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by Bamber Gascoigne

Daniil Kharms - December 17 (Old Style) / December 30 (New Style), 1905 - 1942


Poet, short story writer, and dramatist, a representative of avant-garde trends in the Soviet literature before Socialist Realism was declared the only acceptable form of artistic expression. 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 (the city was to change its name twice). His father, Ivan Pavlovitch Iuvachev, was a revolutionary, who became a pacifist writer after returning from his imprisonment in Siberia. His texts he sent to Leo Tolstoy, who dismissed them as too fantastic for his taste. In St. Petersburg he made a career as a scientist and religious writer. Nadezhda Ivanova Koliubakina, Kharms's mother, ran a women's shelter.

Kharms attended school in Tsarskoe Selo, and continued then in the privileged German Peterschule (1915-22), and Second Soviet Labour School (1922-24). In 1925 he entered the Leningrad Electro-Technical College but did not graduate. In 1926 he enrolled on film course at the Institute of the History of the Arts. In 1925 he married Ester Aleksandrovna Rusakova, a member of an old émigré revolutionary family. They divorced in 1932. In 1934 Kharms married Marina Vladimirovna Malich to whom he dedicated a special notebook of his prose pieces.

Kharms was associated with the abstract painter Kazimir Malevich, who had established the Suprematist school of art. He was also a member of the poet Aleksander Tufanov's group Orden Zaumnikov DSO. From 1925 attended the philosophical discussion circle known as the "chinari". Its other central members included Aleksandr Vvedenskii, Nikolai Oleinikov, Leonid Lipavskii, Tamara Lipavskaia, and Iakov Druskin. With his friend Vvedenskii he co-founded the School of Chinari in 1926. Several members of the group were arrested in the Great Purge in 1937. Vvdedenski was arrested again in Kharkov and he died in 1941 on route to Siberia. Kharms' second wife Malich survived the communist era.

In 1926, Kharms joined the Petrograd branch of the All-Russian Union of Poets but three years later he was exluded. During this period, two of his poems were published anthologies produced by the Union of Poets. They were the only poems for adult readers which were printed during his lifetime. Kharms also participated in public reading of poetry, already using his pseudonym, which perhaps was created from the words 'charms' or 'charme' and 'harms'. His other pen-names included 'Charms', 'Dandan', 'Shardam', 'Kharms-Shardam' and 'Karl Ivanovich Shusterling'.

His own life Kharms made a piece of art. He was tall and long-haired, and due to his fascination with Sherlock Holmes, he dressed in a British-style jacket. His apartment 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 the poet Nikolay Zabolotsky, one of the foremost Soviet poets.

In his early poems Kharms 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 ordinary logic and rationality of the world. Anna Akhmatova said, that Kharms "managed to do what almost no one else could, write the so-called prose of the twentieth century."

Alongside Igor Bakhterev and Vvedenskii, Kharms collaborated with the experimental theatre group Radiks'. He hoped to expand Radiks' even further and publish an anthology of its material. These plans never came to fruition. With Zabolotsky, Konstantin Vaghinov and others, he was a founder-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". An article, which appeared in the Petersburg newspaper Smena (Change) and which declared the poetry of OBERIU counterrevolutionary, marked not only the end of absurdist performances but the Russian modernism itself. Very few of the founders of the group escaped jail and exile. Zabolotsky spent the years 1938 to 1946 at various labour camps in Siberia. Vaghinov died ill and penniless in 1934.

Elizaveta Bam, Kharms' absurdist drama, which was produced in 1928 at the Leningrad Press Club, was a part of OBERIU evening. This performance was poorly reviewed by the Leningrad Krasnaya gazeta (Red Gazette). However, nowadays Elizaveta Bam is considered a precursor of Eugène Ionesco's theater of the absurd. In its Kafkaesque or anarchistic world of false accusation Elizaveta is accused of committing 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. Kharms started to publish literature for children in the journal Ezh, which changed its name later into Chizh. 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. Even in the 1930s, fairytales offered a way to express ideas that could not be articulated within the constraints of the party line. Kharms' poem 'Ivan Ivanych Samovar' is considered a classic of Soviet children's literature. His most famous work became Vo-pervyh i vo-vtoryh from 1929.

After Stalin had 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 create Soviet Writers' Union, which was to "unite 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 Saint Petersburg. In 1934 Kharms became a member of the Soviet Writers' Union.

Despite the increasing misery of the 1930s, Kharms managed to produce some  of his best works. Between 1933 and 1939 he wrote a cycle of stories and sketches called Sluchai (Incidents), which not only continued the tradition of Pushkin and Gogol but also reflected the reality of totalitarian rule and challenged the everyday logic and causality. In one dramatic sketch Pushkin and Gogol even stumble repeatedly on each other. "What the devil! Seems I've tripped over Gogol again!" says Pushkin. 'Starucha' (The Old Woman), about a writer and an old lady whose clock is handless, is considered the highest expression of Kharms' prose writing. These short pieces, some of which were under ten lines long, were first published in the Soviet Union in 1988.

