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Daniil Kharms





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Daniil Kharms (Russian: Дании́л Ива́нович Хармс; 30 December [O.S. 17 December] 1905 – 2 February 1942) was an early Soviet-era surrealist and absurdist poet, writer and dramatist. He signed his name in Latin alphabet as Daniel Charms.


Life
Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev (Даниил Иванович Ювачёв) was born in St. Petersburg, into the family of Ivan Yuvachev, a well known member of the revolutionary group, The People's Will. By this time the elder Yuvachev had already been imprisoned for his involvement in subversive acts against the tsar Alexander III and had become a religious philosopher, acquaintance of Anton Chekhov during the latter's trip to Sakhalin.

Daniil invented the pseudonym Kharms while attending high school at the prestigious German "Peterschule". While at the Peterschule, he learned the rudiments of both English and German, and it may have been the English "harm" and "charm" that he incorporated into "Kharms". Throughout his career Kharms used variations on his name and the pseudonyms DanDan, Khorms, Charms, Shardam, and Kharms-Shardam, among others. It is rumored that he scribbled the name Kharms directly into his passport.

In 1924, he entered the Leningrad Electrotechnicum, from which he was expelled for "lack of activity in social activities". After his expulsion, he gave himself over entirely to literature. He joined the circle of Aleksandr Tufanov, a sound-poet, and follower of Velemir Khlebnikov's ideas of zaum (or trans-sense) poetry. He met the young poet Alexander Vvedensky at this time, and the two became close friends and inseparable collaborators.

In 1927, the Association of Writers of Children's Literature was formed, and Kharms was invited to be a member. From 1928 until 1941, Kharms continually produced children's works and had a great success.

In 1928, Daniil Kharms founded the avant-garde collective OBERIU, or Union of Real Art. He embraced the new movements of Russian Futurism laid out by his idols, Khlebnikov, Kazimir Malevich, and Igor Terentiev, among others. Their ideas served as a springboard. His aesthetic centered around a belief in the autonomy of art from real world rules and logic, and the intrinsic meaning to be found in objects and words outside of their practical function.

By the late 1920s, his antirational verse, nonlinear theatrical performances, and public displays of decadent and illogical behavior earned Kharms — who always dressed like an English dandy with a calabash pipe — the reputation of being a talented but highly eccentric “fool” or “crazy-man” in Leningrad cultural circles.

Even then, in the late 20s, despite rising criticism of the OBERIU performances and diatribes against the avant-garde in the press, Kharms nurtured a fantasy of uniting the progressive artists and writers of the time (Malevich, Filonov, Terentiev, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Kaverin, Zamyatin) with leading Russian Formalist critics (Tynianov, Shklovsky, Eikhenbaum, Ginzburg, etc.,) and a younger generation of writers (all from the OBERIU crowd—Alexander Vvedensky, Konstantin Vaginov, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Igor Bakhterev), to form a cohesive cultural movement of Left Art. Needless to say it didn't happen that way.

Kharms was arrested in 1931 together with Vvedensky, Tufanov and some other writers, and was in exile from his hometown (forced to live in the city of Kursk) for most of a year. He was arrested as a member of "a group of anti-Soviet children's writers", and some of his works were used as an evidence. Soviet authorities, having become increasingly hostile toward the avant-garde in general, deemed Kharms’ writing for children anti-Soviet because of its absurd logic and its refusal to instill materialist and social Soviet values.

He continued to write for children's magazines when he returned from exile, though his name would appear in the credits less often. His plans for more performances and plays were curtailed, the OBERIU disbanded, and Kharms receded into a very private writing life. He wrote for the desk drawer, for his wife, Marina Malich, and for a small group of friends, the “Chinari”, who met privately to discuss matters of philosophy, music, mathematics, and literature.

In the 1930s, as the mainstream Soviet literature was becoming more and more conservative under the guidelines of Socialist Realism, Kharms found refuge in children's literature. (He had worked under Marshak at DetGiz, the state-owned children's publishing house since the mid-1920s, writing new material and translating children literature from the west, including Wilhelm Busch's Max and Moritz). Many of his poems and short stories for children, published in the Chizh (Чиж), Yozh (ж), Sverchok (Сверчок) and Oktyabryata (Октябрята) magazines, are considered classics of the genre and his roughly twenty children's books are well known and loved by kids to this day, - despite his personal deep disgust for children, unknown to the public - whereas his "adult" writing was not published during his lifetime with the sole exceptions of two early poems. Still, these were lean times and his honorariums didn't quite pay the bills, plus the editors in the children's publishing sector were suffering under extreme pressure and censorship and some were disposed of during Stalin's purges.

