The source we drink from
The rediscovery of the absurd – the Oberiuts are the liveliest of the classic Russian writers.
The love for literature never blossoms as much as in times when literature is officially supressed. Anyone who hasn’t experienced this cannot really imagine how precious illegal copies of works by Vladimir Nabokov, Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky or Daniil Kharms were in the late Soviet era. Today the books of these once forbidden and suppressed authors are now shelved along with the classics. They are read, interpreted correctly or incorrectly, and perhaps not even topical any more. That’s only to be expected. But interest in one group of poets from the first half of the 20th century has remained undiminished.
Alexander Vvedensky, 1904 – 1941
Recently I published a poem called “Wwedensky”. Later I received a letter from Minsk which I would like to quote here, as it attests marvellously to the importance of the poet Alexander Vvedensky and his group, the so-called Oberiu (the “Association of Real Art”): “I would call the genre of your poem ‘rendering honour.’ A long-awaited gesture that speaks for our entire generation. We drink from this source and never express our thanks.”
Who were the Oberiuts? Born in the early years of the 20th century, they were practically children at the time of the 1917 October Revolution. That they, the last representatives of Russian modernity, transformed and completed the entire spectrum of that modernity – from the mystically disposed Symbolism to the avant-garde leftist futurism – borders on the miraculous. As Daniil Kharms wrote: “Life has been victorious over death in a way unbeknownst to me.” The idea of the miracle was a leitmotiv for Kharms and his friends, and they came back to it again and again. A further miracle: the whole group very nearly vanished without a trace, which would have had enormous consequences for the development of Russian literature. We would have seen their names in just a few memoirs, such as by dramatist Yevgeny Shvarts. As it turns out, the only reason we have access to their texts is because one of them, the philosopher Yakov Druskin, went over to where Daniil Kharms had been living in beseiged Leningrad before he was arrested, and slid his entire archive back home on a children’s sled. He could have died under the German bombs, or he could have died of starvation like more than a million of the city’s inhabitants: Or he could have been arrested and shared the fate of his friend.
Daniil Kharms, 1905 – 1942
Daniil Kharms died of starvation in 1942 in the prison clinic. Alexander Vvedensky died in 1941 during a prison transport. Nikolay Oleynikov was arrested and shot in 1937, Nikolay Zabolotsky was arrested in 1939, Leonid Lipavsky fell in the war in 1941. Yakov Druskin lived until 1980 in constant dialogue with the departed. He wrote: “It’s embarrassing to talk about yourself. So I’ll be brief: I’m interested in the final division. What I mean by that is: I remain alone.”
After the Oberiuts came a long Soviet night. It was only at the end of the 1950s that those who came after attempted to build a small bridge to this tradition, all ties to which had been severed so definitively. Thanks to Anna Akhmatova, Josef Brodsky and his circle discovered the poetry of Russian classical modernity. But not yet the Oberiuts. Michail Meilach, who did so much to conserve and disseminate of the texts of the Oberiuts, remembers how distanced, even ironic, Brodsky had been toward them. Just like Akhmatova, his mentor. Perhaps she acted that way because she felt the Oberiuts had been distanced, even ironic, toward her (which was true too). That’s literary life. For the next generation, Akhmatova and Mandelstam were taken for granted. But the “thaw” that had made this awakening possible was soon over once more.
The poets of the 1970s had no hope of cultural freedom (Brodsky and his contemporaries had had their hopes, even if they were in vain). Perhaps the Oberiuts fit in better in the triste post-“thaw”. Their texts had a great effect on the so-called “second culture,” which was just dawning at the time in Leningrad, whose means of dissemination was type-written copies and readings at home. Today this legendary “second culture” is of a huge significance, and through them the Oberiuts remain the protective patrons of many up and coming writers.
How do poets live in a totalitarian state? House searches come to mind, interrogations, the gulag and more. All very true. But there is also the painful slog: not belonging, being poor and poorly dressed, living in paltry surroundings, appearing as a bit of an oddball to others who are better at fitting in. It takes a lot of resistance to be able to say no to the general aesthetic and create an autonomous world of your own with a tiny group of like-minded people.
From 1933 to 1934, Leonid Lipavski protocolled (or photographed, as he called it) the talks of the Oberiuts in their sparsely-furnished rooms, as they sat down to meager meals and – sometimes – plenty to drink. These records are a unique document in the history of literature (they appeared in 1992, translated into Germany by Peter Urban, excerpts of which appear in the “Schreibheft” numbers 39 and 40. Unfortunately there are not yet available in book form in German).
