“Art is a cupboard,” writer Daniil Kharms declared on behalf of the riotous aesthetes known as OBERIU in late 1920s Leningrad, understatement hardly being a hallmark of a group whose acronym stood for “The Association of Real Art.” With a penchant for commandeering student hostels, army barracks and the meeting rooms of classical music societies for their Absurdist productions, OBERIU in full-scale performance mode was not to be tussled with lightly: Russian literature was ripe to be remade, and woe to anyone in the Stalinist era who believed a Pushkin novel was enough to get them through the night any longer.

This performance, which has become central to OBERIU (pronounced O-burr-oo) lore, took place at Leningrad’s Press Club in late January 1928. True to his word, Kharms was rolled out on stage perched atop an enormous cupboard, upon which he remained as he read his verse and declaimed some of the group’s favorite sayings. “Poems aren’t pies,” he announced, to blank stares, dubious sloganeering counting for something of an OBERIU virtue. “We aren’t herring!”

Next up was poet Nikolay Zabolotsky, who elected to recite while standing beside a trunk, dressed in grimy military attire. He then was upstaged by his rival, Aleksandr Vvedensky, who came bolting out of the wings on a tricycle, which he dismounted with an acrobatic flourish in order to more comfortably expound on the nature of death (his favorite topic). Kharms’s relentlessly violent play Elizaveta Bam followed, and the evening was brought to a close with the screening of the not-so-subtle experimental movie Film No. I: Meatgrinder and a brief–very brief–question-and-answer session. Reaction was unfavorable, to say the least. Before long, press notes deriding OBERIU performances were commonplace in Leningrad, with one wag alleging that the group couldn’t even throw a proper scandal.

Scandal, though, was only one of the group’s aims. More broadly, the OBERIU writers sought to create pure narrative, a world where an inspired screed, a compendium of bodily abuses, faux prayers or an incantation for death could serve–or at least be posited–as stories that stand on their own, without familiar signposts like plot lines or established settings. Their writings don’t have much in the way of chronology, and a character’s actions are not necessarily reasonable reactions to what happens around him. OBERIU’s program did not endear the writers to the Soviet press, but the group’s latter-day boosters–literary scholars with a predilection for arcana, or bona fide zealots–have hailed the Oberiuty as linguistic vandals hacking away at form and readers’ expectations in a manner some have termed Absurdist, others Dadaist.

Under constant attack, its leaders deemed subversive reactionaries by the Stalinist state, OBERIU lasted two and a half years–or less, depending on where you stand on who belonged to the group and whose absence rendered it nonexistent–from late 1927 until spring 1930. Its members rarely published any verse or stories for adult market publications, and wrote instead for children’s magazines, a blind for some of the most experimental work in the Stalinist era. Zabolotsky, the principal writer of the group’s manifesto–which promised no less than a new proletarian artistic culture, courtesy of the avant-garde–couldn’t stand the verse of Vvedensky–no matter that Vvedensky’s work, along with Kharms’s, best typified the OBERIU ethos of form-busting narrative and upheaval of established traditions. Then there was the far-from-negligible problem that the collective’s foremost novelist–its only novelist, really–distanced himself from his compatriots at every opportunity and took up with any association, club, cause or critic who might further his career, while failing to appear at most OBERIU performances. All in all, it scarcely seems credible that this perverse literary sect could contribute anything to history, let alone jump-start an approach to fiction where form is perpetually in flux and narrative emerges through gaps, innuendoes and texts that look less like proper stories and more like staccato bursts of code hiding rich new possibilities for brave readers and writers alike.

Graham Roberts’s The Last Soviet Avant-Garde does a nice job of untangling the story of the early days of OBERIU, leading us back to a group known as “Radiks,” a drama student venture featuring Vvedensky and Kharms that produced exactly one work, the Absurdist play My Mum Is Covered in Watches, before going the way of so many wayward scholastic ventures. The duo then set off in search of recruits, giving rise to the group Left Flank–in effect OBERIU in its earliest form. (“Left” was a particularly charged word in Stalinist Russia a mere decade after the October Revolution, and a thinly veiled allusion both to Trotskyism and experimental art.) As a result, the prestigious Press Club appearance itself was in jeopardy until the name was changed. Kharms stumped for OBERIU, and the group billed the evening as “Three Left Hours”: a bit of cheek, a bit of a pun and a bit of retaliation. The Oberiuty were never much for compromise.

