Conversations at the End of the Avant Garde

In 1928, a group of artists, poets, and provocateurs in Leningrad founds “Oberiu,” a nonsensical-sounding acronym for “The Association of Real Art.” Says patron Kazimir Malevich: “You are young troublemakers and I am an old one. Let’s see what we can do.” They shock and mesmerize the city with their outlandish performances and stunts. By 1930 Oberiu has been disbanded and its members driven underground. Amateur philosopher and polymath Leonid Lipavsky records their conversations as they gather to pursue their eclectic interests in private, and his friend Yakov Druskin saves the manuscript in secret for fifty years. They will appear for the first time in English in Little Star #2, due immanently and on sale now for a special price, in a translation by poet Eugene Ostashevsky. Here’s a taste.

DANIIL KHARMS: Of all insects, crickets make the most loyal spouses, like zebras among animals. I used to keep two crickets in a cage, male and female. When the female died, the male stuck his head between the bars and committed suicide.

LEONID LIPAVSKY: It’s amazing that crocodiles hatch from eggs.

KHARMS: I personally hatched from caviar. This almost led to a grievous misunderstanding. My uncle came over to offer congratulations, it was right after the spawning and my mother was still lying around sick. So he sees the cradle and it’s full of caviar. And my uncle was a big fan of eating. He spread me on a piece of bread and poured himself a shot of vodka. Luckily they stopped him in time, but it still took a while to put me back together again.

TAMARA LIPAVSKAYA: So how did you feel in that state?

KHARMS: I must confess that I don’t recall, for my condition then was unconscious. I do know that, for a while, my parents refrained from punishing me by making me stand in the corner, because I stuck to walls.

LIPAVSKAYA: And for how long did you remain in this unconscious condition?

KHARMS: Until the end of high school.


Druskin arrived at nine  [. . . ].

[Alexander] Vvedensky  [. . . ] was reading “The Terms of Use for Automatic Telephone,” lounging on the sofa in yellow shoes and spats  [. . . ]. Druskin let his eyes close and sat down next to him. Druskin was deathly pale.

LIPAVSKY: You should let somebody take a mold of your face, because you never know what might happen.

Instead of answering, Druskin started talking about the French.

YAKOV DRUSKIN: They’re simply pigs, a country of pigs. It’s probably true that people get, after all, better in places where they’re beaten up more.

VVEDENSKY: What difference does it make, nations and their fates. What matters is that people think about time and death more now than before; everything else that’s considered important, is not  [. . . ].

LIPAVSKY: You pronounce those two words “about time and death” with such pleasure as if you entirely took ownership of them and put them in your pocket. Moreover, they’re convenient. They free you from everything else, while demanding nothing. Because it doesn’t seem you’ve retired, or have plans to retire, into the desert, as people did before when they said “time and death.” And Druskin also grasps at those words because they don’t impose any responsibility, you can simply fall silent after them. And as for everything else, it’s confused, it’s nonsense, and not worth taking into account . . .  No. I think that the fates of nations do make a difference. By and large, what has happened? Great impoverishment, and cynicism, and loss of stability. How unpleasant. But the stability, honor, and affection that had existed earlier, despite a certain rightness hidden in them, did nonetheless get in the way of looking at the world directly. They were unserious for us—like medieval maps. And when the devastation came, it helped us rid ourselves of self-deception. And current science, for example, is better than the science of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Vvedensky bought a half-liter of vodka. He poured half of it away because he wanted to go to a party later. He began telephoning female acquaintances, starting every phrase with an “eh” and using an especially unceremonious tone, which he evidently considered a kind of aristocratism. But here he hit a streak of bad luck: the acquaintances kept announcing they didn’t drink vodka, and would rather watch newsreels. Then Vvedensky would hang up the phone and call somebody else. Meanwhile Druskin poured off a little vodka from the hidden bottle but Vvedensky didn’t notice.


DRUSKIN: For some reason, communing with nature usually makes people dumber.

Vvedensky drank with uncharacteristic modesty: he was saving himself for future developments. “Drink,” urged Lipavsky. “It awakens faded abilities.”

And so Vvedensky went off to another party, as if into another world. Druskin and Lipavsky remained alone.


DRUSKIN: So, Zabolotsky, did you find me a job that doesn’t call for particular effort? By “effort” I mean any kind of stress. Please find it soon, otherwise I’ll become unemployed and will really need money.

NIKOLAI ZABOLOTSKY: If it doesn’t offend you, I would suggest you become a chimneysweep. It’s a brilliant profession. Chimneysweeps sit on rooftops, below them are the multifarious massifs of housing cooperative units, above them is the sky, colorful like a Persian carpet. Yes, an association of such people, I mean an alliance of chimneysweeps, may change the world. Therefore become a chimneysweep, Druskin.

DRUSKIN: Doesn’t work for me. Unfortunately it calls for a particular effort.

ZABOLOTSKY directing the conversation into a more general channel: Have you noticed that the first snow this year fell in flakes rather than powder? Portends a bad year for crops . . .  Well then, how about a noble toss of the dice?

A psychological conversation.

