Prominent Russians: Daniil Kharms
“I am interested only in 'nonsense'; only in that which makes no practical sense. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation.” - Kharms
Daniil Kharms was a poet, short story writer, dramatist and a representative of avant-garde trends in Soviet literature. During his lifetime Kharms was best known for his humorous children's stories. His other works, held in private archives, were rediscovered in the late 1960s and today his fame rests chiefly on his experimental, absurd prose pieces.
“I always believed in fair play and never beat anyone for no reason, because, when you are beating someone, you always go a bit draft and you might overdo it. Children, for example, should never be beaten with a knife or anything made of iron, but women - the opposite: they shouldn't be kicked.” (from “Incidents” 1933-39)
Daniil Kharms was born Daniil Ivanovich Iuvachev (also Yuvachov) in St. Petersburg. His father was a former member of the “People's Will” (Narodnaya Volya) revolutionary organization. He was arrested in 1883 and spent time in the Schiesselburg Fortress and in Sakhalin in far eastern Siberia. In prison, he became religious and a pacifist. After his release, he returned to St. Petersburg and took up writing. His works include “Eight Years in Sakhalin" (under the pseudonym of Miroliubov) and "Schiesselburg Fortress." He sent his texts to Leo Tolstoy, who dismissed them as too fantastic for his taste.
Kharms attended school in Tsarskoe Selo and later continued his education in the privileged German Peterschule and Second Soviet Labor School. There he learned German and English. His notebooks contain hand-written copies of the poems of Lewis Carroll in English. In 1925 he entered the Leningrad Electro-Technical College but did not graduate. In 1926 he enrolled in a film course at the Leningrad Institute of the History of the Arts. Kharms began to perform in public as a poetry reader, reciting his own works as well as those of other Soviet poets, including Mayakovsky, Severyanin and many others. He attended literary evenings and became friends with Vvedensky. There he started using his most popular pseudonym Daniil Kharms. Perhaps it was created from the words “charms” and “harms.” His other pen names included “Charms,” “Dandan,” “Shardam,” “Kharms-Shardam” and “Karl Ivanovich Shusterling.” He had over 30 pseudonyms in total.
In 1925 he married Ester Rusakova, a member of an old émigré revolutionary family. They divorced in 1932 and two years later Kharms married Marina Malich to whom he dedicated a special notebook of his prose pieces. Kharms was tall and long-haired, and due to his fascination with Sherlock Holmes, he dressed in a British-style jacket. His apartment was full of books on black magic and occultist symbols. On his old harmonium, Kharms played Bach and Mozart. His favorite composers also included Mikhail Glinka, whose song “Calm Down, Emotions of Passion” he occasionally performed in a duet with one of the foremost Soviet poets, Nikolay Zabolotsky.
Kharms was associated in Leningrad with the abstract painter Kazimir Malevich, who had established the Suprematist School of Art. Kharms joined the Leningrad branch of the All-Russian Union of Poets in 1926 but three years later he was expelled. During this period, two of his poems were published in anthologies produced by the Leningrad branch of the All-Russian Union of Poets. They were the only poems for adult readers ever printed during his lifetime.
Kharms made his own life a piece of art. In his early poems he experimented with structure and technique, trying to create new meanings through sounds alone. Later his writing in general moved toward stylistic simplicity. In his mini stories he challenged the ordinary logic and rationality of the world. Anna Akhmatova once said that Kharms “managed to do what almost no one else could - write the so-called prose of the twentieth century.”
Kharms was a founding member of the informal group of artist and writers called the OBERIU (The Association of Real Art), which was active from 1926 to 1930. Its members called themselves “a new vanguard of the revolutionary Left in fine arts, theater, cinema, music and literature.” “Art is a cupboard,” the group stated, and “Poems aren't pies; we aren't herring.” Very few of the founders of the group escaped jail and exile. Zabolotsky spent the years from 1938 to 1946 at various labor camps in Siberia. Vaghinov died ill and penniless in 1934.
“Elizaveta Bam,” Kharms's absurdist drama, produced in 1928 at the Leningrad Press Club, was part of an OBERIU evening. The performance received a poor review in the Leningrad “Krasnaya Gazeta” (Red Gazette). In the Kafkaesque or anarchistic world of false accusation, Elizaveta is accused of a crime she has not yet committed. The play was not performed in Russia until the 1980s.
In 1928 Kharms served in the Red Army. Afterwards he started to publish literature for children in the journal “Ezh” (Hedgehog), which changed its name later into “Chizh” (Yellowbird). Although Kharms was not fond of children, he wrote 12 books of children's stories and worked for the children's publishing house Detzig, run by Samuil Marshak.
“I don't like children, old men, old women and the reasonable middle-aged. To poison children - that would be harsh. But, hell, something needs to be done with them! ... I respect only young, robust and splendiferous women. The remaining representatives of the human race I regard suspiciously. Old women who are repositories of reasonable ideas ought to be lassoed... Which is the more agreeable sight: an old woman clad in just a shift, or a young man completely naked? And which, in that state, is the less permissible in public? … What's so great about flowers? You get a significantly better smell from between women's legs. Both are pure nature, so no one dare be outraged at my words.”
