My meetings with Vladimir Vasilyevich Kazakov were brief, intense and, alas, infrequent. They are now distant too – in space and time. Indeed, I can barely recollect if we met just once, twice or more. But we corresponded from time to time and then, as my life path foolishly diverged from directions which could have led me back to more encounters, I lost touch completely. At some point in those subsequent lost years I learned with sadness that he had passed away. He died in 1988. He was 49 years old.
My Meetings with Vladimir Kazakov (Moi vstreči s Vladimirom Kazakovym) is also the title of Kazakov’s first major published work, a collection of prose and dramatic scenes which was printed in the then West Germany by Carl Hanser Verlag in 1972. These first writings were followed by further publications in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. In those days of cold war politics and grand gestures, Kazakov’s quietly first published work created, I think, hardly a ripple on either side of the curtain that divided Europe, but I still to this day recollect the ripple I experienced, that shiver of discovery which takes hold when you pick up a book and find a unique, inimitable voice.
Vladimir Vasilyevich Kazakov was a unique and talented Russian author and poet. He died on 23rd June 1988. He was 49 years old. My Meetings with Vladimir Kazakov was the title of his first book published in Munich, Germany in 1972. For me, it was one of those rare books that one encounters with a curious shiver of delight, its echoes resonating with some of the lost sounds of a Russian literary movement which had all but been extinguished.
The manuscript of My Meetings circulated first, like many of Kazakov’s writings, in what was then called “samizdat” (self-publication) in a Soviet Russia which was hostile to any literary works which did not conform to its status quo. Eventually the manuscript found its way out through the many chinks in the iron curtain and into western Europe. It was not that Kazakov’s writings directly challenged the Soviet establishment, propagating disruptive ideas and politics anathema to the regime. Indeed, one could barely detect in these works any presence of a Soviet reality to be challenged. Kazakov’s literary world stretched beyond these parochial concerns. Perhaps that, in a sense, was more galling for those that held the literary reins.
I am not fully sure why in the past few weeks my attention suddenly turned towards the ingenious talent of this writer. The Days of Lockdown in this awful pandemic have played strange tricks on the mind and instead of journeying out physically into the world, I often found myself journeying inwards, these mental treks often sparked by some curious incidence or coincidence which then opened up before me trails I had not previously consciously contemplated.
I think I had been dutifully returning to my loft, one morning back in January this year, some festive decorations, boxed again and ready to stow, when my eye caught sight of an old cardboard box which I instantly knew was stuffed full of things that had in a former life been of significance. I tentatively opened it, realising that this might well be a Pandora’s box as much as a treasure trove. Out of the decaying cardboard tumbled a whole host of notebooks and papers; and for the rest of the day, I sat uncomfortably on my haunches on makeshift flooring in the roof of the house, digesting not only its physical contents, but also a neglected past, a discarded future, and among these a few letters, manuscripts, translations and reviews of Vladimir Kazakov.
As I leafed through the papers, in my memory’s view I am suddenly back in Moscow in the nineteen seventies, sitting a little nervously in an apartment on Prospekt Mira and Kazakov takes shape like one of his own literary spectres. A slight figure then, I think. Seated aside a table. Dark cropped hair, slightly greying at the temples. A presence, rather than a physicality. The apartment – sparse and unnervingly tidy. The sense of another presence somewhere, but unseen. That slight disturbance of air. Pictures, some surely by his brother Alyosha, on the walls. In a typical act of generosity, he gives me one before I leave. His voice is quiet, calm, controlled. He puts me at ease. Everything he says is interesting to me. Everything. For here, alongside me, the presence of this man is a link in a remarkable unbroken chain of writing that stretches back a hundred years or more.
Moi vstreči was soon followed by the publication in 1976 of Ošibka živych (Mistake of the Living), described as a “novel” by Kazakov, but in truth a mesmerising mix of form and content loosely paraphrasing – or mirroring, as one critic ingeniously put it – the narrative of Dostoyevky’s Idiot and featuring characters that appear elsewhere in various episodes of Kazakov’s writings. It was received positively in the emigre press of the time. “An important event in modern Russian literature,” declared Russkaya Mysl’. “Doubtless one of the most interesting works of modern Russian literature,” echoed Kontinent. A couple of years later the important collection of verse and drama Slučajnyj voin (Incidental Military) (a pun of the phrase – military incident) was published in the west by Verlag Otto Sagner. Further publications soon followed.
As I now contemplate the literary landscape forty or so years on, I am pleased to see the publication in post-Soviet Russia of Kazakov’s collected works, of previously unpublished works and the continued scatterings of a critical interest. It is possible to find informative bibliographies e.g. http://rulibs.com/ru_zar/poetry/kazakov/0/j0.html There is even a rather downbeat reading of some of his verse on YouTube. Unsurprisingly the epithets “post-modernist”, “avant-garde”, and “absurdist” are frequent companions in critical assessments. I am not sure how Kazakov himself viewed these broad descriptives, though I am sure they were applied even in his short lifetime. His was a unique talent, difficult to classify, but certainly such descriptors rightly channel our expectations, because Kazakov’s writings can readily be placed in that vibrant, extraordinary and brave tradition of Russian literature.
