom, but I have. I read a book in the public library twice. It said very intelligent things about everything. I take an interest in everything, even in languages. I can court in French and know how to say stomach in German: den magen. That's how. Even the painter Kozlov is my friend. We drink beer together. And Kurov? He can't even tell time. He blows his nose in his hands, eats fish with a fork, sleeps with his shoes on, doesn't brush his teeth. Ridiculous! That's what I call a peasant. Take him into society. They'll throw you out and curse you. If you are an intellectual, don't go around with a peasant.
You can't get the better of me. If I've got to talk to a count - I talk to a count. If I have to talk with a baron - I talk to a baron. You can't even figure out right away what kind of person I am. It's true that I know German badly. But Kurov doesn't even know der magen. And she ran away with that kind of idiot. You can see what she wanted! You see, she doesn't consider me a man. She says, 'You have a voice like a woman.' But it's not a voice like a woman but a voice like a child. A delicate voice, a child's voice, not at all a woman's voice. What a fool she is.
But do you not fear? Would you not admit to fear, of what may happen to you, if it hasn't in a manner already, because of your writing? Why not just stop? Or tell no one?
Any minute now the door will open and they'll come in. They'll certainly come in so that they can catch me and wipe me out. What have I done? What have I done? If I had only known… Run? Where can I run? This door leads to the stairs, and on the stairs I would run into them. Out the window? Oh it is high. I can't jump. Well, what can I do? Oh somebody's coming. It's them. I'll lock the door, and I'll not open it. Let them knock as much as they like. You can't barricade yourself with planks against a celestial phenomenon.
What do you do for money though? You cannot be making enough to live from your writing.
I write. I plot. I plot against the children who disturb my work. The offensive shouting of urchins can be heard from the street. I lie there, thinking up various means of execution for them. My favourite one is to infect them all with tetanus so that they suddenly stop moving. I write children stories.
You won't actually do that though, will you?
I have murdered. I had someone die in my room. I didn't kill them but they died in my room and they eventually turned out to be alive. Burst into the room and smash the old woman's skull in! That's what needed to be done! No matter.
Did they arrest you? Were you in prison? I had thought you were still awaiting trial.
No, never. I was in hospital. I don't want to boast. But when Volodya hit me in the ear and spat in my eyes, I let him have it in a way he will never forget. It was then that I beat him with the little gas stove; yesterday I beat him with the flatiron. So he did not die right away. And where is there any proof that I cut off his leg that day? He was still alive. And I beat Andryusha to death only because I was carried away by my momentum. I am not at all responsible for that. Why did Andryusha and Liza Antonovna come in there? Who was forcing them to come in that door?
I've been accused of being bloodthirsty. It's been said I drank the blood. That is a lie. I only lapped up the puddles and the spots. It's natural to want to wipe out the traces of even the most innocent transgression. And I did not rape Liza Antonovna. First of all, she was not a virgin any more. Secondly, I was dealing with a corpse. So the accusation is beside the point. So what if she was about to have a baby! I took the child out of her. And if it wasn't capable of living, that's not my fault. I did not tear off its head. It's the fault of that thin neck. It was simply unfit for life. It's true I stamped on the dog. But it's simply cynical to accuse me of murdering a dog, when right alongside it, three human lives had been lost. I'm not counting the baby. Let us say, and I might even agree, that there was a certain amount of cruelty on my part. But to try me because I defecated on those victims is, if you pardon me, absurd. Defecating is a natural human need. So how it be something indecent? I do understand certain fears my defence lawyer has, but I believe I shall be completely vindicated.
Who are your influences?
It's different day to day. Sherlock Holmes. Edward Lear. Johann Nagel
You have always stated Hamsun has been an influence on your work. Though he too seems to have been left behind by posterity. Do you feel you share characteristics with him stylistically or thematically?
Yes. I dream like him, certainly. I had a dream. I saw a swamp, without trees, but with a myriad of roots sprawled in all directions like a mass of writhing serpents. Then I saw a madman walking among all those twisted roots. I can still see him; he was pale and had a dark beard, but it was so scraggly that his skin showed through. His eyes were full of suffering and he looked around distractedly. I was hiding behind a rock and I called out to him. He turned in my direction and wasn't at all surprised at the sound of my voice. He seemed to know where I was , though I wasn't visible. He kept on staring at the rock. He won't find me, I thought, and if he does, I can make a dash for it. And although it made me uneasy to have him standing there staring, I shouted again, just to provoke him. He took a couple of steps towards me; his mouth was open as if he were about to bite, but he couldn't get through the maze of roots. I cried out again, many times, to get him really worked up, and he began tugging at the roots to clear a path. He ripped them up by the armful and threw them aside in his struggle to reach me, but he got nowhere. He began groaning, too, and his eyes were bulging with pain and exertion. When I realised that I was safe, I got up, revealed myself to him in my full height and waved my cap, and drove him into a frenzy by stamping my feet and shouting hell over and over again. I even moved closer to him to rile him even more. I pointed my finger at him, yelling hello close to his ear to get him even more worked up. Then I crawled back behind my rock to taunt him and show him how close I was. But he hadn't given up; he was still struggling with the roots, struggling stubbornly and wildly to up them out of his path; they tore at him until he bled, his face was all scratched, but he raised himself on tiptoe and shouted at me. His face was distorted and steaming with sweat and rage because he couldn't get at me. I wanted to egg him on even farther, so I edged closer still, snapped my fingers and jeered at him. I threw a root at him, which hit him right in the mouth. The blow almost knocked him down, but he spat out the blood, put his hand to his mouth, and went on fighting the roots. Then I decided to be daring and touch; I wanted to poke my finger at his forehead and then pull away. But at that moment he grabbed me. Good god did I panic! He lurched forward and grabbed my hand. I screamed. But all he did was to hold my hand and follow me. We made our way out of the swamp. The roots didn't seem to bother him, not that he had a grip on my hand, and we reached the rock which had been my hiding place. He threw himself down and kissed the ground I had walked on. He knelt there before me, bloody and bruised, and thanked me for being so good to him. He blessed me too, and prayed to god to bless me for what I had done for him. His eyes were wide open and filled with supplications to god on my behalf. He didn't kiss my hand or even my shoe but the earth my shoes had touched. Why do you kiss the ground I have walked on? I asked. Because my mouth is bleeding and I don't want to soil your shoes, he said. But why do you thank me when I've only hurt you and made you suffer? I persisted. I thank you, he said, for not causing me more suffering, because you were kind enough to torture me no further.
