Daniil Kharms (1905-1942)

Russian literature seems always able to bring forth a crop of new and interesting writers who are experimenting somewhere at the frontiers of literary style, language or story. Among our contemporaries, we think of Andrey Sinyavsky (alias 'Abram Tertz'), Vasiliy Aksyonov, Sasha Sokolov and Yevgeniy Popov, along with the women writers who emerged under glasnost', during the last Soviet years: Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Tatyana Tolstaya and others. But alongside the new writers, we continue to rediscover the old. Mikhail Bulgakov and Andrey Platonov, unexpected jewels from the Stalinist period, only came to prominence decades after their own span. Discoveries from the 'Silver Age' period (roughly the 1890s to 1917) are still coming or returning to light. Neglected figures from even further back are now achieving or recovering a belated but deserved readership (Vladimir Odoevsky from the Romantic period, Vsevolod Garshin from later in the nineteenth century). Another fascinating figure, the contemporary of Bulgakov and Platonov, but with a peculiar resonance for the modern, or indeed the post-modern, world is Daniil Kharms.
'Daniil Kharms' was the main, and subsequently the sole, pen-name of Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov. The son of a St. Petersburg political, religious and literary figure, Daniil was to achieve limited local renown as a Leningrad avant-garde eccentric and a writer of children's stories in the 1920s and 30s. Among other pseudonyms, he had employed 'Daniil Dandan' and 'Kharms-Shardam'. The predilection for 'Kharms' is thought to derive from appreciation of the tension between the English words 'charms' and 'harms' (plus the German Charme; indeed, there is an actual German surname 'Harms'), but may also owe something to a similarity in sound to Sherlock Holmes (pronounced 'Kholms' in Russian), a figure of fascination to Kharms.
From 1925 Kharms began to appear at poetry readings and other avant-garde activities, gained membership of the Leningrad section of the All-Russian Union of Poets (from 1926), one of the many predecessors to the eventual Union of Soviet Writers, and published two poems in anthologies in 1926 and 1927. Almost unbelievably, these were the only 'adult' works Kharms was able to publish in his lifetime. In 1927 Kharms joined together with a number of like-minded experimental writers, including his talented friend and close associate Aleksandr Vvedensky (1900-1941) and the major poet Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-1958), to form the literary and artistic grouping Oberiu (the acronym of the 'Association of Real Art').
Representing something of a union between Futurist aesthetics and Formalist approaches, the Oberiut considered themselves a 'left flank' of the literary avant-garde. Their publicity antics, including a roof-top appearance by Kharms, caused minor sensations and they succeeded in presenting a highly unconventional theatrical evening entitled 'Three Left Hours' in 1928, which included the performance of Kharms's Kafkaesque absurdist drama 'Yelizaveta Bam'. Among the Oberiu catch-phrases were 'Art is a cupboard' (Kharms normally made his theatrical entrances inside or on a wardrobe) and 'Poems aren't pies; we aren't herring'. However, in the Stalinising years of the late 1920s, the time for propagating experimental modernist art had passed. The rising Soviet neo-bourgeoisie were not to be shocked: tolerance of any such frivolities was plummeting and hostile journalistic attention ensured the hurried disbandment of the Oberiu group after a number of further appearances.
Kharms and Vvedensky evidently felt it wiser to allow themselves to be drawn into the realm of children's literature, writing for publications of the children's publishing house Detgiz, known fondly as the 'Marshak Academy', run by the redoubtable children's writer (and bowdleriser of Robbie Burns), Samuil Marshak, and involving the playwright Yevgeniy Shvarts. By 1940 Kharms had published eleven children's books and contributed regularly to the magazines 'The Hedgehog' and 'The Siskin'. However, even in this field of literary activity, anything out of the ordinary was not safe. Kharms, in his 'playful' approach to children's writing, utilised a number of Oberiu-type devices. The Oberiu approach had been denounced in a Leningrad paper in 1930 as 'reactionary sleight-of-hand' and, at the end of 1931, Kharms and Vvedensky were arrested, accused of 'distracting the people from the building of socialism by means of trans-sense verses' and exiled to Kursk. However the exile was fairly brief, the times being what Akhmatova described as 'relatively vegetarian'. Nevertheless, little work was to be had thereafter; Kharms was in and out of favour at Detgiz and periods of near starvation followed. Kharms and Vvedensky (the latter had moved to the Ukraine in the mid-30s: see Kharms's letter to him) survived the main purges of the 1930s. However, the outbreak of war brought new dangers: Kharms was arrested in Leningrad in August 1941, while Vvedensky's arrest took place the following month in Kharkov. Vvedensky died in December of that year and Kharms (it seems of starvation in prison hospital) in February 1942. Both were subsequently 'rehabilitated' during the Khrushchev 'Thaw'. Most of their adult writings had to await the Gorbachev period for publication in Russia. Both starvation and arrest were anticipated in a number of Kharms's writings. Hunger and poverty were constant companions; indeed, Kharms can lay claim to being the poet of hunger (not for nothing did he take strongly to Knut Hamsun's novel of that name), as the following translation of an unrhyming but rhythmic verse fragment shows:
This is how hunger begins:
The morning you wake, feeling lively,
Then begins the weakness,
Then begins the boredom;
Then comes the loss
Of the power of quick reason,
Then comes the calmness
And then begins the horror.