Indeed Kazakov expressly placed himself in this tradition, noting specifically the importance of his friendship with the leading Russian Futurist poet Aleksey Kruchenykh whom he met in 1966 not long before the elderly Kruchenykh’s death.
Kazakov’s reminiscences are contained in his brief prose sketch Zudesnik, first published, I believe, in 1978 at the end of his Slučajnyj voin, (printed by Verlag Otto Sagner), where Kazakov’s admiration, respect and affection for the ageing poet are self evident. The young Kazakov had clearly identified Kruchenykh as a standard bearer of the literary tradition he espoused and, not without a subsequent sense of irony, he had shown the old rogue of Russian Futurism his own initial literary works . “He said to me about my poems: ‘I write the same sort of thing, only I tear them up’.”
Kazakov’s literary debt to that other wondrous shining star of Russian Futurism, Velimir Khlebnikov, is also very clear. And although it has been rightly said (by the German scholar Wolfgang Kasack) that Kazakov created his own unique world and did not really belong to any particular current in Russian literature, it seems clear that the young Kazakov was seated at the feet of Kruchenykh to take on the literary baton of the Futurist poet as the old generation finally passed away.
The remarkable Russian Futurist movement with its energetic focus on experimentation in art, word and form traversed the Revolution of 1917, but ultimately collided headlong with the Soviet regime as Stalinist orthodoxy put an end – literally in many cases – to the works and wonderful talents that had arisen. Those writers that built upon the Futurist tradition – in particular, one thinks of the Oberiuty, the members of The Association for Real Art (Oberiu), Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky – did not survive the onslaught of the prevailing cultural dogma. Their output and livelihoods were stifled. Persecution, war, disease and famine did the rest. Thankfully a few who did survive managed to rescue literary works and archives that had never seen light of day. They circulated and surfaced at that time in dribs and drabs and, of course, Kazakov will have been familiar with much of the work that only later became more widely known.
The destroyed generation of Kharms and Vvedensky were as much a part of Kazakov’s literary pantheon as were Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov. Kazakov even left us a graphic visualisation of his literary antecedents. And subsequently, of course Kazakov was in turn reading his own verse to Kruchenykh.
Snippets of this literary life – accounts of meetings, diary entries – appear frequently in the curious literary fabric that Kazakov creates in his “novel” Ošibka živych. For example (p.87), one of his characters Maria proclaims two lines of verse
Slova slozhilis', kak drova. V nikh smysly khodyat, kak ogon'. Words are formed, like wood to burn. Sense strolls within, like fire.
and notes that “Here are two unknown lines of Daniil Kharms. They weren’t preserved in print, or written down. The words of Kharms were recalled by Vologdov who recited them yesterday to Kazakov.”
The “character” Vologdov – in “real life” none other than the famous literary luminary, critic and art collector Nikolai Ivanovich Khardzhiev – is a frequent persona in this tale and, as I read these lines, in my own mind, I am again back in a flat in 1970s Moscow, seated timorously before this looming figure in Russian culture, as he regales me with a history of literature which is not a sterile trope on a printed academic page but a heartfelt, opinionated, vibrant, existential account of real experience freshly plucked from a living memory.
So how can one describe the strange literary world of Vladimir Kazakov? We could do worse, I suppose, than start with some of the maxims set out in the Oberiu Manifesto which took from the Futurists the important notion of the “shift” or “dislocation” (sdvig – in Russian) and proclaimed – among other things – a sort of “objectism”. I quote from George Gibian’s marvellous early (1971) work on Russia’s Lost Literature of the Absurd pp. 195/6:
We, people who are real and concrete to the marrow of our bones, are the first enemies of those who castrate the word and make it into a powerless and senseless mongrel. In our work we broaden the meaning of the object and of the word, but we do not destroy it in any way. The concrete object, once its literary and everyday skin is peeled away, becomes the property of art. In poetry the collisions of verbal meanings express that object with the exactness of mechanical technology. Are you beginning to complain that it is not the same object you see in life? Come closer and touch it with your fingers. Look at the object with naked eyes, and you will see it cleansed for the first time of decrepit literary gilding. Maybe you will insist that our subjects are “unreal” and “illogical”? But who said that the logic of life is compulsory in art?… Art has a logic of its own, and it does not destroy the object but helps us to know it.