You seem to react against the symbolist appreciation of nature.
What's so great about flowers? You get a significantly better smell from between women's legs. Both are pure nature, so no one dare be outraged at my words. On falling into filth, there is one thing for a man to do: just fall, without looking round. The important thing is just to do this with style and energy.
What are your feelings about the current literary climate, in Russia?
I don't read. Since a long time ago, people have been reflecting on what intelligence and stupidity are. With respect to this, I remember an incident. When my aunt gave me a desk, I said to myself 'I'll sit down at the desk, and the first idea I'll come up with at that desk will be an especially intelligent one.' But I wasn't able to think up an especially intelligent idea. Then I said to myself, 'very well. I didn't succeed in thinking up an especially intelligent idea, so I'll think up an especially stupid one.' But I wasn't able to think up an especially stupid idea, either. It is very difficult to do anything extreme. It is easier to do something in the middle. The centre requires no effort. The centre is equilibrium. There's no struggle there.
Though it hasn't perhaps the cultural saturation of other such seminal studies, your biographical dissections of Pushkin has retained its place in the pantheon of russian literary histories.
Pushkin loved to throw rocks. As soon as he saw a rock, he would throw it. Sometimes he became so excited that he stood, all red in the face, waving his arms, throwing rocks, simply something awful.
Pushkin had four sons, all idiots. One didn't even know how to sit on a chair and fell off all the time. Pushkin himself also sat on a chair rather badly. It simply murderous: they sat at the table; at one end, Pushkin kept falling off his chair continually, and at the other end, his son. Simply enough to make one split one's sides with laughter
You have been accused of 'reactionary jugglerism' and being a 'literary hooligan of nonsense'.
There was once a red haired man who had no eyes and no ears. He also had no hair, so he was called red haired only in a manner of speaking. He wasn't able to talk, because he didn't have a mouth. He had no nose, either. He didn't even have any arms or legs. He also didn't have a stomach, and he didn't have a back, and he didn't have a spine, and he also didn't have any other insides. He didn't have anything. So it's hard to understand whom we're talking about. So we'd better not talk about him anymore.
Are you still in touch with your compatriots from Oberiu? That is Vvedensky and Zabolotsky. Do you still hear from them?
Good people, but they don't know how to take themselves in hand. So no.
May I ask, do you still write? Is there anything new for the world to read from your pen?
I have a book, now, called Malgil. Here, in this book, is written all concerning our desires and their fulfilment. Read this book, and you will understand empty are our desires. You will also understand how easy it is to fulfil another's desire and how difficult to fulfil one's own desire.
It sounds very solemn.
This is such a book that it must be spoken in elevated tones. When I so much as think of it I take off my hat.
Do you wash your hands before you touch it, then?
Yes, and the hands must be washed.
You ought to wash your feet, to be on the safe side.
That is most unwitty and rude. The book is set in Brazil.
You are missed. You are sorely missed.
I'm doubtful of that. I used to be a very wise old man. Now I am not quite right; you may consider me even not to exist at all. But the time was when any one of you would have come to me, and whatever burden may have oppressed a person, whatever sins may have tormented his thoughts, I would have embraced him and said: my son, take comfort, for no burden is oppressing you and I see no bodily sins in you - and he would scamper away from me in happiness and joy.
I was great and strong. People who met me on the street would shy to one side and I would pass through a crowd like a flat iron. My feet would often be kissed, but I didn't protest: I knew I deserved it. Why deprive people of the pleasure of honouring me? I myself, being extraordinarily lithe of body, even tried to kiss myself on my own foot. I sat on a bench, got hold of my right foot and pulled it up to my face. I managed to kiss the big toe. I was happy. I understood the happiness of others.
Everyone worshipped me! And not only people, but even beasts, while even various insects crawled before me and wagged their tails. And cats! They simply adored me and, somehow or other gripping each other's paws, would run in front of me whenever I was on the staircase.
At that I was indeed very wise and understood everything. There was not a thing that would perturb me. Just a minute's exertion of my colossal mind and the most complicated question would be resolved in the simplest possible manner. I was even taken to the Brain Institute and shown off to the learned professors. They measured my mind by electricity and simply boggled. We have never seen anything like it, they said. I don't remember exactly. Memory - that's a strange thing altogether. How hard remembering is, and how easy forgetting! That's how it often is: you memorise one thing, and then remember something entirely different.
But then something in me cracked and, since then, you might consider that I am no more.