Even in the 1930s, fairytales offered a way to express ideas that could not be articulated within the constraints of the Party line. Kharms's poem “Ivan Ivanych Samovar” is considered a classic of Soviet children's literature.
After Stalin gained full power, avant-garde art came into conflict with the official cultural policy, which aimed at centralized control. “Formalism” and experimentation was condemned. Literary organizations were disbanded in 1932 to make way for the Soviet Writers' Union, which “united all writers supporting the platform of the Soviet government and aspiring to take part in the building of socialism.” At the end of 1931, Kharms was arrested and imprisoned. Accused of anti-Soviet activities and “deflecting the people from the building of socialism” Kharms was sent into exile to Kursk where he spent several months before returning to Leningrad. In 1934 Kharms became a member of the Soviet Writers' Union.
Between 1933 and 1939 Kharms wrote a series of stories and sketches called “Incidents,” which not only continued the tradition of Pushkin and Gogol but also reflected the reality of totalitarian rule. In one dramatic sketch Pushkin and Gogol stumble repeatedly over each other. These short pieces, some of which were under ten lines long, were first published in the Soviet Union in 1988.
Pushkin and Gogol
GOGOL: (Falls onto stage from the wings and lies quietly.)
PUSHKIN: (Enters, stumbles over Gogol and falls.) The Devil! It seems I've stumbled over Gogol!
GOGOL: (Rises.) How disgusting! You can't even rest. (Walks, stumbles over Pushkin and falls.) It seems I've stumbled over Pushkin!
PUSHKIN: (Rising) Not a minute of peace! (Walks, stumbles over Gogol and falls.) The Devil! It seems I've stumbled over Gogol again!
GOGOL: (Rising) Always drunk! (Walks, stumbles over Pushkin and falls.) How disgusting! Again it's Pushkin!
PUSHKIN: (Rising) Hooliganism! Sheer hooliganism! (Walks, stumbles over Gogol and falls.) The Devil! Again it's Gogol!
GOGOL: (Rising) This is sheer mockery! (Walks, stumbles over Pushkin and falls.) Again it's Pushkin!
PUSHKIN: (Rising) The Devil! Really, the Devil! (Walks, stumbles over Gogol and falls.) Gogol!
GOGOL: (Rises.) Disgusting! (Walks, stumbles over Pushkin and falls.) Pushkin!
PUSHKIN: (Rising) The Devil! (Walks, stumbles over Gogol and falls off stage.) Gogol!
GOGOL: (Rising) Disgusting! (Exits.)
(From off stage is heard Gogol's voice: "Pushkin!")
One day Orlov stuffed himself with mashed peas and died. And Krylov, on finding out about this, also died. And Spiridonov died of his own accord. And Spiridonov's wife fell off the sideboard and also died. And Spiridonov's children drowned in the pond. And Spiridonov's grandmother hit the bottle and took to the road. And Mikhailovich stopped combing his hair and went down with mange. And Kruglov sketched a woman with a whip in her hands and went out of his mind. And Perekhrestov received four hundred rubles by wire and put on such airs that he got chucked out of work.
They are good people all - but they can't keep their feet firmly on the ground. (1933)
In 1937-38 Kharms was banned from publishing. “This is how the hunger begins,” he wrote in a poem. Several of his friends had been sent to the Gulag camps in Siberia. Hopelessly, he noted in his journal, “My extermination has begun.” Kharms's longest work, which he wrote in 1939, is the novella “The Old Woman.” The narrator, a writer, reminiscent of Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” finds the corpse of an old woman in his apartment. He has trouble distinguishing dreams from reality and, as it turns out, the old woman possesses supernatural powers. At the end, the narrator loses the suitcase in which he had concealed the woman. The story was filmed by Duane Andersen in 1999, starring Moss and Anna Platanova.
Kharms was arrested again in 1941. Reportedly, on the day of his arrest the caretaker of the block of flats in which he lived called him down in his bedroom slippers, “for a few minutes.” He was apparently charged with spreading defeatist propaganda. Possibly feigning insanity, he was declared mentally ill and sent to a prison psychiatric hospital. Kharms died of starvation in prison in Novosibirsk probably on 2 February 1942.
Hunger and poverty were constant companions of his writings. Indeed, Kharms can lay claim to being the poet of hunger (not for nothing did he take strongly to Knut Hamsun's novel of that name), as the following translation of a verse fragment shows:
This is how hunger begins:
The morning you wake, feeling lively,
Then begins the weakness,
Then begins the boredom;
Then comes the loss
Of the power of quick reason,
Then comes the calmness
And then begins the horror
On his general situation in life, Kharms wrote the following quatrain in 1937:
We've had it now in life's realm,
Of all hope we are now bereft.
Gone are dreams of happiness,
Destitution is all that's left
His brevity goes far beyond any borders of his time: not for nothing did he note in his diary, “garrulity is the mother of mediocrity.”
Kharms was rehabilitated in 1956 during the “thaw” and his writings for children started to appear again in 1962. Kharms's friend, the philosopher Yakov Druskin, had preserved most of the manuscript. After Stalin's death, Sergey Slonimsky composed music to lyrics by Kharms. The first collected editions of his work were printed in the 1970s.