Monday, February 11, 2008

Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms

I'm over halfway through reading Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms, a book of selected writings edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich, and I'm loving it. I picked it up, planning to read just a few of the shorter pieces, but they're all short, and compulsively readable and addictively funny. I first read about Kharms's work at Kenyon Review's blog, which mentioned George Saunders's New York Times essay on Kharms's work, and also Matt Bell posted about the essay as well. Big thanks to these people for spreading the word about Kharms's work.

Daniil Kharms grew up during the Bolshevik revolution. He founded the avant-garde collective OBERIU and was eventually arrested and charged with anti-Soviet activities because his writing for children employed an absurd logic and did not uphold the state's materialist dogma. Eventually Kharms starved to death in prison. It's really a shame that his work is only being discovered or at least more widely recognized some seventy plus years later.

Kharms wrote with such sweet sarcasm, intentionally imploding his own absurd and surreal stories set in real life. Most of the stories begin as ordinary stories, as in "A Dream," which begins, "Kalugin fell asleep and had a dream: He's sitting in some bushes and a policeman is walking by." Simple enough. But the very next line of this single-page story goes, "Kalugin woke up, scratched around his mouth and fell asleep again, and again he had a dream: He's walking by the bushes, and in the bushes sits a policeman, hiding." But Kalugin wakes yet again and falls asleep again, the details of his dream shuffling again until "Kalugin screamed and thrashed in his bed, but now he couldn't wake up." So Kalugin sleeps for four days, and when he finally emerges he is pale and thin and is mistaken by the sanitary commission for a piece of trash and he is "folded in half" and thrown away. In "Sonnet" people "forget what comes first--7 or 8" and set out to find someone who can straighten this out for them. But before they get an answer: "luckily, just then somebody's child toppled off a park bench and broke both of its jaws. This distracted us from the argument. After that, everyone went home." And that's the end.

I read the first half of the book this weekend and could not stop myself from laughing out loud at the images conjured by Kharms (and Yankelevich, consequently, as the translator). Most of the pieces are a page or less of violence, humor, and a perfectly absurd logic. Kharms's use of repetition also supplies these pieces with their energy and humor, as already seen in "A Dream," and a micro-play "Pushkin and Gogol," whom Kharms seemed to enjoy transforming into characters dressed like the real thing in his fictions, brilliantly parodying and paying homage to the two seminal Russian absurdists and humorists. In this play, scarcely 200 words long, Pushkin and Gogol trip and fall over one another from one end of the stage to the other, from beginning to end.

PUSHKIN (getting up): Foolery! Foolery all over the place! (Walks, trips over Gogol and falls) What the devil! Gogol again!

GOGOL (getting up): This is mockery, through and through! (Walks, trips on Pushkin and falls) Pushkin again!

And in "The Carpenter Kushakov," said carpenter slips and falls over and over again on the slippery street outside the pharmacy, eventually rendering himself unrecognizable and has to stand outside his own apartment when his family won't let him in. In "The Trunk" a man crawls into a trunk and waits for the air to run out so he can witness the epic struggle between life and death, and when that moment arrives he finds himself lying on the floor of his apartment, the trunk having disappeared. "An Incident Involving Petrakov" begins, "So, once Petrakov wanted to go to sleep but, lying down, missed his bed." Here's the rest (though not from the Yankelevich translation, but close enough for now). I laughed for a long time as I read and re-read this one.

I highly recommend this book. These absurd, hilarious, and often violent little stories and plays are only beginning to get the recognition they have long deserved. Most of the translations available elsewhere on the net are passable contributions, but Matvei Yankelevich really nails what feels like Kharms's sarcastic tone vibrating with frustration and hilarity. Yankelevich has given English readers a great gift in this selection and translation of Daniil Kharms's writings. Sure, I've written this review on having only read half of the book so far, but I think maybe Kharms would dig that. I'll finish it in the next few days, though, certainly.


chris said...

I am now more interested in this book than I was before reading your post, which is to say, I am now interested in getting this book and reading it and learning more about this guy.


Josh Maday said...

I'm glad you're interested, Chris. I think you'll really like his work. I'm going to look into OBERIU some more, too. I'm also glad to know I could at least repay one of the many leads I've gotten from your blog.

CM said...

I must have been channeling Kushakov, when I walked home last night -- I musta fell 6 times, wearing 'dress shoes'. But I could let myself into the house. Interesting post, Josh --
I'll have to pick this book up.

Josh Maday said...

I think you would love Kharms's work, cm. I get that same hilarity when I read his work as when I read your cartoons. You'd love it. And Yankelevich really does a great job translating the absurdity into every sentence. Well worth it. It's tough to put down once you get started reading it. If you pick it up let me know how you like it.

Bradley Sands said...

The old guy who did my lit journal before me was obsessed with Kharms. I think he's pretty ok. I've read The Man With the Black Coat. I liked Alexander Vvedensky more. His play, Christmas at the lvanovs, is one of the greatest things ever. And I usually don't like reading plays.

Josh Maday said...

Bradley, how long have you known about Kharms?

I am going to find the pieces you named.

Thank you for comments.

Thank you for comments.

Bradley Sands said...

I've known about him for about four years.

There used to be a website called The New Absurdist. It is dead. Absurdist writers would post their fiction there. Kharms was very popular amongst those authors.

That play that I mentioned is in the book, The Man With the Black Coat. I thought I had said that already, but know it looks like I was unclear. Kharms is in that book also and maybe another author. You can probably find it at a library. It would be cool for you if none of the stories from it appear in Today I Wrote Nothing.

Josh Maday said...

Okay, I know which book you're talking about now. I'm going to get ahold of that thing. It would be great if none of the stories are in Today I Wrote Nothing, indeed. Thanks for clarifying. I'm slow most of the time.