May 11th, 2008


The strange and silly world of Daniil Kharms

I'd never heard of Daniil Kharms, the Leningrad microliterary absurdist and corpse-faced poseur -- he always dressed like an English dandy with a calabash pipe -- before reading Tony Wood's interesting article about him in the current London Review of Books.

He was a follower of the original generation of Soviet formalists, and was persecuted by the Stalinists for his refusal to knuckle down to the kitschy heroic styles with which they displaced and replaced this formalism. Kharms (who named himself after Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps "charms") made some headway as a children's author, but died in a prison hospital during World War II. What I mostly love about his short, silly and hilariously pointless stories is the sense of a childlike glee in breaking the rules, and an obvious relish in the crazy things a single sentence can do. Some of the techniques on display in his stories are things I do in The Book of Jokes. Although they can get Pythonesque in their silliness, they also give glimpses of Russian life in the 20th century.

Anyway, today I thought I'd just lay out some of the short (very short) stories I've found by Kharms in various places on the web.

The Redheaded Man (from The Blue Notebook)
There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily. He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He had no nose either. He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, he had no spine, and he had no innards at all. He didn’t have anything. So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. It’s better that we don’t talk about him any more.

Falling Old Ladies
Because of her excessive curiosity, an old lady fell out of the window and smashed into the ground. Another old lady looked out of the window, staring down at the one who was smashed, but out of her excessive curiosity she also fell out of the window and smashed into the ground. Then the third old lady fell out of the window, then the fourth did, then the fifth. When the sixth old lady fell out of the window, I got bored watching them and went to Maltsev market where, they say, someone gave a woven shawl to a blind person.

Anecdotes from the life of Pushkin (number 7)
Pushkin had four sons and they were all idiots. One of them couldn't even sit on his chair and kept falling off. Pushkin himself was not very good at sitting on his chair either, to be honest. It used to be quite hilarious: they'd be sitting at the table, at one end Pushkin would keep falling off his chair, and at the other end, his son. One wouldn't know where to look.

Symphony no. 2
Anton Mikhailovich spat, said "yuck", spat again, said "yuck" again, spat again, said "yuck" again and left. To hell with him. Instead, let me tell you about Ilya Pavlovich. Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a boy, they moved to St. Petersburg, and there he graduated from the German School on Kirchnaya Street. Then he worked in some shop; then he did something else; and when the revolution began, he emigrated. Well, to hell with him. Instead, let me tell about Anna Ignatievna. But it is not so easy to tell about Anna Ignatievna. Firstly, I know almost nothing about her, and secondly, I have just fallen off my chair, and have forgotten what I was about to say. So let me instead tell you about myself. I am tall, fairly intelligent; I dress prudently and tastefully; I don't drink, I don't bet on horses, but I like ladies. And ladies don't mind me. They like when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna has invited me home several times, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also said that she was always glad to see me. But I was involved in a funny incident with Marina Petrovna, which I would like to recount. A quite ordinary thing, but rather amusing. Because of me, Marina Petrovna lost all her hair -- grew bald as a baby's bottom. It happened like this. Once I went over to visit Marina Petrovna, and -- bang! -- she lost all her hair. And that was that.

An Encounter
On one occasion a man went off to work and on the way he met another man who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was on his way home. And that's just about all there is to it.