Thus, Kharms lived in debt and hunger for several years until his final arrest on suspicion of treason in the summer of 1941 (most people with a previous arrest were being picked up by the NKVD in those times). He was imprisoned in the psychiatric ward at Leningrad Prison No. 1. and died in his cell in February, 1942—most likely, from starvation, as the Nazi blockade of Leningrad had already begun. His work was saved from the war by loyal friends and hidden until the 1960s when his children’s writing became widely published and scholars began the job of recovering his manuscripts and publishing them in the west and in samizdat.

His reputation in the 20th century in Russia was largely based on his widely beloved work for children. His other writings (a vast assortment of stories, miniatures, plays, poems, and pseudo-scientific, philosophical investigations) were virtually unknown until 1970's, and not published officially in Russia until "glasnost".

Works
Kharms' stories are typically brief vignettes (see also short prose and feuilleton) often only a few paragraphs long, in which scenes of poverty and deprivation alternate with fantastic, dreamlike occurrences and acerbic comedy. Occasionally they incorporate incongruous appearances by famous authors (e.g.: Pushkin and Gogol tripping over each other; Count Leo Tolstoy showing his chamber pot to the world; Pushkin and his sons falling off their chairs; etc.)

He was married twice (to Esther Rusakova and Marina Malich). His wives sometimes appear in those of his poems that are lyrical or erotic.

The poet often professed his extreme abhorrence of children and pets, as well as old people; his career as a children's writer notwithstanding.

Kharms' world is unpredictable and disordered; characters repeat the same actions many times in succession or otherwise behave irrationally; linear stories start to develop but are interrupted in midstream by inexplicable catastrophes that send them in completely different directions.

His manuscripts were preserved by his sister and, most notably, by his friend Yakov Druskin, a notable music theorist and amateur theologist and philosopher, who dragged a suitcase full of Kharms's and Vvedensky's writings out of Kharms's apartment during the blockade of Leningrad and kept it hidden throughout difficult times.

Kharms' adult works were picked up by Russian samizdat starting around the 1960s, and thereby did have an influence on the growing "unofficial" arts scene. (Moscow Conceptualist artists and writers such as Kabakov, Prigov, Rubinstein, were influenced by this newly found avant-garde predecessor).

A complete collection of his works was published in Bremen as four volumes, in 1978-1988. In Russia, Kharms works were widely published only from the late 1980s. Now several editions of Kharms's collected works and selected volumes have been published in Russia, and collections are now available in German, French and Italian. In 2004 a selection of his works appeared in Irish.

As for English translations—oddly, many have appeared of late in American literary journals. In the 1970s George Gibbian at Cornell published the first English collection of OBERIU writing, which included stories and a play by Daniil Kharms and one play by Alexander Vvedensky. Gibbian's translations appeared in Annex Press magazine in 1978. In the early 1990s a slim selected volume translated into British English by Neil Cornwell came out in England. New translations of all the members of the OBERIU group (and their closely knit group of friends, the Chinari) appeared in Summer, 2006 in the USA (OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism, containing poetry, drama and prose by Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Nikolai Oleinikov, Leonid Lipavsky and Yakov Druskin, edited Eugene Ostashevsky and translated by Matvei Yankelevich, Thomas Epstein, Genya Turovskaya, Eugene Ostashevsky and Ilya Bernstein.), including not only prose, but plays, poetry, and philosophical tracts and treatises, with an introduction by Eugene Ostashevsky (not Susan Sontag, who is on some websites advertised as the author of the foreword). An English translation of a collection of his works, translated by Matvei Yankelevich, was published in 2007. Its title is Today I Wrote Nothing and includes poems, plays, short prose pieces, and his novella "The Old Woman". Some poems were also translated by Roman Turovsky.
 

 

 
 
 
 
 

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