LIPAVSKY: I’m defenseless. The other day they opened the vent and it started sucking me in. A good thing that Tamara Aleksandrovna took notice, when I was already just below the ceiling, and grabbed me by my footsie. Or else: I was in the bathtub and, lost in thought, without realizing what I was doing, pulled open the plug. As a result, the whirlpool started dragging me along. Vainly did I grab the smooth sides of the bathtub, vainly did I call for help. Luckily, my cries were heard by the other tenants, who broke down the door and saved me at the last possible moment.

KHARMS: My organism is sapped. Yesterday, when I was getting up, my nose started bleeding peaches and cream.

Vvedensky found a resemblance between himself and Pushkin. Zabolotsky agreed with pleasure.

VVEDENSKY: Pushkin also had no sense of self-worth and loved to hang around people higher than he was.

VVEDENSKY: The other day Kharms came into Oleinikov’s room when he was out, and saw an open volume of Pasternak on the couch. Probably Oleinikov really does secretly read Pasternak.


Zabolotsky was at Lipavsky’s when Kharms again telephoned, and again about tickets for the Requiem.

LIPAVSKY: Your Kharms likes to talk big.

Zabolotsky copied holographs out of an encyclopedic dictionary, while Mikhailov was speaking with the recently arrived Kharms. Goethe, Mozart, Schubert—the names of great men peppered their conversation. Lipavsky got bored. He remembered Vvedensky’s lines from his autobiographical poem:

Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin,
Puccini, and Kostomarov
Came to a feast in honor of
The man and his acumen.

Then Zaboltsky, as always, played tric-trac while humming an uncomplicated song: “One adjutant wore an aiguillette, but the other adjutant didn’t wear an aiguillette.”

Next: about [Nikolai] Oleinikov.

He appears at the editorial office aimlessly, like a flâneur, in a strange outfit and tennis shoes despite the winter. Everyone’s always welcoming to him. He sits down and starts to jeer without shame: “So,” he says to a writer, “piling on the tackiness again, hey?” And to the editor: “Why are you even talking to that scoundrel, all he wants is money . . . ” What he says is true, but people receive it with a smile, as if it were a witticism. In general, his jokes recall the jokes of Ivan Ivanovich from Gogol’s story: “You probably want some bread also?” What’s more, they’re directed at those who are defenseless, those who actually do write terribly. Thus Oleinikov speaks, exercising his social function as the arbiter of taste, like Petronius at Nero’s court. He has been accorded the privilege of speaking the truth, akin to jesters in the old days. People receive him like they once received an affable and talented person who’s ruined himself by drink. He appears as a unique phenomenon of nature, not part of the usual compass of things, not subject to common laws.

In the end, he is well treated because others take him for a rare and beautiful work of nature. And any epoch, any government needs talented people, needs them for decoration. Hence a modest part of earthly blessings will still come his way. He could, if he wanted to, survive as an esthetic sponger.


Oleinikov and Lipavsky met at the performance of Requiem.

LIPAVSKY: Why did you disappear?

Oleinikov, dodging the question, as is his habit: I have a telephone now, I can give you the number.

Lipavsky was surprised.

OLEINKOV: My wife wanted it. The telephone has been there for three days already, but I haven’t yet noticed that it brings luck.

Then about the Requiem.

LIPAVSKY: It has an inhuman imperiousness.

OLEINKOV: Yes, the human voice turns out to be mysterious. It surmounts everything else if used properly . . .  Apparently, the final parts were written not by Mozart but according to his instructions, after his death.

LIPAVSKY: Please, don’t you be shy, either. If you need it, I will be happy to do you that favor, to finish whatever you don’t manage to…


Read more in Little Star #2

Read Ostashevsky on Oberiu in New American Writing

Order Eugene Ostashevsky’s Oberiu Anthology. A few of Ostashevsky’s own poems are also in Little Star #2. Buy or listen to his poems, here and here and here)

Order Mattvei Yankevelich’s translation of the work of Daniil Kharms, Today I Wrote Nothing, or hear him read from Kharms, or admire the pathbreaking work of his Ugly Duckling Presse, very much in the Oberiu spirit.

Poet Daniel Weissbort was in the midst of translating sometime Oberiu Nikolai Zabolotsky, with the enthusiastic intervention of his friend Joseph Brodsky, at the time of Brodsky’s death in 1996. Read Weissbort’s Brodsky-inflected translations of Zabolotsky in this selected edition from Carcanet.  Weissbort has recently published a fascinating series of essays reflecting on his years of translating in the company of Ted Hughes, with whom he founded Modern Poetry in Translation in 1964.  Hughes’s Poetry International festival first brought the physical Brodsky to the English-speaking world in 1972.

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2 Responses to Conversations at the End of the Avant Garde

  1. […] Ostashevsky’s riotous translation of the Russian absurdist Oberiu poets from Little Star #2 on this very blog. Melissa Green’s poems have been featured in Little Stars #1 and #2, and can be read in The New […]

  2. […] For more Russian Little Star, see Conversations at the End of the Avant-Garde, Leonid Lipavsky […]