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Russian Absurd

A glimpse into the notebooks of the modernist avant-garde artist Daniil Kharms translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale

The following is a selection of writings by Daniil Kharms included in Russian Absurd, Selected Writings, Translated, Edited and Introduced by Alex Cigale . It was published by Northwestern University Press in February 2017. Cigale read the last two of these selected writings as part of the event “ A Day of Translation: The Art of Losing and Finding ” at The New School. Copyright © 2017 by Northwestern University Press. Published 2017. All rights reserved.

Himmelkumov was staring at a young lady

Himmelkumov was staring at a young lady in the window opposite his. But the young lady in the window opposite did not look at Himmelkumov even once. “She’s just being bashful,” Himmelkumov thought to himself.

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Himmelkumov painted his face with green mascara and came to the window. “Let them all think: what a strange man,” Himmelkumov was saying to himself.

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There was no more tobacco and Himmelkumov had nothing to smoke. He sucked on the empty pipe, but this only intensified the torment. So two hours passed. And then the miraculous tobacco appeared.

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Himmelkumov bugged out his eyes at the young lady and was willing her to turn her head. However, this did not help. Then Himmelkumov tried to will the young lady not to look at him. This didn’t help either.

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Himmelkumov was searching for an internal idea he could immerse himself in for the span of his entire lifetime. It is pleasant to be concentrated all in one point like a madman. Everywhere and in everything such a person sees his own object. Everything is his great pleasure. Everything bears a direct relationship to his beloved object.

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Suddenly, Himmelkumov was consumed by a terrible sense of greed. But toward what object this sense of greed was directed was unclear. Himmelkumov repeated to himself the rules of hyphenation and for a long time pondered the letters “s,” “t,” “v,” which are invisible. “Of late, I am particularly greedy,” Himmelkumov was saying to himself. A flea was biting him; he was scratching himself and splitting in his head the word “essence,” so as to carry it over from one line to another.

<1933>

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From the Letters (1933)

Monday

October 16, 1933.

Petersburg.

Talent grows, destroying, building.

The sign of stagnation is well-being.

Dear

Klavdia Vasilevna,

You are a remarkable and genuine person!

As much as it grieves me not to be able to see you, I won’t be inviting you to the Children’s Theater or to come to my city. How heartwarming it is to know that there still exists one human being animated by dreams! I don’t know what word one can use to express that force which so delights me in you. I usually call it simply p u r i t y.

I have been thinking about how wonderful it is, that which is primal! How wonderful unmediated reality is! How wonderful sun and grass and stone and water and birds and the beetle and the fly and a man. But a shot glass and knife or key and comb are just as beautiful. If I were to go blind and lose my hearing and all my senses, then how could I possibly lose all this beauty? Everything has vanished and there is nothing left for me anymore. But here, I’ve been given back my sense of touch, and almost immediately the whole world has reappeared. I acquired hearing, and the world became significantly better yet. I got back all my other senses and the world was better still. The world began to exist, as soon as I allowed it inside myself. Granted it may still be in disarray, but at least it is! However, I then began to put the world in order. And now Art has made its appearance with us. Only then I understood the distinction between the sun and the comb, but at the same time, I realized that these two are one and the same.

Now my task is to create the proper order. I am preoccupied with this and it is everything I think about. I talk about it, attempt to relate, describe, sketch it, dance it, construct it. I am the creator of the world, and this is the most important thing about me. How could I possibly not think about it all the time! Everything I do, I infuse with the thought that I am the world’s creator. And I’m not simply making a boot but, first and foremost, I create a new thing. It’s not sufficient for me to turn out a boot that is comfortable, durable and beautyful. It is important that this boot exhibit the same order which is in the whole world: so that the world’s order not be sullied, soiled by contact with nail and skin, so that, despite the boot’s form, it would retain its own form, remain as it has been, that it remain p u r e.

This is that same purity which permeates all art. When I write poems, what seems most important to me is not the idea, not the content or form, nor that nebulous concept we call “quality”, but something even hazier and more incomprehensible to the rational mind, but which is clear to me and, I hope, to you as well, dearest Klavdia Vasilyevna, this p u r i t y of o r d e r.

This purity is one and the same as the one in the sun, and in the grass, in a person, and in poems. Genuine art stands in the order of the set of primary reality, it creates the world and it is its first reflection. It is absolutely real.

But, dear Lord, what trifles genuine art consists of. The Divine Comedy is a great work but Pushkin’s “The moon is rising through the misty waters” is no less wonderful. For both the one and the other contain that purity, and consequently, the same proximity to reality, i.e. towards independent existence. These are no longer mere words and thoughts printed on paper, it is a thing just as real as the crystal inkwell which stands before me on my writing desk. It seems to me these verses, that have become a thing, may be lifted off the paper and flung at the window, and the glass will shatter. This is what words are capable of!

