"Reality and unreality are mixed. The aim is to produce strong impressions of conflict, chaos, and humor. No wonder Kharms once declared that only two things in life are of great worth: humor and saintliness."
-George Gibian, The Man in the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd

"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."
-Daniil Kharms, notebooks

Daniil (sometimes written as "Dani'il") Kharms is the best known pen name of Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev, one of the finest of the Russian absurdist avant-garde authors. Born in St. Petersburg in December 1904, he was arrested in August 1941 (like many of his contemporaries) and died of starvation in a prison hospital in February 1942, a victim of the Soviet police state. Between his birth and death he wrote hundreds of poems and stories, using more than 30 pseudonyms. I like his stories, they are strange and short and filled with long Russian names.

The place of Kharms, and his work, in the world is strange and holds nearly as much fascination as his works himself. After his death he was essentially forgotten for twenty years; in the early 1960s his childrens books began trickling out into Soviet culture, where they were well recieved. By the end of the decade it was permissable to speak of him (!) and in the mid-70s his name trickled out to the West via Eastern Europe. His poetry began to see print again inside the USSR in the late 70s, but it was not until glasnost in 1987 that publication of his adult prose (the material that makes up the bulk of his work and for which he is now best known) saw print for the first time. Due to political circumstances Kharms was never able to admit the existance of these works outside of small getherings in his home and the underground distribution of typed manuscripts. It is when we begin to understand the political climate in which he worked, and when we see the works in question, that things become downright weird.

The adult prose mentioned above takes the form of short aphoristic stories, frquently referred to as "incidents". The term comes from the consensus translation of "Sluchai", the name Kharms gave to a cycle of works written between 1933 and 1937 and is often used to refer to a broader class of his writings than the body of the cycle. The incidents range from short to extremely short. An example of the later:

    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.

Often the works contain huge jumps of topic. They tend to be humorous, though frequently in a rather black way. Violent (in several senses of the word) endings are common. All in all, they are strange little beasts. But hardly anything one would elevate to a status of 'antisocial'. Yet, Stalinist Russia, that is exactly what they were. For Kharms, 'publication' in the 1930s meant inviting other poets to his apartment for readings from a notebook, or painstakingly typing out a few copies to be shared in an ever-so-slightly wider net of distribution. And his restraint was well founded. Arrested in 1931 and cleared, the arrest in 1941 that led to his death was for "defeatism".

Kharms began his literary career in 1922 when he began writing poems. A few years later he was accepted into the Leningrad branch of the All-Russian Union of Poets. At the same time, he became active with the Zaum poetry movement (the name of that group translates roughly as "unintelligible" or "trans-rational"), the first of many left-leaning art grups he would participate in.

In 1926 his first published work, a poem entitled "Incident on the Railroad", appeared in a poetry almanac published by the Union of Poets. Around this time Kharms and fellow poet Aleksandr Vvdensky formed a Zaum-affiliated group known as "Plane Trees". This group would eventually evolve into OBERIU (an acronym for "Union of Real Art-oo"), which would become the primary outlet for Kharms' performance work for the next several years. In 1930, OBERIU was attacked in the journal Smerna as "literary hooligans", and the group disbanded.

In 1928 Kharms began working for the children's magazine Yohr ("Hedgehog"), which published 10 of his poems in that year. After the disbanding of OBERIU, working and writing for children's magazines and books for children would become his only outlet for publishing works. Bizarrely enough, it was this work that promted his falling out of favor (along with many colleagues) with Soviet authorities. His works were primarily short absurd stories and poems, which were criticized for not telling children plainly "who is their friend, and who is their enemy".

Unfortunately most of the information and writings by and about Kharms on the web are in Russian, but it is easy enough to find a few stories in English. Despite his popularity among young literati in the Soviet Union during his life, his work through most of his last decade was samizdat and this has hindered the spread of his work into the West. His influence on Western art movements is unmistakable, however, even if he is not widely known here. Several reports I have read have credited Kharms as an inspiration to Florian von Banier, though I do not know how such a thing could be possible, given that von Banier died long before Kharms was born. It seems likely that this is a literary pun of sorts based on the Russian's work.

There are a number of sites on the web that have English translations of Kharms' works, though the quality of translation varies somewhat. The translations in George Gibian's book on Kharms (The Man in the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd) are generally excellent. That is the source for the work below, a piece which is fairly typical of Kharms' aphoristic style, though as I mentioned before, he also wrote short verse and plays.

Falling Out-Old Women

A certain old woman fell out of a window because she was too curious. She fell and broke into pieces.

Another old woman leaned her head out the window and looked at the one that had broken into pieces, but because she was too curious, she too fell out of the window -- fell and broke into pieces.

Then a third old woman fell out of the window, then a fourth, then a fifth.

When the sixth old woman fell out, I became fed up with watching them and went to Maltsevsky Market, where, they say, a certain blind man was presented with a knit shawl.

"Art is a cupboard."
-Daniil Kharms

Like the French playwright Alfred Jarry, Kharms cultivated a bohemian eccentricity, treating his life as one more artistic medium to be formed, elaborated, invented.
Given his political climate however, Kharms played much more dangerous games than Jarry or the Dadaists; his affectations of aristocratic bearing and pretentions were acted out against a backdrop of anti-aristocrat Soviet sentiment. While those who were accused of being former noblemen were being deported (or worse), Kharms would carry silver cups in his briefcase, claiming that they were family heirlooms. When he went out with friends he would make a point of refusing to drink from anything else.

