"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.