Roberts commences his weighty study–the book was published in 1997; a paperback version was released last summer–with Kharms and Vvedensky, friends whose fates were to remain forever intertwined. Born a year apart, they died within a few months of each other, victims of Stalin’s purges. Their writings form the core of the recently released OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism, a fine supplement to Roberts’s highly theoretical musings.

Kharms was a tall man who dressed the part of an English dandy, sorely taxing his limited income–which derived from the sale of stories and verse to children’s magazines–in his quest to acquire as many outrageous hats as possible. The name Kharms, one of more than thirty pseudonyms he used, was an oblique homage to Sherlock Holmes, Kharms’s favorite literary character–which makes one wonder if the fictitious brother Kharms would sometimes “impersonate” was supposed to be Mycroft. For his part, Vvedensky was short and anything but a dandy, with a mouth full of rotten teeth. In verse and life, his chief interests were threefold: time, death, God. And as a secondary concern, fire, which one could trace back to death easily enough. Vvedensky loved obliteration–all the paths and methods that lead to death–in every conceivable form.

Both men spent their lives reading each other’s work, and despite some overlap in their philosophies, their art is a study in contrasting ideologies. For Vvedensky, life existed only insofar as it prefigured death; since death claimed all, it claimed life–so you might as well write poetry about it before you go under, an undertaking that would at least bring you closer to God. Kharms’s notebooks reveal a man of a similarly devout religious passion, though one far more inclined to caprice and whimsy: Besides Doyle, his favorite authors included Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, madcap orchestrators of comic dreams like Kharms himself, and Goethe, Blake, Gustav Meyrink and the more macabre–and decidedly attuned to black humor–Knut Hamsun (whose Hunger mirrored Kharms’s own impoverished circumstances toward the end of his life, when he was unable to secure work even for the children’s market–a weird little irony considering how much Kharms despised children).

Given the difficulties and frustrations in his life–freewheeling, subversive poets weren’t exactly extolled as dignitaries in Stalinist Russia, where repression and brutality at the hands of the secret police were commonplace–violence became Kharms’s literary stock in trade. One never knows where it will come from next in his work (it is almost always abrupt) or how many heads will roll. Even the very forms of literature are handled violently: Narratives are quashed before they really have a chance to begin, with the narrator chastising the reader to pay attention, to intuit, to do away with, once and for all, expectations as to what should happen in a story or what is permissible. The rat-a-tat subject-verb structuring of “Mashkin Killed Koshkin,” for instance, leads to a resolution as antiresolution, a story broken off with a jolt and statement of plain fact as anticlimax, loose ends left to dangle for perpetuity:

Comrade Mashkin kicked comrade Koshkin under the stomach and gave him another punch on the back of the head.
 Comrade Koshkin spread himself out on the floor and died.
 Mashkin killed Koshkin.

Or, as the narrator declares in “They Call Me the Capuchin”–after proposing that all infants be deposited in cesspits–“I would have written more of the knowledge within me, but unfortunately I have to go to the shop for tobacco.” Then the story breaks off, leaving the reader to wonder who else our good man might spurn on his way to the tobacconist’s.

And when violence wouldn’t do, Kharms opted for satire, which could be violent in itself, and certainly paradoxical. “Anecdotes From the Life of Pushkin” is a wicked skewering of the Russian master, despite the fact that he was one of Kharms’s favorite authors:

4. When Pushkin broke his legs, he started to go about on wheels. His friends used to enjoy teasing Pushkin and grabbing him by his wheels. Pushkin took this very badly and wrote abusive verses about his friends. He called these verses “epigrams”….
 6. Pushkin liked to throw stones. If he saw stones, then he would start throwing them. Sometimes he would fly into such a temper that he would stand there, red in the face, waving his arms and throwing stones. It really was rather awful!
 7. Pushkin had four sons and they were all idiots. One of them couldn’t even sit on his chair and kept falling off. Pushkin himself was not very good at sitting on his chair either, to speak of it. It used to be quite hilarious: They would be sitting at the table; at one end Pushkin would keep falling off his chair, and at the other end–his son. One wouldn’t know where to look.

Kharms loved subverting the texts of the old, beloved masters (one story is built entirely on Gogol and Pushkin tripping over each other: “It seems I’ve stumbled over Gogol!” “Pushkin!”). But more important, Kharms focused on the relationship between reader and author. This relationship was not limited to the text at hand but comprised the associations conjured in the reader’s mind. Kharms’s art was the art of what would later be called intertextuality, the play of cross-reference and appropriation. Doubtless the Russian reader of the age was well aware of Pushkin and his standing in the pantheon, and that he represented the writing of the Silver Age glory years. Glibness was thus a veritable affront to a literary way of life. And for the reader who hasn’t a clue about Pushkin and couldn’t care less, a microtext emerges all the same–what we might call a short short today–where tomfoolery occasions a cartoonish poetry whose appeal is less its parade of images than its use of hollow aggrandizement and mock sympathy to slyly flout a subtext. “He called these verses ‘epigrams.'” “It really was rather awful!” “One wouldn’t know where to look.” But we do, it wasn’t and as for epigrams, who needs them? This is the way we do things now.