On his general situation in life, Kharms wrote the following quatram in 1937:
We've had it now in life's realm,
Of all hope we are now bereft.
Gone are dreams of happiness,
Destitution is all that's left.
The arrest of Kharms came, reportedly, when the caretaker of the block of flats in which he lived called him down, in his bedroom slippers, 'for a few minutes'. He was apparently charged with spreading defeatist propaganda; there is evidence that, even in those times, he managed to clear himself of this charge, possibly by feigning insanity.
Kharms had been a marked man since his first arrest in 1931 and he was probably lucky to escape disaster when he landed in trouble over a children's poem in 1937 (about a man who went out to buy tobacco and disappeared). In addition, his first wife, Ester Rusakova, was a member of a well-known old emigre revolutionary family, subsequently purged; it is intriguing to recall that Kharms had been, for several years, Viktor Serge's brother-in-law.

By the 1930s, Kharms was concentrating more on prose. In addition to his only then publishable works, his children's stories and verse, he evolved ('for his drawer') his own idiosyncratic brands of short prose and dramatic fragment.
Theoretical, philosophical and even mathematical pieces were also penned, as well as diaries, notebooks and a sizeable body of poetry. The boundaries between genre are fluid with Kharms, as are distinctions between fragment and whole, finished and unfinished states. Most of Kharms's manuscripts were preserved after his arrest by his friend, the philosopher Yakov Semyonovich Druskin, until they could be safely handed on or deposited in libraries. It will come as no surprise to readers with the most cursory inkling of Soviet literary conditions in the 1930s that these writings were then totally unpublishable -- and indeed that their author is unlikely to have even contemplated trying to publish them. What is much more surprising is that they were written at all. From 1962 the children's works of Kharms began to be reprinted in the Soviet Union. Isolated first publications of a few of his short humourous pieces for adults followed slowly thereafter, as did mentions of Kharms in memoirs. Only when Gorbachev's policy of glasnost' took real effect though, from 1987, did the flood begin, including a major book-length collection in 1988. Abroad, an awareness of Kharms and the Oberiuts began to surface in the late 1960s, both in Eastern Europe, where publication was often easier, and in the West, where a first collection in Russian appeared in 1974. In 1978 an annotated, but discontinuous, collected works of Kharms began to appear, published in Bremen by the Verlag K-Presse (appropriately enough, the 'Kafka Press'), edited from Leningrad. Four volumes (the poetic opus) have appeared to date. It is probably safe to assume that virtually all of Kharms's surviving works have now appeared. The most recent 'find' is a selection of rather mild erotica, largely clinically voyeuristic and olfactory in nature, which suitably counterpoints certain tendencies already noticeable in some of Kharms's more mainstream writing. The English or American reader may have come across some of Kharms's work in the anthologies published from 1971 by George Gibian (see p. 226). In addition, scholarly literature on the Oberiuts is growing fast. Kharms translations have appeared in German and Italian, while the Yugoslav director Slobodan Pesic has made a surrealistic film, called 'The Kharms Case'. In Russia Oberiu evenings and Kharms 'mono-spectaculars' have become commonplace and Moscow News (back in 1988, in its Russian and English issues alike) was proclaiming Kharms 'an international figure'. In the present age of post-modernist fragmentation, Kharms's time has surely come.

