Daniil Kharms (1905-1942)
(Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov)
What to remember about Kharms? Here was this little kid running around in the middle of a revolution. Then he grew up a little and here was this teenager running around in the middle of a civil war. And then the new society followed by the terror first in slow-time and then in a rush. At first the revolution was everywhere, revolutionary hope, and revolutionary plans for the good society and revolutionary art. The new shined and the old fell into shadows. In Petrograd/Leningrad where Kharms lived revolution was everywhere in politics, science, art and literature. The place was exploding with energy and change. The new was everywhere. Artists, writers sought to reach out and shape it. Small coalitions of artists and writers formed, then flew apart, then suddenly came together in new combinations. Manifestoes announced each group and its take on the new. Kharms sorted through them joined a few, and feasted on their ideas in the give and take in the city's bars and coffee shops. He found friends who shared his ideas, friends who helped him work out new ones as the times changed and his perspective on his work deepened.
Early on Kharms had become a servant of the Literature. Most were sure that literature was a severe maiden that lived on the peak of a high mountain. One served her at a distance in the valley below, humbly, with respect and sobriety, for it was a wonderful and holy thing to create literature though it was difficult to do so. Most thought discipline, care for details, and accuracy were required. Kharms discovered how to climb the mountain and make love to that maiden on the peak. And he discovered that she really liked it.
He made love to her in his short stories which were vulgar, violent, irrational, filled with sudden, surprising changes. Shaped with a strong sense of narrative form, his stories moved quickly and effortlessly to their conclusion. And they are funny. Kharm's work shares much with popular Russian humor vaudeville, circus clowns, folk drama, Punch-and-Judy type puppet shows, and low-class raunchy jokes.
Here is one of his best: THE PLUMMETING OLD WOMAN A certain old woman, out of excess curiosity, fell out of a window, plummeted to the ground, and was smashed to pieces. Another old woman leaned out of the window and began looking at the remains of the first one, but she also, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of the window, plummeted to the ground and was smashed to pieces. Then a third old woman plummeted from the window, then a fourth, then a fifth. By the time a sixth had plummeted down, I was fed up watching them, and went off to Mal'tseviskiy Market, where, it was said, a knitted shawl had been given to a certain blind man. (from INCIDENCES by Daniil Kharms translated and edited by Neil Cornwell. This is one of the best places to start reading Kharms.)
None of Kharms stories were published in his lifetime except a few he was able to disguise as children's literature. And rightly so. Whether Kharms realized it, whether the authorities realized it his work was deeply subversive of the Soviet state. First there was the matter of seriousness. The Soviet culture cops knew, "Nonsense verse is a protest against the dictatorship of the proletariat." And indeed it was. Seriousness was the glue that holds ideology together. But there was a deeper problem. Kharms turned the Marxist dialectic on its head. According to it a thesis generates an antithesis which then comes together with it to form a synthesis. In Kharms when the thesis and antithesis came together, there was an explosion, Pow, Bam, someone got a rap on the head and a kick in the pants.
Kharms was an absurdist writer in that he demonstrated in his stories the meaninglessness of human existence and at the same time the desire of people to have meaning in their lives. His strategy in writing was fairly simple: He posed a situation in which something happened that his reader wanted to make sense of. With verve and intelligence he drew his reader into his stories which, though they should have had meaning, turn out to have none. Absurdism may be defined as a celebration of the meaninglessness of life. It is nihilism with dirty shoes, a smile on its face and a song in its heart. Kharms was one of its masters.
He lived through more history that either you or I ever will, but this was not the time for writers to live long and prosper. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union had become murderous. In 1931 Kharms was first arrested, then released to a spell of internal exile in Kharkov. This marked him. He lost all but his bravest friends, he could not get a job anywhere, and he was set up for destruction later. Arrested in 1941 he starved to death in a prison hospital in early 1942. He was only 37.
(A world of thanks to his friend , Yakov Druskin, who preserved his manuscripts.)