Vvedensky was less interested in satire than Kharms, with the exception of the labyrinthine story “Minin and Pozharsky,” which at one point apes Gogol’s The Government Inspector, with Gogol’s always plotting major now reduced, in Vvedensky’s creation, to promising loans of fire and muffs–what a combo–to all the attractive women around him.

Vvedensky’s poems sear, a feeling Western readers will be able to experience firsthand next year, when Green Integer Books publishes An Invitation for Me to Think: Poems, the first collection of the poet’s work to appear in English. Ruminations on faith and loss abound, but there are few more churning, lacerating and willfully beautiful works in Eastern literature than the prose poem “Frother,” in which three sons hover and cavort around their dying father, trying to ascertain the meaning of a mysterious word and a mysterious truth:

The sons stop dancing, because it can’t all be fun and games, can it. They sit mutely and quietly by their father’s expired bed. They look into his wilting eyes. They wish to repeat everything. The father is dying. He becomes fleshy like a bunch of grapes. We are terrified to look into his, so to speak, face. The sons say nothing as each of them enters his own superstitious wall.
 Frother is the cold froth forming on the dead man’s brow. It is the dew of death, that’s what Frother is.

That “so to speak” might as well be engraved on the scythe of the reaper, for it captures the informal language of terror: invulnerable to precise expression, upending the protests of any and all rhetoric in the face of but one possible outcome. Arguments and turns of phrase do not matter here. The fix is in; it is dying time. One of the sons desperately demands that the father be brought fire, as if its elemental opposite, water, could only fail in restoring any degree of health in this hellish realm. Meanwhile, the father has turned into a pillow. Forms are subverted, forms die:

The pillow, who is also the father:

A little patience,
Then maybe I’ll answer all your questions.
I’d like to hear you sing.
Then maybe I’ll grow loquacious.

I’m so exhausted.
Maybe art will give me a second wind.
Farewell, pedestal.
I wish to hear your voices set to music.

The three sons then break into song, with the chorus, “Everyone lies. Everyone dies”: fanfare for an earthly hell.

Only fifty or so of Vvedensky’s works survive–he made little effort to preserve his writings, discarding or simply losing the scraps of paper bearing all but his most recent compositions. Still, what is undeniable from any sampling of his writings is that he understood the journey to death as both stately procession and full-on, piss-taking laugh-fest, as though the harder you laugh, the harder you die, and dying is what it’s all about anyway.

In Christmas at the Ivanovs’–which Roberts considers a play to be read aloud–there are no Ivanovs but another family named Puzyrev. It is, at least, Christmas Eve. The stage directions inform us that the Puzyrev children are bathing in a tub that is quite literally a picture drawn on a piece of cardboard. One of the “girls,” 32-year-old Sonya, utters a few lines of sexual innuendo, prompting the children’s nanny to behead her. Sonya’s head and body eventually enter into a dialogue, just after a wolf, a lion and a giraffe hold forth on the nature of time and death. When Sonya’s body is discovered, her parents decide to copulate in front of it, a dicey bit of staging. Lest the incredulous reader conclude, however, that this is little more than shock theater done up Russian-style, Vvedensky takes us right into the guts of language–with an ever-narrowing, ever-winnowing progression of specificity paring each object to its elements. Language here works as an architectonic dialogue of sense, sound, intonation of breath and the very shapes and sizes of words themselves:

A table. On the table is a coffin. In the coffin is Sonya Ostrova. In
Sonya Ostrova is a heart. In the heart is congealed blood. In the blood
are red and white corpuscles. And, of course, ptomaine.

Of course.

Kharms and Vvedensky marched on as OBERIU’s reductio ad absurdum high knights, but according to Roberts, no one better typified the group’s credo to strip language of its pretenses and move reader ever closer to writer–even if he did have little to do with the group’s performances–than the poet/novelist born Konstantin Wagenheim in 1899.