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' longest work, which he wrote in 1939, is the novella The Old Woman, set in St. Petersburg. The narrator is a writer, a reminiscent of Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, finds the corpse of an old woman in his apartment. He has troubles distinguishing dreams from reality and the old woman turns out to possess supernatural powers. At the end, the narrator loses the suitcase, in which he concealed the woman. The story has been filmed by Duane Andersen (1999), starring Bryan D. Moss and Anna Platanova.

Kharms was arrested again in 1941, after Germany attacked the USSR. Possibly feigning insanity, he was declared mentally ill and sent to a prison psychiatric hospital. Kharms died of starvation in prison in Novosibirsk (Leningrad in some sources), probably on February 2, 1942. Kharms was rehabilitated in 1956 during the 'thaw', and his writings for children started to appear again in 1962. Kharms' friend, the philosopher Yakov Druskin, managed to preserve most of the manuscript. After Stalin's death Sergei Slonimsky composed music to lyrics by Kharms. The first collected editions of his work were printed in the 1970s. The K-Press in Bremen started to publish Kharms' collected works in the late 1970s, but the edition work was done in Leningrad.

For further reading: Nabokov, Vian, and Kharms: From Solipsism to Dialogue by Margaret Simonton (2005); 'The Kharmsian Absurd: Against Kand and Causality,' in Bergson and Russian Modernism, 1900-1930 by Hilary L. Fink (1999); Reference Guide to Russien Literature, ed. by Neil Cornwell (1998); The Last Soviet Avant-Garde: OBERIU - Fact, Fiction, Metafiction by Graham Roberts (1997); 'Introduction: Daniil Kharms' by Neil Cornwell, in Incidents by Daniil Kharms (1993); Aspects of Dramatic Communication by Jenny Stelleman (1992); Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd, ed. by Neil Cornwell (1991); Laughter in the Void: An Introduction to the Writings of Daniil Harms and Aleksandr Vvedenskii by Alice Stone (1982); Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd by G. Gibian (1974) -  Note: Kharms' birthdate is some sources: December 25 (New Style), 1905; in this calendar: December 30 (New Style), 1905

Selected works:

  • Komediia goroda Peterburga, 1927 (prod.)
  • Elizaveta Bam, 1928 (prod.)
  • Vo-pervyh i vo-vtoryh, 1929
  • Sluchai, 1933-39 (written)
    - Incidents (edited and translated by Neil Cornwell, 2006)
    - Sattumia (suom. Katja Losowitch, 1988)
  • Starukha, 1939 (written)
  • Russia's Losat Literature of the Absurd: A Literary Discovery. Selected Works of Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, 1971 (edited and translated by George Gibian)
  • 12 povarov, 1972
  • Izbrannoe, 1974 (edited by George Gibian)
  • Sobranie proizvedenii, 1978- (4 vols., edited by Mikhail Meilakh and Vladimir Erl)
  • Iz domu vyshel chelovek, 1982
  • Polet v nebesa: stikhi, proza, dramy, pis'ma, 1988 (edited by A.A. Aleksandrov)
  • The Plummeting Old Women, 1989 (edited and translated by Neil Cornwell, with an afterword by Hugh Maxton)
  • The Story of a Boy Named Will, Who Went Sledding Down the Hill, 1993 (Kak Volodia bystro pod goru letel; translated by Jamey Gambrell, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1994-95 (2 vols.)
  • The Old Woman - Starukha, 1995
  • First, Second, 1996 (translated by Richard Pevear, pictures by Marc Rosenthal)
    - Ensiksikin ja toiseksi (koonnut ja suomentanut Katja Losowitch, 2002)
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1997-
  • Man With the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd: Selected Works of Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, 1997 (edited and translated by George Gibian)
  • It Happened Like This: Stories and Poems, 1998 (translated by Ian Frazier, pictures by Katya Arnold)
  • KHARMSiada: anegdoty: komiksy iz zhizni velikikh, 1999 (ed. Vladimir Levtov, Aleksei Nikitin) 
  • O iavleniiakh i sushchestvovaniiakh, 1999 (ed. D. Tokareva) 
  • Dnei katybr: izbrannye stikhotvoreniia, poemy, dramaticheskie proizvedeniia, 1999 (ed. Mikhaila Meilakha) 
  • Zhizn' cheloveka na vetru: stikhotvoreniia, p"esy, 2000
  • Povest', rasskazy, molitvy, poemy, stseny, vodevili, dramy, stat'i, traktaty, kvazitraktaty, 2000 (ed. R. Grishchenkova)
  • Na smert' Kazimira Malevicha, 2000 (litographs by by Mikh. Karasika)
  • Sluchai i veshchi, 2004 (ed. Alekseia Dmitrenko et al.)
  • Sto, 2005
  • The Blue Notebook, 2005 (translated by Matvei Yankelevich)
  • Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, 2007 (translated by Matvei Yankelevich)
  • Tetrad': stikhi i proza dlia detei, 2007 (ed.  A. Dmitrenko)
  • Stikhotvoreniia, dramaticheskie proizvedeniia, 2007 (ed. V.N. Sazhina)

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