Russian Absurd: Selected Writings by Daniil Kharms

Posted: June 1, 2018 in book review, Uncategorized
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Kharms, Daniil, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale, Northwestern University Press, 2017. $24.95 (also available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon.com)

Early on in his career, Daniil Kharms joined a sound-poetry group with other avant writers, including the poet, Alexander Vvedensky. Vvedensky would become Kharms’ close associate until Vvedensky’s death. He died only a couple months before Kharms starved to death at the young age of 36 during the Nazi siege of Leningrad as he was imprisoned in the psychiatric ward of a prison hospital in February 1942. Both men were invited to join the Association of Children’s Writers in December 1927, and a month later they founded OBERIU. This group included writers, poets, actors, musicians, and playwrights who would perform in public until the Soviet State banned their events. OBERIU (after a Russian acronym standing for The Association of REAL Art) was a movement that developed as a reaction to, but also as an evolution of, the avant activities of the Russian Futurists (1920-1930), which included poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov.

“Zaum”, meaning transrational and translinguistic, was a phonetic sound based poetry, or deconstructed language that was reconstructed as non-sense words. Zaum does not need translating into other languages, as its meaning is asemic. A listener’s mind would naturally be inclined to construct its own meaning from Zaum language based on relationships conceived from their own experience with language. It’s no coincidence that the Russian Futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov, Alexei Kruchenykh, and Elena Guro were all artists before they became writers. When looking at Russian Futurist poems that have been laid out in non-grid format with multiple fonts and sizes, a connection between Zaum and abstract art becomes evident. Zaum was included in some of Kharms’ early poems, eg. Sec (dedicated to his first wife, Esther) from 1925. From what I’ve read in a 1996 text by Gerald Janecek titled Zaum, the Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism, San Diego State University Press, the relationship between OBERIU and Zaum is fairly complex. The sounding out of Zaum phonetic poems is essential to its communication, and I can envision the eccentric character of Daniil Kharms reveling in the theatrical performance of Zaum in public.

Soviet authorities banned what they saw as political dissidence in OBERIU’s Zaum-based public performances.  Works which foreshadowed the European Theatre of the Absurd, such as Kharms’ popular “Elizabeth Bam”, were perceived as being in opposition to Stalinist realism which was oriented toward proletariat emancipation. Cigale writes in his introduction that Kharms’ plays and early Zaum-based poetry were not selected for this book for the sake of brevity. (Note that Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd, edited by Neil Cornwell, Macmillan Press, 1991, has a translation of “Yelisabetha Bam”.) What we have here is still a generous selection of early, middle, and late Kharms work presented in chronological order, with a poetry section at the end.

Russian Absurdism, much like it’s contemporary – the Dada group which started in Zurich, Switzerland – arose out of a reaction to the absurd conditions brought on by war, but also to Stalinist cultural repression. Red Horizon was a 2017 art exhibit at our local art museum in Columbus OH that I attended after I read this book. It was curated from paintings and photographs collected by Neil K. Rector from a period shortly after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 until the late 1980s and beyond, when artists attempted to represent the everyday realities of the USSR and Russia. Notably, many of those artists, like Kharms and his associates who wrote children’s literature, could only make ends meet as illustrators of children’s literature. These were Moscow based artists whose ‘unofficial’ works came to prominence in the 1960’s and 70’s. In conjunction with writing this review, I also read that the Russian punk rock group, Pussy Riot, during their 2012 trial for “hooliganism” in a church, cited Kharms’ friend, Vvedensky, as a their hero. 2017 was the centennial of the 1917 Russian revolution, and so it was so very appropriate that Northwestern University came out with Cigale’s translation of Kharms’ works.

Kharms’ nonsense exposes a high level of cynicism that can be both sad and hilarious at the same time, and sometimes violent and frightening. Cigale advocates that Kharms’ writings be grouped with the likes of Sartre, Beckett, and Camus, based on their existential bent. I’ve read elsewhere that Kharms’ imagery is like the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Columbia. Cigale gives a thorough briefing about Kharms’ short life in his introduction, and throughout the book provides diary entries and letters that give perspective on everyday life in 20’s and 30’s Soviet Union and of life with his first wife, Esther Rusakova.

Kharms’ notebooks were rescued by his second wife, Marina Mavich, and fellow OBERIU member Yakov Druskin, from a bombed-out building. Many of those plays, poems, and stories circulated illegally in underground publications and came to influence generations of non-conformist writers and later on, the Russian Minimalist poets of the 1970s and ‘80s. Most texts were not officially published until the Gorbachev period in 1980’s Russia.

In a 1937 diary entry, Kharms wrote, “I am interested only in pure nonsense; only in that which has no practical meaning. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation,” (from Cigale’s introduction to Part III, Selected Poems). So you will see old women falling out of windows one after another due to over-inquisitiveness, and men melting into thin air. These stories may end with a moral or a masterful punch line, or abruptly with an anti-climax or dead-panned “That’s All”. Readers should leave themselves open to whatever happens, as Kharms’ short stories do not follow standard forms of fiction writing.  What follows is a book excerpt from page 7, specifically the first of five “Rules for Sentinals on the roof of the State Publishing House”, from an early period in Kharms’ writing:

The sentinal may be a man of the OBERIU faith, in possession of the traits listed below:

  1. Of moderate height.
  2. Brave.
  3. Farsighted.
  4. Voice booming and authoritative.
  5. Mighty and without pretensions.
  6. Able to make out by ear various sounds and not susceptible to boredom.
  7. A smoker, or, under extreme circumstances, a non-smoker.

 

I was fascinated by Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, and learned so much about Kharms and his creative circle of writers who aspired to creativity during a time of war imposed poverty and cultural repression. The reader may want to go on to read other translations by Alex Cigale, who was awarded the 2015 NEA Literary Translation Fellow for his work on a Selected Poems of Mikhail Eremin.                                                           – C. Mehrl Bennett

Note: An earlier version of this review, edited by Eric Lorberer, was published in the 2017 Spring/Summer print issue of RAIN TAXI magazine, which is a review of books based in Minneapolis MN USA. Rain Taxi online version is@: http://www.raintaxi.com/

For further reading and references see this NY Times review online@: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/05/07/daniil-kharms-strangely-funny-russian-genius/

Read an extensive Kharms bio@ https://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/literature/daniil-kharms/

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