DANIIL KHARMS – “Today I Wrote Nothing” (2007)
Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) was an obscure and bizarre Russian writer, poet and dramatist of the twenties and thirties.
A member of the absurdist ‘OBERIU‘ circle based in Leningrad, little of whose work has filtered through into the West, his unruly artistic outpourings became increasingly hard to realise by the late 1920′s as Soviet intolerance of the unorthodox grew.
Finding occasional work as a writer of children’s stories (very suitable given his absurdist sensibilities), his eccentric existence on the fringes of society came to an early end when the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany in June 1941.
Escaping the draft by feigning madness (not difficult for Kharms), he was subsequently arrested by the NKVD in a round-up of suspicious characters as the Germans encircled the city, and was sent to a psychiatric prison where he perished from starvation the following year, sharing the fate of hundreds of thousands of fellow civilians caught in the siege. He was still in his thirties.
This volume collects together some of his fragmented and unusual output in the form of stories, plays and poems, for the most part brief in the extreme.
As an absurdist, Kharms‘ work is wonderfully free of restraint. His stories end prematurely when he can’t be bothered to finish, or even start them. His characters often do nothing, or die suddenly for no apparent reason. Violence prevails as in the unexpurgated Grimm stories, surreal and nonsensical. A deep dislike of children and old people underpins the proceedings (the former being ironic in that Kharms‘ work for children was what fed him and established his posthumous reputation).
Some pieces are intensely funny, but many are so wilfully obscure and futile that they are almost pointless to read, which, I suppose, paradoxically, is the whole point.
Nevertheless, after finishing the book I felt I wanted more, having become immersed in the strange world of Mr Kharms, where people die of blows to the head from giant cucumbers, Pushkin and Gogol appear in a play in which they just fall over each other repeatedly, and Frenchmen try endlessly to find the most comfortable furniture in their rooms.
A great read for people willing to experiment and who do not need the conventions of plot and linearity (or indeed logic) to derive enjoyment from the written word.
Think of Kharms as the literary equivalent of some of the more extreme forms of modern painting that were appearing in the same era: breaking boundaries and challenging the audience, like shock troops, but ultimately not for everyone.
Here are two prominent examples of Kharms‘ micro-fiction:
BLUE NOTEBOOK No.10
There was a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a rehead arbitrarily.
He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.
He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.
We’d better not talk about him any more.
Now, one day, a man went to work, and on the way he met another man, who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was heading back home where he came from.
And that’s it, more or less.
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