Kharms and the man

The only reason why I know the name of Daniil Kharms at all has to do with the brief and clumsy courtship between India and the Soviet Union. Its side effects marked both the Babu and the Partner, since one of the ways in which the glorious friendship between the peoples of these two ancient countries was promoted was through chess clubs, and another was through cheap, colourfully illustrated translations of Russian books for children. We grew up reading Blyton and Tagore, but also books like these: The Firebird, and other Russian folk tales, Olga Perevskaya’s Kids and Cubs, a book called When Daddy Was A Little Boy, a terrifying allegory called The Three Fat Men, a whole sheafload of Young Pioneer stories. Daniil Kharms, not the regime’s blue-eyed boy, didn’t make it here with the officially approved books; one of my father’s friends was posted to Russia for a year, and he came back with Kharms’ stories.

This profile explains why Kharms was so unusual; he’s being celebrated again, if in very strange ways:

“But with his dark humor and often cruel absurdity – one of his classic prose sketches describes an apparently endless series of old women falling from windows – Kharms has yet to attract the following that his illustrious predecessors have.
Alexander Skidan believes that should change….
Kharms’ playfulness, Skidan said by telephone on Tuesday, is a strategy for presenting his dark conception of human reality. The inexplicable disappearances and cartoonish violence in his work correspond not only to the realities of Stalinist Russia, but to “the violence and brutality hidden in every human subject. … His hilarity is due to his ability to combine this mocking aesthetic texture with the much darker matters behind this aesthetic,” Skidan said.
Hilarity was more evident than horror at a series of outdoor performances celebrating the Kharms centennial last weekend. On Sunday afternoon, several hundred people gathered at 11 Ulitsa Mayakovskogo, the address where Kharms lived for 15 years, and cheered while old women fell from windows. Artists dangled the life-sized dolls from the roof while a clownish MC declaimed and a band played Dixieland jazz.
Bureaucratic snags prevented the planned unveiling of a memorial plaque to the writer, but a hand-painted substitute was smacked on an outside wall in its place. The gathering then moved into a nearby courtyard, where local students’ groups offered fashion shows and musical performances – and briefly shared the stage with an ostrich.”

Update: (From BoingBoing) There’s an online exhibit on children’s books in the Soviet era here.

2 comments

  1. The Soviet writing scene was a lot livlier in the 1920s- there was experimentation and even “debate” before the WWII and subsequent repression set in. A lot of literature is yet to come out of those years, but of late there have been some discoveries- Andrei Platonov for one- a mildly absurdist writer (one of his characters lights a cigarette while falling down from a airplane with her parachute failing to open). One writer who needs to be better known than he currently is Vasili Grossman- the publication of his novel ‘Life and Fate’ evinced a brief period of interest in the 1960s and has ben compared with War and Peace. In my view, rightly so. Sandro Maria- the Hungarian writer who migrated to the US is another one.

  2. oh my god!!.. this reads like the exact same list of books i read as a kid!!.. i was googling the names of the animals from “kids and cubs” when i stumbled upon ur blog.. brings back such fond memories.. sniff…

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