Tag Archives: Samuil Marshak

Daniil Kharms plaque and home, St. Petersburg

Click on photos to enlarge.

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.
Enter Pritykin.
Pritykin: Mr. Petrakov-Gorbunov was to have sa… (He throws up, runs offstage).
Enter Makarov.
Makarov: Yegor… (Makarov throws up. Runs off.)
Enter Serpukhov.
Serpukhov: So as not to… (He throws up, runs off).
Enter Kurova.
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.


Samuil Marshak plaque, Moscow


Samuil Marshak (1887-1964), as Russian Wikipedia has it, was a “Russian-Soviet poet, playwright, translator and literary critic.” That’s a pretty big plateful. I’m writing about him today because I got a call from a British radio company doing a piece on Russian-British cultural connections. In addition to wanting to discuss current problems and affairs, they asked me to say a few words about the place occupied in Russian culture by Walter Scott and Robert Burns. I did what I always do in these situations, I said, “Sure,” even though I know only the barest of the bare about Scott and Burns in Russian lit. Everybody knows that Walter Scott’s novels deeply influenced all of 19th century Russian literature through Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and others. Dostoevsky, apparently, at one point indicated that he began writing novels thanks to Scott. Perhaps less known is that Burns has been an extremely popular poet in Russia over the last two centuries. Which brings us back to Marshak. During my brief and rushed bit of research, I learned it was Marshak’s translations of Burns that really made the Scottish poet popular in Russia. The first of these translations appeared in 1924 and he continued to add to the “canon” for three decades. His English was presumably good, since he studied English language and literature  at London University from 1912 to 1914. The biggest collection of Burns poems translated by Marshak was published in two volumes in 1963 and contains 171 poems, “about one fourth of the number of poems Burns wrote,” according to Yan De-you’s article “On Marshak’s Russian Translation of Robert Burns,” which is available to be read on the net. Most sources point out that Marshak’s translations, like those of others in Tsarist and Soviet times, were changed, shortened or “edited” to suit the censor. Marshak purposefully avoided translating poems with religious content or imagery, unless it had a satirical bent. So well received and so popular were Marshak’s versions of Burns that he has been called Burns’s “second original.”

Burns aside, Marshak was best known and loved in the Soviet Union for his children’s writings. But as the head of the children’s literature bureau at Gosizdat, a state publishing house, he had a strong impact on the work of others as well. For instance he was an early champion of the work of the great absurdists Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky, Nikolai Oleinikov, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and of the future great author of dramatic fairy tales Yevgeny Shvarts. He lived a rich and fascinating life that was deeply affected by his Jewish background. Unable to study or even live in the main Russian cities before the Revolution, he had to rely on friends such as Maxim Gorky or Fyodor Chaliapin to skirt residency laws. He traveled much, meeting his future wife during a long journey to the Middle East in 1911. Some of his cities of residence included: Voronezh (where he was born), Petersburg (at various times later – Petrograd and Leningrad), Yalta (at Gorky’s dacha), London, Finland, Petrozavodsk, Yekaterinodar, Moscow… He moved to Moscow after the publishing house he had created in Leningrad was closed by the authorities in 1937 and many of the employees and writers were arrested. He wrote poetry, prose and drama. He translated prodigiously, some of his authors including Shakespeare (sonnets), William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne and Jane Austin. As was common in the Soviet Union, where traditions and methods of translation were extremely good, he also translated from languages that he didn’t know, working from the line-by-line translations of others. One of the most curious poets that he translated was Mao Zedong.
As you can see, I took these photos of the Marshak plaque on the building at 14 Zemlyanoi Val – that’s a leg of the so-called Garden Ring on the eastern side of Moscow – in winter. For a couple of years, until 1941, he was a neighbor of the composer Sergei Prokofiev, to whom a plaque was also erected on this building. Marshak lived here from 1938 until his death in 1964.