On the assumption that Kharms's published oeuvre may now be more or less complete (and this may still be a big assumption to make: only in 1992 his puppet play, The Shardam Circus, was published for the first time), overall assessments of his achievement begin to assume some validity. Definitive texts from archival sources have, in some instances, replaced dubious sources. We now know the intended order and content of the 'Incidents' cycle, here presented as a complete entity for the first time in English. Many of the later examples of Kharms's prose have only come to light recently, as have notebooks and letters. The prose miniature has long been a genre more commonly found in Russian literature than elsewhere. Among the disparate examples that come to mind (many of them by authors very different from Kharms) we may mention, from the nineteenth century: the feuilletons of writers such as Dostoevsky, the prose poems of Turgenev and the shortest works by Garshin and Chekhov; and, from the twentieth, short pieces by Zamyatin, Olesha and Zoshchenko and, more recently, the aphoristic writings of Abram Tertz and the prose poems of Solzhenitsyn. In spirit, Kharms clearly belongs to a tradition of double-edged humour extending from the word-play and irrelevancy of Gogol and the jaundiced mentality of Dostoevsky's 'underground' anti-heroes to the intertextual parody of Tertz and the satirical absurd of Voinovich. Kharms has clear affinities with certain of the experimental Soviet writings that sprang from a Futurist Formalist base in the 1920s. In a verse and prose sequence entitled 'The Sabre' (Sablya of 1929), Kharms singles out for special admiration Goethe, Blake, Lomonosov, Gogol, Kozma Prutkov and Khlebnikov. In a diary entry of 1937, he lists as his 'favourite writers': Gogol, Prutkov, Meyrink, Hamsun, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Such listings are revealing in determining Kharms's pedigree. On a general European level, Kharms had obvious affinities with the various modernist, Dadaist, surrealist, absurdist and other avant-garde movements. Borges wrote brief masterpieces in a rather different vein. Arguably, Kafka and Beckett provide closer parallels, while Hamsun and Meyrink furnished Kharms with certain motifs. Some of the post-modernist and minimalist writings of very recent decades are perhaps closer than anything else.
'The Old Woman', a story reaching almost epic proportions by Kharms's standards, has strong claims to be regarded as his masterpiece. A deceptively multilayered story, this work looks simultaneously back to the Petersburg tradition of Russian story-telling and forward to the meta-fictional devices of our post-war era. 'Incidents' signals a neo-romantic concern with the relationship between the fragment and the whole (observable too in the theoretical pieces) and, now in its 'complete' form, it has begun to attract critical interpretation as an entity in itself. The 'assorted stories', arranged chronologically, indicate the development of Kharms's idiosyncratic preoccupations over the decade from the early 1930s. 'Yelizaveta Bam' represents Kharms's contribution to the theatre of the absurd. The remaining 'non-fictional and assorted writings' give an idea of Kharms's excursions into other forms of writing.
If Kharms still seems somehow different from all previous models or comparisons, or more startling, this is perhaps most readily explained by his constant adoption, at various levels, of what might be termed a poetics of extremism. Take, for example, his brevity: not for nothing did he note in his diary that 'garrulity is the mother of mediocrity'. If certain stories included here (especially some from 'Incidents') seem texts of concise inconsequentiality, there remain others which incommode the printer even less: consider, for instance, the following:
"An old man was scratching his head with both hands. In places where he couldn't reach with both hands, he scratched himself with one, but very, very fast. And while he was doing it he blinked rapidly."
Another feature of Kharmsian extremism resides in his uncompromising quest for the means to undermine his own stories, or to facilitate their self-destruction: there are numerous examples of this in the texts which follow.
Kharms, then, turns his surgical glance on both the extraordinary world of Stalin's Russia and on representation, past and present, in story-telling and other artistic forms. He thus operates, typically, against a precise Leningrad background. He reflects aspects of Soviet life and its literary forms, passing sardonic and despairing comment on the period in which he lived. He also ventures, ludicrously, into historical areas, parodying the ways in which respected worthies, such as Pushkin, Gogol and Ivan Susanin (a patriotic hero of 1612) were currently being glorified in print. Certain of Kharms's miniatures seem strangely anticipatory of modern trends: 'The Lecture' could almost have been set in politically correct America, 'Myshin's Triumph' smacks of London's cardboard city, and 'On an Approach to Immortality' would fascinate Kundera.