Wagenheim was a wide-eyed romantic in his early days, with a passion for collecting ephemera like penny dreadful magazines, cigar boxes and movie-star pinups. Then there was what could only have been a boon to any Absurdist artist–and one who just happened to be an ardent linguist–when the family changed its surname to something more suitably Russian. And so it was that somewhere back in the Temple of Letters even Cunégonde herself must have blushed as the poet thenceforth known to history as Vaginov was unleashed upon the world.

While Kharms was being rolled out onstage atop his cupboard, Vaginov (who courted critical favor and never veered from what best served his reputation) remained at home, working on his first novel, The Goat’s Song, an occasional roman à clef tapping his experiences as a member of OBERIU. The prominent Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin–a powerfully influential critic for the Leningrad writers–was quick to acclaim Vaginov’s poetics, and Vaginov’s subsequent novels, coincidentally enough, began to espouse more and more of Bakhtin’s theories. These books exemplified Bakhtin’s idea of the novel as a dialogue of many voices, from the various states of mind of its characters to the reader’s own reactions, to the theories of the writer himself. In Vaginov’s work, narrative voices vie to drown one another out in a collective din. Instead of a single voice, we get something much more cluttered, something like white noise.

Unlike Kharms and Vvedensky, both of whom lived in constant fear of Stalin’s terror and ultimately lost their lives to it, Vaginov waged his principal battle against more natural causes. With tuberculosis plaguing his lungs and only a few years to master his art, Vaginov evolved from unsteady poet to sublime prose stylist with remarkable speed, yielding four novels, each more daring than the last. His final novel, Harpagoniana, is the closest Russian literature has ever come to Finnegans Wake, only with nothing approaching the respite granted by the river Liffey flowing into the sea.

In Harpagoniana, a story of people trafficking in kitsch, actual and verbal, each strand of narrative–uttered for brief, fitful moments by one character after another–is endlessly embedded in the whole. Stories are told within stories, and within further stories, constructed from words found on the back of matchboxes and snatches of overheard conversations. Anyone a character encounters begins his own story; some try to decode the narratives swirling around them, becoming readers themselves. This is the novel as a million found texts, a chain letter of narrative addressed to both character and reader–whose fundamental difference, as in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (published in 1979, forty-five years after Vaginov’s death), is that one happens to be in the book and the other is holding it. Each one is left to fashion a response, a story, of his own, be it curious, dismissive, fun, necessary, begging for mercy or escapist (e.g., “I was reading this book, and I had to get the hell away from it”). One section in particular makes Beckett’s Endgame seem almost like an outtake from a Disney script: An alcoholic goes to a bar. He walks into the lavatory, where a group of friends are sharing anecdotes on drunkenness, each and every one of which is revealed, in full, in the text. At this point, the saga of the alcoholic is dropped entirely from the novel, the poor fellow sentenced for all eternity to a room of filth and human excrement, where tall tales abound. Drink hearty, lads.

In a sense, Vaginov’s tuberculosis, which killed him in 1934, was a case of good fortune in Stalin’s Russia. Vvedensky and Kharms were not so lucky. Vvedensky was sent to a Soviet labor camp in late 1941 on charges of treason and died of dysentery along the way. Kharms was imprisoned in a psychiatric ward, where he died, probably from starvation, in February 1942. For the next few decades, the Oberiuty were largely forgotten, until a brief period in the 1960s when overlooked comic subversives, from Laurel and Hardy to the Marx Brothers to Kharms and Vvedensky, were celebrated in the Western world, and the Soviet Union was slowly starting to resurrect writers who had become casualties of Stalinist repression. Vaginov’s rediscovery required a few extra years–the spark was an academic conference in Estonia–but he now stands as an exemplar of Russian Modernism, decades ahead of his time.

For all of the misfortune and tragedy that befell the core OBERIU writers, theirs was a movement marked by small miracles, from Vaginov’s ability to stave off death long enough to finish his masterpiece, to Kharms’s and Vvedensky’s knack–or just dumb luck–for surviving the purges as long as they did, to the scene that followed Kharms’s abduction: Pulling an empty sled across the snow-covered streets of Leningrad during the first winter of the German blockade, Kharms’s close friend Yakov Druskin, ravaged by dystrophy, made his way to the rooms of Kharms’s wife. She handed him a suitcase, which he fastened to his sled, and trundled off into the Russian night, taking with him the papers of Kharms and Vvedensky, which have somehow made their way down to us. Among the lines from Vvedensky:

The worm crawls along behind us all,
he carries monotony with him.
I’m scared to be an uncertainty,
I regret that I am not fire.

How well the true poet lights into his verse, regrets be damned, and how keenly Death itself is made to feel the conflagration when confronted with deathless art.