“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.