The most striking feature, for many readers, will be the recurrence of Kharms's strange and disturbing obsessions: with falling, accidents, chance, sudden death, victimisation and all forms of apparently mindless violence. These again are often carried to extremes, or toyed with in a bizarre manner which could scarcely be unintentional. Frequently there appears little or no difference between Kharms's avowedly fictional works and his other writings. In his notebooks can be found such passages as:
"I don't like children, old men, old women and the reasonable middle-aged. To poison children -- that would be harsh. But, hell, something needs to be done with them! . . . I respect only young, robust and splendiferous women. The remaining representatives of the human race I regard suspiciously. Old women who are repositories of reasonable ideas ought to be lassoed . . . Which is the more agreeable sight: an old woman clad in just a shift, or a young man completely naked? And which, in that state, is the less permissible in public? . . . What's so great about flowers? You get a significantly better smell from between women's legs. Both are pure nature, so no one dare be outraged at my words."
How far into the cheek the tongue may go is often far from clear: the degree of identification with narrator position in Kharms is always problematic. The Kharmsian obsessions, too, carry over into his notebooks and diaries:
"On falling into filth, there is only one thing for a man to do: just fall, without looking round. The important thing is just to do this with style and energy."
At times the implications might seem sinister, as in the following note from 1940, which could equally be a sketch for a story, or even, as we have seen, be a mini-story in itself:
"One man was pursuing another when the latter, who was running away, in his turn, pursued a third man who, not sensing the chase behind him, was simply walking at a brisk pace along the pavement."
Sometimes, a diary entry is indeed indistinguishable from a Kharms miniature:
"I used to know a certain watchman who was interested only in vices. Then his interests narrowed, and he began to be interested only in one vice. And so, when he discovered a specialisation of his own within this vice and began to interest himself only in this one specialisation, he felt himself a man again. Confidence built up, erudition was required, neighbouring fields had to be looked into and the man started to develop. This watchman became a genius."
Other entries rather more predictably affirm what might be supposed to be his philosophy:
"I am interested only in 'nonsense'; only in that which makes no practical sense. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation."
This last remark was written in 1937, at the height of the purges.
Some or all of this may be approachable, or even explainable, in terms of psychology, of communication theory, of theory of humour, or indeed with reference to the nature of surrounding reality: in times of extremity, it is the times themselves which seem more absurd than any absurd artistic invention. For that matter, these Kharmsian 'incidents' (on which term, more below) have their ancestry in a multitude of genres and models: the fable, the parable, the fairy tale, the children's story, the philosophical or dramatic dialogue, the comic monologue, carnival, the cartoon and the silent movie. All of these seem to be present somewhere in Kharms, in compressed form and devoid of explanation, context and other standard trappings. Kharms, indeed, seems to serve up, transform or abort the bare bones of the sub-plots, plot segments and timeless authorial devices of world literature, from the narratives of antiquity, to classic European fiction, to the wordplay, plot-play and metafictions characteristic of the postmodern era: from Satyricon to Cervantes to Calvino. In the modern idiom, theatre of the absurd and theatre of cruelty apart, Kharms's fictions anticipate in some primeval way almost everything from the animated screenplay and the strip cartoon to the video-nasty. Kharms offers a skeletal terseness, as opposed to the comprehensive vacuousness on offer from many a more conventional literary form. Once again, it is the environment in which he wrote that is the most striking thing of all. Kharms, the black miniaturist, is an exponent not so much of the modernist 'end of the Word' (in a Joycean sense) as of a post-modernist, minimalist and infantilist 'end of the Story' (in a sense perhaps most analogous to Beckett). Such a trend is usually taken to be a post war, nuclear-age cultural phenomenon, exemplified by fragmentation, breakdown and the impulse to self-destruct. However, the Holocaust and Hiroshima may well have felt imminent in the Leningrad of the bleak 1930s.

Finally, a word on terminology and arrangement. Many of Kharms's stories, even beyond the cycle of that name, have been dubbed 'incidents'. The slightly wider term 'incidences' could equally be used. Kharms, between 1933 and 1937, engaged on a cycle of short prose pieces which he called Sluchai. The common Russian noun sluchay (masculine, singular) may be translated, according to context, by a variety of English words: case (cf. the Italian translation of Kharms, entitled Casi), event, incident, occurrence, opportunity, occasion or chance. Commentators have at times labelled the Kharmsian generic innovation: Mini-stories, Happenings or Cases. 'Mini-stories' is of course descriptive, rather than a translation of sluchai, just as, say, 'Black Miniatures' would be interpretative; 'Happenings' and 'Cases', I feel, are open to other possible objections. Hence the term 'Incidents', as used here. Pieces which had not been given a title by Kharms have generally been called by their first words.
That, as Kharms would say, is all (vsyo!). Now read on!