But on the other hand, how pitiable and helpless these same words may be! I never read the newspapers. This is a fictitious and not a created world. It is nothing but pathetic, worn down type, offset on poor-quality, splintery paper.

Does man require anything in life besides art? I think not: he needs nothing else, it encompasses everything that is real.

I think purity may be found in all things, even in how a man eats his soup. I think you did the right thing, coming to Moscow. You’re able to take walks in the streets and act in a starving theater. There’s more purity in that then living here, in this comfortable room, acting in a children’s theater.

I am always suspicious of all good fortune. Today, Zabolotsky came to visit me. He’s been taking a keen interest in architecture for a long time now and has written a long poem, in which he’s expressed many wonderful thoughts about architecture and human life. I know that many people will be amazed by it. But I also know it is a bad poem. Only in several places, almost accidentally, is it good. These are two separate categories.

The first category is comprehensible and simple. Here, everything is so clear that one knows exactly what one is supposed to do. It’s understood: what one must pursue and how this may be accomplished. Here, the way is apparent. This is fertile ground for discussion; and one day, a literary critic will write an entire tome on the subject, and a commentator six volumes, explaining and interpreting it. Here, everything is as it should be.

Of the second category, no one will utter a word, even though it is precisely what makes architecture and all our thoughts about human life beautiful. It’s incomprehensible, insensible, and at the same time wonderful, this second category! But it can’t be achieved, it is foolish to even seek it, there are no paths leading to it. It is precisely this second category which forces a man to suddenly drop everything and take up mathematics, and then, after having abandoned math, suddenly take up Arab music, and then get married, and then, having sliced up his wife and son, lay in the field on his stomach examining a flower.

Yes, this is the most unfortunate of categories, which makes a man a genius.

(By the way, I’m no longer talking here about Zabolotsky, who’s yet to slaughter his wife, or take up mathematics.)

Dear Klavdia Vasilyevna, I am not at all making fun of your visits to the Zoo. There was a time when I too visited our local zoological garden daily. I’d made there the acquaintance of a particular wolf and a pelican. If you allow me, I will one day tell you in detail how splendidly we’d passed the time together.

If you’d like, I will describe for you how I once lived an entire summer at the Lakhtinsky zoological station, in the castle of Count Stenbock-Fermora, living on a diet of life worms and Nestle’s milk powder, in the company of a nearly mad zoologist, spiders, ants, and snakes.

I’m genuinely delighted that you take your walks like so, in the Zoological Garden. Especially if you take walks there not just for the sake of walking, but also to observe the animals – I will fall in love with you even more tenderly.

Daniil Kharms

A little old man was scratching himself

A little old man was scratching himself with both hands. Where he could not reach with both hands, the old man scratched with one hand only, but quickly- quickly and then, the whole time, while rapidly blinking his eyes.

— — —

Steam, or what we call smoke, was pouring out of the locomotive’s blast pipe. And a festively feathered bird, flying through this smoke, came out of it stringy and disheveled.

— — —

Khvilischevsky was eating raw cranberries and trying very hard not to wince. He was expecting any second someone to say: “What strength of character!” But no one said a thing.

— — —

You could hear the dog sniffing around outside the door. Khvilischevsky was clutching a toothbrush in his balled-up fist and bugging his eyes out so as to hear better. “If the dog comes in,” Khvilischevsky was thinking to himself, “I will thrash it right on the temple, with this bone handle!”

— — —

. . . Some sort of bubbles were issuing out of the box. Khvilischevsky departed from the room on tiptoes, closing the door behind him silently. “To heck with it!” Khvilischevsky said to himself. “It’s no concern of mine, what’s inside the box. Come on, really! To hell with it!”

— — —

Khvilischevsky meant to cry out: “Don’t enter!” But his tongue had somehow deceived him and what came out was: “Done empty.” Khvilischevsky squinted with his right eye and, with a look of mighty distinction, strode out of the reception hall. But still, he had a niggling suspicion that he had heard Tsuckerman snicker.

[1933– 34]

Danil Kharms (1905–1942) was a major figure in twentieth-century Russian and Soviet literature. An enigmatic and genre-bending artist, he was among the most significant voices in what came to be known as the literature of Russian Absurdism.

Alex Cigale was awarded an NEA Literary Translation Fellowship in 2015. His translations from Russian and his original poetry in English have appeared in such journals as the New England Review, PEN America, TriQuarterly, and World Literature Today.

Russian Absurd is available for purchase online on Amazon.

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Alex Cigale

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