If we’re to take his testaments at face value, it would seem that the rather strange Russian writer known as Daniil Kharms was born twice. Actually, make that three times. Mmm… okay, maybe four. He emerged from the womb four months ahead of schedule. His father, very concerned that the child should be born precisely on New Year’s Day, was so enraged with this premature arrival that he pushed the boy back in the womb. When next little Daniil entered the world he was immediately placed in an incubator. Was his eventual emergence from the incubator his final, proper birth? Or was it many years later, when, drawing upon with the English words “charms” and “harms,” the adult Daniil adopted the surname by which we refer to him?
The entire notion of face value is questioned tirelessly throughout the work of Daniil Kharms. A literary artist and fixture of the salons aligned with a number of radical movements, he was a devout terrorist in the battle against causality and common sense. In his writings, not even the sequence of prime numbers is to be taken for granted. By the time you’ve read just a handful of his mostly very short, spare, often cruel and poetic texts, his words have so effectively cleansed the imagination’s palate that each new phrase seems to invent the world one object at a time, giving birth to it piece by piece like some baffled, amnesiac God trying to familiarize Himself with each and every tool in his workshop.
Kharms sought not ambiguity but a certain aesthetic “correctness” that could only be achieved through the destructive mastering of language, along with the consistent insertion of some sort of error to set his proposed truths in stark relief. Nevertheless, certainty is indeed a rare thing in Kharms’ worldview. And he did indeed live in particularly uncertain times. The one thing we do know for sure is that Daniil Kharms –or at least the man born as Daniil Yuvachev– starved to death in the psychiatric ward of a Soviet hospital during the siege of Leningrad having only ever seen his children’s prose published in his lifetime. He was 36. And apparently, he hated children.
Frequently, if quite misleadingly, linked to the Absurdists and their ilk, Kharms is very much the sort of writer I should have discovered in my teens, when my appetite for forthright nonsense and heroic madness was probably at its all-time peak. Fortunately, coming to it now, Kharms’ work strikes me as possessing a richness that would have likely gone underappreciated by my younger self. In any case I’m only now aware of him thanks to the recent publication of Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook/Duckworth, $35), a superb introduction to Kharms’ work edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich.
Chains of destruction proliferate. In ‘Events’ a man dies from gluttony, another from bad news, a woman perishes after falling from a cupboard, children drown in a pond, an old woman takes to drinking and wanders the highways. “All good people,” Kharms laments, “But they don’t know how to hold their ground.” In another piece old women tumble from windows one after the other, until the author tires of witness them. In ‘Lynch Law’ our collective desire for blood is coolly surveyed. In other pieces people disappear into woods or even one body part at a time. Reading these works as having been written in defiance of Stalinist purges is tempting, interesting in its own right, but also limiting. Kharms’ imaginings are too wild and resonant to be contained purely within their political context.
The darkly compelling, very funny, and altogether remarkable story ‘The Old Woman,’ one of the only pieces in Today I Wrote Nothing that exceeds a few pages in length, conveys a strong sense of the diverse forms of dream logic Kharms employs. An old woman –a archetype always to be feared in Kharms– enters the house of the protagonist and dies, or rather seems to die, upsetting his plans to write, to pursue a budding romance, to simply relax in his home. He fears that her death, thought owing nothing to any action of his, will be blamed on him, perhaps because he loathes her so. In this and other works, Kharms shares something with Kafka in his chilling distribution of guilt.
Kafka, and even more so Gogol –who he proudly points to as a major influence– are perhaps the writers most readily comparable to Kharms. Though, in terms of his troubling equations of cause and effect, of things appearing and disappearing, of things living and dying –see ‘Father and Daughter’ for a haunting example– one could argue he outdoes both of them. He reveals both the humour and the wonder in things that fail to fully materialize, in events that disrupt order only to pass by and be shrugged off. There is always this fear of proceeding, of ambition itself –the world is so dangerous, after all. It’s a terrifying perspective that feels more real the more it screws with our agreed upon reality. It’s like what Kharms himself promises at the end of one of the pieces included here: “You’d laugh like it was the end of the world.”