“My ex-wife had an astonishing talent. At any time she could put her hand to her chest and pull out a flea. I’ve never met anyone like her since. Fleas don’t bite me so often. But when they do, they’re big. They come in the door, lie down and there’s hardly any room left for me,” Kharms tells his friends. His characteristic style is immediately recognisable. The Oberiuts spoke often in an exaggerated way, discovering for themselves the huge potential of the absurd. They used the term bessmysliza, nonsense. They loved every form of discourse, they wrote dialogues and plays. Lipavski: “What a beautiful thing is disinterested discussion. Two goddesses stand behind the talkers: the goddess of freedom and the goddess of earnestness. They look on well-meaningly and respectfully, listening with interest.”
The Oberiuts leapt from Chekhov, whose every-day stories stand on the bridge to the theatre of the absurd, into the unknown 20th century. With all the differences between East and West, there was nevertheless a common breathing rhythm in the 20th century. When we watch Soviet and Western films from the 1930s today, or come across specific cut flowers or hair styles, we notice an astonishing similarity. Even the ideas and the ways of putting them into words were part of that. The thinking of the Oberiuts was strikingly close to existential philosophy. And not only did they discover the absurd before Beckett and Ionesco, in a certain way they were also more radical. “And in fact, all descriptions are indeterminate. The sentence ‘A man sits, over his head is a ship’ is certainly more correct than ‘A man sits and reads a book’,” wrote Vvedensky. Meaning can still be made out behind the absurdity of Beckett or Ionesco. The departure of the Oberiuts into nonsense was uncompromising.
This radicality was even too much for one of the group’s friends. Already in 1926 Nikolay Zabolotsky had written, “my objection to A. Vvedensky: the authority of nonsense,” demanding a universally valid logic. It was perhaps no accident that Zabolotsky was the only one of the group whose name was already known outside the small circle of Leningrad boheme. Zabolotsky survived the gulag and started a new life after his release in 1944 as an entirely different (although also good) poet.
It would be wrong to see the Oberiuts as political poets, or to cast their absurdist games as masked protest against the regime. They were no heroes, and did not seek confrontation with the powers that be. They exercised escapist literary careers (children’s literature, translation), and apart from this bread-and-butter work, they wrote what they thought was right. They considered themselves the last people, the last specimens of another culture.
Yet another Oberiu wonder bordering on the miraculous: one of the researchers into the Oberiuts, Vladimir Glozer, managed to locate Daniil Kharms’ wife, Marina Malich, on the Caribbean coast in Venezuela. After Kharms’ death she was evacuated, then ended up in the occupied zone and was brought back to Germany, where she was made a household slave. After the war she managed to keep on moving west.
One sunny winter day, she had walked to the clinic in the jail where her husband was imprisoned. In her hands she had a small package containing the entire sparse rations she had received in besieged Leningrad. On the way over the icy Neva she met two children who fell over with weakness. She carried on her way, only to discover Kharms was dead. Suddenly she was taken with remorse about the two children. Glozer’s book is based on tape recordings of Marina Malich. Many Oberiu specialists say he made it up, but I can’t imagine anyone could be so talented as to make up something like that.
Unfortunately the scholars who have dedicated themselves to researching the Oberiuts are hopelessly at odds. One consequence of their rivalry is the legal obstruction of the publication and reprinting of Vvedenski’s work. As a result, copies of Michail Meilach’s exemplary Vvedenski edition are becoming unattainable rarities. Empty pages replace Vvedenski’s poems in the two-volume Oberiu anthology published by Valeri Sashin. And the missing poems are commented on in the appendix! Yet such obstructions only strengthen the growing interest in the Oberiuts.
“I assume when the fashion for the ‘un-discovered landscapes’ of Russian literature dies down, only a small number of readers will really be able to claim Alexander Vvedenski as ‘their’ author.” The words were written about 15 years ago by the excellent Oberiu researcher Anna Gerasimova, who founded a (not bad at all) rock group with the name “Umka“. Today one can say that her pessimistic conjecture was unfounded. Interest hasn’t faded, on the contrary it grows unabated. The influence of the Oberiuts on Russian literature has only just started.