Similarly, in Kazakov’s world, specific objects rise before us in ways that shift or dislocate their substance and essence, transforming into objects which are not at all “the same object that you see in life”. A typical example can be found in Mistake of the Living (p.87):
The hours cut through the gloom. The street lights cut through time. The stars cut through the silence – clattering like nighttime roofers on the roof tops. Tearing off chunks of iron and light, the wind flew by, furiously overtaken by itself. The streets rushed past, whistling round the stone corners of the wind[…] The streets were flying off, without names or numbers, and were disappearing, vanishing in a whirl of darkness to the accompaniment of the howl and laughter of black drainpipe madness.
A character sees his reflection in a mirror then turns away, “but the mirror continued stubbornly to stare at his back”. Wild sunlight shining through a window is tamed by the glass. Slanting rain becomes the sloped handwriting of fate. The streaming downpour in the light of the street lamps becomes blood red rain. A hastening woman is caught en route by a mirror which wishes to return her to herself. “You know, every window is a trap!” she declares. Another character, – the ubiquitous, spectral Istlenyev – like a ghost, can’t be caught by a mirror. Nor can hours detain him – like eternity. Throughout Kazakov’s writings specific objects acquire a symbolic, metaphysical, presence, interrelating with the strange personae and human presences which populate the narrative. Concrete objects such as windows, walls, mirrors, clocks, streets, street lamps, cobble stones and rain – all dance intricately with abstract, intangible concepts, with time, silence, darkness, light.
Similar to Kharms and Vvedensky, Kazakov could take a normal situation and reduce it to absurdity by devices, non-sequiturs, non-conclusive conclusions. He will take a sentence and then repeat it several times, but each time, cutting off the final word. A character’s exclamation will suddenly become a character itself. A plethora of forms abound and coalesce, dramatic – or non-dramatic – dialogue transforms into narrative – or non-narrative – prose. Letters, diaries – pseudo or real – take their place along with poems, historical interludes, memoir, sketches.
Anonymous entities appear together alongside real people, fictional and fantastical characters. In the marvellous dramatic scene Arrest, (which must give a nod to the Tolstoy chamber pot of Kharms), Count Lev Nikolayevich personally relieves a guard of his duty so that the guard can dash off and relieve himself, only for Tolstoy then to be arrested for failing to salute an officer and having an unauthorised beard, before finally being released once his status is revealed.
The tales rehash the fiction of other writers. Mistake of the Living takes its cue from Khlebnikov’s marvellous little drama Death’s Mistake, while developing its parallel universe of Dostoevsky’s Idiot with lashings of Crime and Punishment thrown in.
Any reading of My Meetings immediately also brings to mind other stars in the Russian literary firmament – Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov. Surely even the foremost Symbolist poet Alexander Blok lurks in Kazakov’s world with the constant presence of the “street” and the “streetlamp”. An important short poem begins with the phrase “daughter of the street lamp” and Blok’s neznakomka – stranger/unknown woman – seems at some points to merge with Dostoevsky’s Nastasya Filippovna. And then, of course, there is the wordplay of the Futurists, which the Oberiuty may have downgraded, but which Kazakov often picks up with vigorous enthusiasm, sometimes with a particular playful fascination for the foreign – non-Russian – names so prevalent in 19th century Tsarist Russia. Even number play makes significant forays in Kazakov’s work, with perhaps a prominent example being his “Multiplication Table” published in Slučajnyj voin.
He could even make a masterful poem simply from crossed out lines.
At least such a work largely overcomes the tribulations of translation, and in writing about this hugely talented writer, I am inevitably conscious that an English-speaking reader will find virtually nothing in translation. While there is a solid body of work in German, translations into English are sparse indeed, with bibliographies of Kazakov listing just the two with which I am already well familiar. http://rulibs.com/ru_zar/poetry/kazakov/0/j13.html
I recollect the interest in Kazakov years ago of a major literary agent whose desire to turn a project into print collided only with my own woeful distractions and procrastination. Although there is the occasional difficult word play, much of Kazakov’s prose is expressed in concise simple language. Some is simply challenging at the conceptual level. But his mature verse moves on to a different plane – complex, demanding but hugely rewarding. Here is a writer whose merit deserves a good translator’s attention. If Khlebnikov’s difficult language can be so expertly transformed into English by Paul Schmidt and lovingly published in several volumes, then I have no doubt that someone somewhere could grapple with both the simple and the complex of Kazakov, whose poetry is as yet for many an untapped golden vein.
And so I contemplate discarded scribbled notes with rueful sadness, knowing that the distractions and procrastination of age are even more formidable than those of youth. And as I restack the manuscripts and papers back into the crumbling box, I see in my mind’s eye, at some future event from which I will be absent, their impending ashes rise, like a bonfire of vanities. My view of time turns on its head and instead of a neglected past and a discarded future, I see ascending in the smoke a discarded past and a future of neglect. It is for me a depressing sight. But at least I can still as yet recall my meetings with Vladimir Kazakov and their spectral embers will continue, I hope, to glow for some time yet.