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Saturday, 20 July 2013

Daniil Kharms: Today I Wrote Nothing

Let's start with the facts: Daniil Kharms was born in 1905 in St. Petersburg. Thirty-eight years later, while the Nazis were beseiging Leningrad, he died of starvation in a psychiatric hospital, where he had been placed by the Stalinist government -- mainly because they considered him simply too weird to be on the loose. During his life, he was known as a writer, though his only publications while he was still alive were children's books. Today, he is mainly called an Absurdist, though he was associated with late wings of Russian Futurism and Constructivism. He was a pioneer of performance art and a co-founder of the Oberiu, or “Association for REAL Art.” He is one of my favourite authors.


I first encountered Daniil Kharms' minimalist, black-humourous stories (today, they might be called "microfictions") in a volume called Incidences, translated and edited by Neil Cornwell, and I was totally taken with their extreme brevity (some of his stories are only a few sentences, shorter than any "fiction" writer I know of, save Lydia Davis) and morbid irreverence. Though it's unlikely he knew of them, Kharms' style is very much a part of the same zeitgeist as Kafka's nightmarish fantasy and Dada's attacks on artistic convention and social propriety.

As much as I enjoyed Cornwell's collection, however, I always had the impression that the translation was less than ideal. So I was delighted to find out that a newer collection exists, with translations by Matlei Yankovich. We just got it in at the store for the first time!



Here's some praise for Kharms from the estimable George Saunders:

When I first discovered Kharms, my answer (like the answer of many readers and critics before me) was, These stories are an absurdist response to the brutality of his times. (In the face of unimaginable savagery, traditional story conventions are quaint, even reactionary.) Kharms’s work is certainly random and violent enough. In one story, five-plus people (four, plus “the Spiridonov children”) die in the first five sentences. In another, a succession of women fall out the same window and shatter on impact — six in all, until the narrator gets bored with all these falling, shattering babushkas and wanders off. But it occurs to me — inspired by Yankelevich’s excellent introduction — that Kharms might be writing the same way were he with us today... 

You can also read more about Kharms at Numéro Cinq magazine: The Absolute Nonsense of Daniil Kharms: Translation — Alex Cigale

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