"Art is a cupboard."
Like the French playwright Alfred Jarry, Kharms cultivated a bohemian eccentricity, treating his life as one more artistic medium to be formed, elaborated, invented.
Given his political climate however, Kharms played much more dangerous games than Jarry or the Dadaists; his affectations of aristocratic bearing and pretentions were acted out against a backdrop of anti-aristocrat Soviet sentiment. While those who were accused of being former noblemen were being deported (or worse), Kharms would carry silver cups in his briefcase, claiming that they were family heirlooms. When he went out with friends he would make a point of refusing to drink from anything else.
Kharms would always wear a false mustache to the opera, announcing that to go to the theater without one was indecent. The style of Kharms mustache, and many of his mannerisms, were supposedly copied from Kharms' brother, who was a Privatdozent at the University of Petersburg. This brother however, was merely another of Kharms' inventions.
In his book The Man in the Black Coat : Russia's Literature of the Absurd, George Gibian writes - "One of Kharms' friends, Vladimir Lifshits, wrote in his recollections of the poet that his room was sparsely, ascetically furnished. In one corner a strange object stood out in the almost empty room. It was made of pieces of iron, wooden boards, empty cigarette boxes, springs, bicycle wheels, twine, and cans. When Lifshits asked what it was, Kharms replied, 'A machine.'
'What kind of machine?'
'No kind. Just a machine in general.'
'And where does it come from?'
'I put it together myself,' Kharms said proudly.
'What does it do?'
'It does nothing.'
'What do you mean nothing?'
'What is it for?'
'I just wanted to have a machine at home.' "
The idea of a machine that does nothing, or the functionless non-art object, recurs in this story written by Kharms, probably around 1929 or 1930:
A Subject for a Story
A certain engineer made up his mind to build a huge brick wall across Petersburg. Reflecting on how to accomplish this, he does not sleep nights, and studies it. Gradually a circle of engineers-thinkers forms itself and a plan for building the wall is worked out. It is decided to build the wall at night, in such a way that everything will be built in one night, so that it will be a surprise to everybody. Workers are called together. The organization is planned. The attention of the city authorities is distracted.
Finally the night when this wall is to be built arrives. Only four people know about the building of the wall. The workers and the engineers receive precise instructions where each is to be stationed and what he is to do. Thanks to the exact plan, they succeed in building the wall in one night. The next day, a partition exists throughout Petersburg. But the inventor himself is dejected. Even he himself does not know what to use this wall for.
The issue of translation poses some difficulties in the work of Daniil Kharms. The black humor of many of his stories depends on the style of the writing. Intentional bad grammar and stylistic naïveté, are combined with folk dialect, prosaisms, and occasionally, truly beautiful and lyrical prose. Then these combinations are shaken up by deliberate irrationality, non sequiturs, violence and abrupt endings. In works such as "Anecdotes about Pushkin's Life" and "Pushkin and Gogol", Kharms mocks the Soviet tendency toward solemn, reverential accounts of such figures as Pushkin, and "Uncle Lenin." To write about a man widely considered to be the greatest master of the Russian language in the unsophisticated voice of a yokel, is a large part of what makes the work so funny, and such a challenge to translate. I've seen a few translations that were too bad - the English too broken and strained, and I've seen several that were too "good" and thus lost a lot of the absurd humor which comes through in the Russian. I like this one though:
Anecdotes About Pushkin's Life
Pushkin was a poet, and all the time he was writing something. Once Zhukovsky found him writing and shouted at him, "You really are a scribbler!"
From that time on, Pushkin loved Zhukovsky and in friendly fashion called him simply Zhukov.
As is known, Pushkin could never grow a beard. This bothered him a lot, and he always envied Zakharyn, who on the contrary really had a properly growing beard. "His grows and mine doesn't grow," Pushkin often complained, pointing at Zakharyn with his fingernails. And each time he was right.
Once Petrushevsky broke his watch and sent for Pushkin. Pushkin came, looked at Petrushevsky's watch, and put it back on the chair. "What do you say, Brother Pushkin?" Petrushevsky asked. "The wheels stopped going round," 1 Pushkin said.
When Pushkin broke his legs, he got about on wheels. His friends liked to tease Pushkin and caught the wheels. Pushkin became angry and wrote poems in which he swore at his friends. He called these poems "erpigarms."
Pushkin spent the summer of 1829 in the country. He would get up early in the morning, drink a pitcher of milk, and run to the river to bathe. After bathing in the river, Pushkin would lie down on the grass and sleep till lunch. After lunch Pushkin would sleep in his hammock. When he met smelly peasants, Pushkin would nod to them and hold his nose with his fingers. The smelly peasants would take off their caps and say "It's no matter." 2
Pushkin loved to throw rocks. As soon as he saw a rock, he would throw it. Sometimes he became so excited that he stood, all red in the face, waving his arms, throwing rocks, simply something awful.
Pushkin had four sons, all idiots. One didn't even know how to sit in a chair and fell off all the time. Pushkin himself also sat on a chair rather badly. It was simply killing: they sat at the table; at one end, Pushkin kept falling off his chair continually, and at the other end, his son. Simply enough to make one split one's sides with laughter.
1. An alternate translation that I've seen of this ending: "It's a stopwatch," Pushkin said. The literal translation is more along the lines of "The machine is stopped", but in Russian it is written "stop machine", because their adoption of the English word "stop" does not require being written in the past tense ("machine (is) stop" makes sense grammatically, when written in Russian). However, the use of the phrase "stop machine" is also interesting because it is reminiscent of Kharms' fascination with the machine that does nothing. A machine whose whole function is to be a "nothing maching", a "stop machine".
2. Literal translation: "It's nothing."
The translation of the two works I have included are by George Gibian.