Kharms would always wear a false mustache to the opera, announcing that to go to the theater without one was indecent. The style of Kharms mustache, and many of his mannerisms, were supposedly copied from Kharms' brother, who was a Privatdozent at the University of Petersburg. This brother however, was merely another of Kharms' inventions.

In his book The Man in the Black Coat : Russia's Literature of the Absurd, George Gibian writes - "One of Kharms' friends, Vladimir Lifshits, wrote in his recollections of the poet that his room was sparsely, ascetically furnished. In one corner a strange object stood out in the almost empty room. It was made of pieces of iron, wooden boards, empty cigarette boxes, springs, bicycle wheels, twine, and cans. When Lifshits asked what it was, Kharms replied, 'A machine.'
'What kind of machine?'
'No kind. Just a machine in general.'
'And where does it come from?'
'I put it together myself,' Kharms said proudly.
'What does it do?'
'It does nothing.'
'What do you mean nothing?'
'Simply nothing.'
'What is it for?'
'I just wanted to have a machine at home.' "

The idea of a machine that does nothing, or the functionless non-art object, recurs in this story written by Kharms, probably around 1929 or 1930:

A Subject for a Story

A certain engineer made up his mind to build a huge brick wall across Petersburg. Reflecting on how to accomplish this, he does not sleep nights, and studies it. Gradually a circle of engineers-thinkers forms itself and a plan for building the wall is worked out. It is decided to build the wall at night, in such a way that everything will be built in one night, so that it will be a surprise to everybody. Workers are called together. The organization is planned. The attention of the city authorities is distracted.
Finally the night when this wall is to be built arrives. Only four people know about the building of the wall. The workers and the engineers receive precise instructions where each is to be stationed and what he is to do. Thanks to the exact plan, they succeed in building the wall in one night. The next day, a partition exists throughout Petersburg. But the inventor himself is dejected. Even he himself does not know what to use this wall for.


The issue of translation poses some difficulties in the work of Daniil Kharms. The black humor of many of his stories depends on the style of the writing. Intentional bad grammar and stylistic naïveté, are combined with folk dialect, prosaisms, and occasionally, truly beautiful and lyrical prose. Then these combinations are shaken up by deliberate irrationality, non sequiturs, violence and abrupt endings. In works such as "Anecdotes about Pushkin's Life" and "Pushkin and Gogol", Kharms mocks the Soviet tendency toward solemn, reverential accounts of such figures as Pushkin, and "Uncle Lenin." To write about a man widely considered to be the greatest master of the Russian language in the unsophisticated voice of a yokel, is a large part of what makes the work so funny, and such a challenge to translate. I've seen a few translations that were too bad - the English too broken and strained, and I've seen several that were too "good" and thus lost a lot of the absurd humor which comes through in the Russian. I like this one though:

Anecdotes About Pushkin's Life


Pushkin was a poet, and all the time he was writing something. Once Zhukovsky found him writing and shouted at him, "You really are a scribbler!"
From that time on, Pushkin loved Zhukovsky and in friendly fashion called him simply Zhukov.


As is known, Pushkin could never grow a beard. This bothered him a lot, and he always envied Zakharyn, who on the contrary really had a properly growing beard. "His grows and mine doesn't grow," Pushkin often complained, pointing at Zakharyn with his fingernails. And each time he was right.


Once Petrushevsky broke his watch and sent for Pushkin. Pushkin came, looked at Petrushevsky's watch, and put it back on the chair. "What do you say, Brother Pushkin?" Petrushevsky asked. "The wheels stopped going round," 1 Pushkin said.


When Pushkin broke his legs, he got about on wheels. His friends liked to tease Pushkin and caught the wheels. Pushkin became angry and wrote poems in which he swore at his friends. He called these poems "erpigarms."


Pushkin spent the summer of 1829 in the country. He would get up early in the morning, drink a pitcher of milk, and run to the river to bathe. After bathing in the river, Pushkin would lie down on the grass and sleep till lunch. After lunch Pushkin would sleep in his hammock. When he met smelly peasants, Pushkin would nod to them and hold his nose with his fingers. The smelly peasants would take off their caps and say "It's no matter." 2


Pushkin loved to throw rocks. As soon as he saw a rock, he would throw it. Sometimes he became so excited that he stood, all red in the face, waving his arms, throwing rocks, simply something awful.


Pushkin had four sons, all idiots. One didn't even know how to sit in a chair and fell off all the time. Pushkin himself also sat on a chair rather badly. It was simply killing: they sat at the table; at one end, Pushkin kept falling off his chair continually, and at the other end, his son. Simply enough to make one split one's sides with laughter.

1. An alternate translation that I've seen of this ending: "It's a stopwatch," Pushkin said. The literal translation is more along the lines of "The machine is stopped", but in Russian it is written "stop machine", because their adoption of the English word "stop" does not require being written in the past tense ("machine (is) stop" makes sense grammatically, when written in Russian). However, the use of the phrase "stop machine" is also interesting because it is reminiscent of Kharms' fascination with the machine that does nothing. A machine whose whole function is to be a "nothing maching", a "stop machine".
2. Literal translation: "It's nothing."

The translation of the two works I have included are by George Gibian.

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