Daniil Kharms, Master of Deadpan, Father of the Absurd
Grotesque deaths in miniature are a hallmark of the work of Daniil Kharms. In one of his short stories, several women throw themselves out of the same apartment block window, each shattering upon impact. In another, a man dies from eating too much: “One day Orlov stuffed himself with mashed peas and died. Krylov, having heard the news, also died. And Spiridonov died regardless…”
The latter, an absurdist gem, is especially poignant, since Kharms died of starvation in a psych ward of a Soviet hospital during the Seige of Leningrad in 1942. The avant-garde author had been basically imprisoned there for his artistic subversion, and according to absurdist American writer George Saunders, perhaps also "his general strangeness."
Finally, seventy years after his death, all of his scribbled short prose, poetry and theater scenes have been deciphered and published. Kharms has been catapulted into the canon of modern literature of Russia and Europe—just like that.
Many view his absurdity as a political seismogram from an evil age. "Incidences", a work replete with chain dances of death, was written in 1936, during the reign of terror known as Stalin's Great Purge. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were convicted of anti-Soviet crimes, from leading uprisings to associating with known Trotskyites; many died in penal colonies or were executed.
But Kharms is so much more than a "right-place, right-time," writer. He was a playful artist who could be as terrifying as Kafka and as humorous as Beckett.
Born Daniil Yuvachev, Kharms was too late for the Silver Age of literature in St Petersburg. When Kharms founded literary circles such as the “Left Flank” and OBERIU (The Union of Real Art) in the mid-1920s, the Soviet policy on culture and education had already begun to tighten the screws.
“When verses are taken from a page and hurled at a window they should shatter glass,” Kharms once said. An imposing bohemian figure with a stovepipe hat and pipe, he preferred reading his poems aloud. He felt his life and art were the same. “I’m the same as all of you, just better.”
Kharms was first arrested in 1932. His standing within the intelligentsia reached new heights in 1935, when he wrote and delivered the poetic eulogy at the funeral of his friend Kazimir Malevich, the revered suprematist painter and creator of the painting, "Black Square."
Like many artists before and after him, Kharms found a precarious sanctuary in children’s literature, which was less restrictive and censored. However, his second wife Marina Malitch admitted that he despised children. “It really is inexplicable that despite his utter contempt for children he was able to write such wonderful stories for them. When he would show up to a matinée and perform magic tricks, he held the children in the palm of his hand. In the Leningrad-based publications Yozhik (The Hedgehog), he wrote poetry that was just as ironic and subversive as what he composed for adults.