Tzum | Review: Daniil Charms – Chak

I’m only interested in nonsense

Point IV in the afterword of De Poezieboys at Chuck, a collection of a selection of Daniil Charm’s work, reads: ‘To read Charms well, you must actively not understand.’ It is not only very good advice and therefore to be considered persuasive, but also a statement that touches the core of Charms’ literary work. Watch. Here’s inside Chuck recorded text of Encounter:

Once a man was walking to his office and on the way he met another man who had bought a baguette and was on his way home.
That’s all.

There is nothing to understand about this ultra-short story. Many people will quickly turn the page of this text, shrug and nonchalantly mutter ‘it’ll be’ in the hope that the next person has something worth considering. But there are also those who laugh at that bone-dry ‘That’s really all’.

They don’t know it yet, but they are Oberioeten, supporters of Oberioe, Association of Real Art, founded in 1927 on an initiative of Kharms by him and a group of artists in Leningrad. Oberioe is distantly similar to Dada. Look again at the title above this piece, which is taken from a Dadaist statement by Charms: ‘I am only interested in “nonsense”, only that which has no practical meaning at all.’

Eccentricity, the desire to seek out and exceed the limits of art and idiosyncratic humor characterized the work and the artists from Oberioe, especially Daniil Charms. Born in 1905, as a boy of twelve in Petrograd, as Saint Petersburg came to be called in 1914, he experienced the revolution. He enthusiastically followed the many renewal movements in literature, visual arts, theatre, film and architecture that arose all over Russia in the years after 1917, but especially in Moscow and Petrograd.

From around 1924 he tried to establish himself as a writer, with the caveat that – see the Oberioe Manifesto – he was of the opinion that an artist who created ‘real art’ should ignore the boundaries between different fields of art: an Oberioetic writer was also visual artist and theater maker. While Charms’ eccentric behavior gained him some fame, he had almost no release for an adult audience. What kept him going financially was the decline of the state publishers of songs, poems and stories for children.

But in the late 1920s and up through the 1930s, artistic freedom in the Soviet Union was increasingly curtailed, art was forced into the socialist-realist straitjacket and anything that deviated from this was branded as a threat to the state and people, quickly and be crushed by the powerful, omnipresent state security service. Charms also ran into problems. The first time he got off – relatively – mercifully with a temporary banishment to Kursk, which Charms found very depressing. The poem that was the supposed reason for his arrest is included in the Chuck and is called ‘A man once left his house’. It is one of those poems of Charms that you can only really appreciate if you manage to suppress any will to understand.

But explain that to agents of the State Security Service. After all, these people are expected to seek and find hidden meanings (dangerous to the state and anti-public) in or behind what is trivial and innocent to everyone else (whoever notes similarities here with conspiracy theorists is absolutely right). Incidentally, some extremely comical stories implicitly refer critically to the reality of the 1930s. Like the one about an argument in the market that ends with someone smashing in someone else’s skull. With a cucumber… Special? Yes, but in the world of Charms, not the tragedy of the murder, but that it succeeded with a cucumber: you can check how big the cucumbers are currently being delivered.

In May 1941, shortly before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Kharms was arrested again. It was concluded from his behavior and answers during the interrogations that he was mentally unwell. He was locked in a cell in a wing for the mentally disturbed. It is not entirely certain whether and to what extent the German siege and blockade of Leningrad (as Petrograd was called after 1924) was to blame, but Kharms was forgotten and he died in his cell on 2 February 1942 of starvation. and exhaustion. The house he and his wife lived in was hit by a bomb; a friend of his rescued a suitcase containing Charms’ manuscripts from the rubble. However, decades would pass before it could be published.

In 2019, Van Oorschot Publishers added a volume of more than 650 pages to its unrivaled Russian library of works by Charms, translated by Yolanda Bloemen. In front of Chuck a selection was made of over 90 pages of this. Who enjoys the beautifully used tasting that Chuck is, will undoubtedly enjoy reading and re-reading all of Charms’ works.

Hans van der Heijde

Daniel Charms – Chuck. A selection from Daniil Charm’s work. Translation Yolanda Bloemen ao Afterword The Poezieboys. Van Oorschot, Amsterdam. 96 pages €12.50.

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