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As things get curiouser and curiouser in Russia, one is drawn to such figures as Daniil Kharms, generally considered the founder of the Russian absurd. He is frequently quoted in my home, which for the better part of 30 years has comprised a hydra-headed theater family – the union of an actress and a theater historian / critic / translator / chronicler / props man / stagehand / sounding board / pin cushion, whatever. You get the drift. In our rendition this is how it sounds: “There will be no show today. We’re all sick. B-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-f-f!” It’s what the actress in the house has often said, attempting to conjure a sense of humor as she goes off to perform when a hot toddy and a warm bed would be much more in line. The other guy in the house has used it for the same reasons as he headed out into sub-zero wintry conditions, coughing and choking, half dead from a cold, but headed out for the theatre anyway. Let me offer Kharms’s entire mini-play right here:
The Unsuccessful Performance
Enter Petrakov-Gorbunov who wants to say something, but burps. He starts throwing up. Exit.
Pritykin: Mr. Petrakov-Gorbunov was to have sa… (He throws up, runs offstage).
Makarov: Yegor… (Makarov throws up. Runs off.)
Serpukhov: So as not to… (He throws up, runs off).
Kurova: I would… (She throws up, she runs off).
Enter a little girl.
Little Girl: Daddy said to tell you all that the theater is closed. We’re all sick.
The show must go on. As it does not happen in Kharms’s wacko little gem.
Everybody has their favorite Kharms poems, plays, anecdotes, sketches, or whatever you call them. But aside from the barfing theater, my favorites are the so-called literary anecdotes, little stories and dramatic sketches that put the all-hallowed Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky into bizarre narratives that nobody before Kharms ever could possibly have imagined. There’s the one where Pushkin and Gogol furiously throw stones back and forth at each other, and there’s the one where Pushkin and Gogol are in some theater performance and they keep tripping on each other as they enter and exit. The stories are so precise, so funny, and so desirous of having continuation, that others have also picked up the gauntlet and written wonderfully bizarre Kharmsian tales taking down Russia’s pantheon of greats with great humor and affection. Some of the best anecdotes written by Natalya Dobrokhotova-Maikova and Vladimir Pyatnitsky begin with the line, “Gogol once dressed up as Pushkin and went to visit…” [insert various names].
Daniil Yuvachyov was born December 30, 19905, in St. Petersburg. That is, he came into a world that was topsy-turvy. The so-called Revolution of 1905 was underway and would not be put down until the child was 18 months old. Putting it simply, things didn’t get much better as time went on. There was the backlash to the revolution, there was World War I, followed by the 1917 Coup or Revolution or whatever it’s called these days, then the Russian Civil War and the clamping down on all dissent that began to rear its head again in the late 1920s. The boy’s father spent time in prison for his political beliefs, so the family knew the peculiarities of this incoming age firsthand. The young Yuvachyov began referring to himself under the pseudonym of Kharms when he was in school. Several reasons are offered to explain his choice – it may be a play on the English words “charm,” and/or “harm,” and it might also be a play on the last name of the detective Sherlock Holmes. Whatever the reasons, this unusual writer of bizarre short tales and dramatic sketches would forever after be known as Daniil Kharms.
The apartment house at 11 Mayakovsky Street in St. Petersburg – it runs from Nevsky Prospect to Kirochnaya St. – is where Kharms wrote the vast majority of his works. According to the plaque on the wall, he lived here from 1925 to 1941. He left under arrest and would not return. He was accused of spreading gloom and doom and avoided being executed only because he pretended so convincingly to be insane. That did not help him for long, however. He died of starvation while incarcerated during the German blockade of Leningrad. His death came February 2, 1942. He was 36 years of age.
Kharms was well regarded by his contemporaries in the know in the 1920s and 1930s. With a more or less likeminded group of unorthodox writers, he founded the famed OBERIU group in 1928. It did not have a great impact at the time, although when rediscovered a few decades later, it was acknowledged to be a harbinger of the absurdist literature that emerged following World War II in Europe. Kharms, like many of his unorthodox fellow writers found refuge in the 1930s by writing children’s stories. The writer and editor Samuil Marshak offered protection for many, Kharms included, at Detgiz (State Children’s Publisher) in Leningrad. It was a sign of the times that his ability to protect people like Kharms could only last a few years.
The plaque commemorating Kharms’s residence in the building pictured here was unveiled December 22, 2005. The flattened corner of the building is graced by a portrait of Kharms created by the artists Pasha Kas and Pavel Mokich. According to blogger Nikolai Podosokorsky it was painted in 2016 as part of a citywide street art festival. The street was called Nadezhdinskaya St. when Kharms moved in, but was changed to Mayakovsky St. on January 16, 1936, when the canonization of that complex, but now comfortably-dead writer (comfortable for the authorities) was just beginning.