The Anti-Canon Series: Daniil Kharms by Gareth Rees

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving of more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

Kharms1
Kharms1

A few months before 36 year old outlaw writer Daniil Kharms starves to death in a psychiatric prison in 1942, a German bomb hits a block of flats during the siege of Leningrad. One side of the block is destroyed. On the other side, windows implode. Inside one of those shattered apartments. Kharms’ second wife, Marina Malich and philosopher Yakuc Drukin frantically gather up his papers and notebooks. These fragments floating through the bomb blasted air are his collected works. They’re what’s left of him.

Included in the notes are a series of thirty violent, absurd prose miniatures called ‘Incidents’. The writing is sparse. Plots stripped to the brutal bare bones. In the first piece, even those narrative bones are reduced to nothing,

The Red-Haired Man

There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears. Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.

He couldn't speak, since he didn't have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose.

He didn't even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all! Therefore there's no knowing whom we are even talking about.

In fact it's better that we don't say any more about him. (1937)

Kharms’ narrative writes itself into extinction before your very eyes. But this is not simply an exercise in absurdist humour. It is the reality of his life in Stalinist Russia. At the time of writing Incidences Kharms had been banned from publishing any of his work after a decade of harassment and censorship. Many of his associates had been sent to gulags, never to return. These secretive short works were written on the very precipice of existence. In one of his journals he lamented: “My extermination has begun.” His outrage and helplessness is expressed in mad prose vignettes which read like frustration dreams:

The Plummeting Old Women

A certain old woman, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of a window, plummeted to the ground, and was smashed to pieces.

Another old woman leaned out of the window and began looking at the remains of the first one, but she also, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of the window, plummeted to the ground and was smashed to pieces.

Then a third old woman plummeted from the window, then a fourth, then a fifth.

By the time a sixth old woman had plummeted down, I was fed up watching them, and went off to Mal’tseviskiy Market where, it was said, a knitted shawl had been given to a certain blind man.

The old women are trapped in a violent loop, interminable and inescapable. Their deaths become so commonplace that the narrator is bored into leaving the scene.

In another piece entitled, ‘Pushkin and Gogol’, the two famous Russian writers emerge onto a stage and proceed to trip over each other, continually, over and over again. “It’s a vile abomination! Tripped over Pushkin again!” says Gogol as he falls. “What the devil! Tripped over Gogol again!” roars Pushkin. This continues until the curtain falls. In Kharms’ works, as in his life, people are locked in a daily struggle for survival that is both macabre and mundane. Then they disappear. Just like that.

DaniilKarms2
DaniilKarms2

Kharms, born in December 1905, was a tall, strange-looking man who dressed like an English Dandy, with pipe, hat and coat. In photos he has the air of a Soviet Tom Waits. He was obsessed with black magic, the occult and Sherlock Holmes. In the 1920s he founded the Association of Real Art, an avant-garde collective of Russian Futurist writers and artists. He wrote absurdist short stories and poetry, which were published in underground magazines. He was also a children’s writer, despite making public statements like this: “I don't like children, old men, old women and the reasonable middle-aged. To poison children - that would be harsh. But, hell, something needs to be done with them!”

When Stalin assumed full power he disbanded literary organizations and created the Soviet Writers' Union, arresting anyone who didn’t tag along. In 1931 Kharms was accused of anti-Soviet activities – namely, writing literature that lacked any semblance of rationality or logic - and sent into exile to Kursk. When he returned some months later, he was told he could only publish literature for children. Even then, they were keeping an eye on him. Kharms worked for the children's publishing house Detzig but was banned from writing altogether between 1937-38. During this time he continued writing his ‘Incidents’ series in private. This truly outsider art was never written to be read. The stories (if you can call them that) perpetuated the absurdist style of his hero, Gogol, but were also a protest against life under totalitarian rule. Take ‘An Encounter’, for example:

An encounter

On one occasion a man went off to work and on the way he met another man who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was going his way home.

And that's just about all there is to it.

The brilliance of this minimalism is that it satirises the society in which Kharms lived without stating anything remotely incriminating. There’s nothing that can be picked apart here. In this way it’s supremely modernist work, but the effect is not created for aesthetic reasons. The only way to challenge the logic of tyranny was to abandon logic, narrative and rationality altogether. Not that this would save Kharms in the end.

However, the biggest reason I love Kharms is not for his heroic refusal to engage in authoritarian narratives, but because he is one of the few writers, along with Kurt Vonnegut and Laurence Sterne, who are able to make me laugh out loud. In every stroke of his pen, Kharms exudes comic brilliance. Take the opening to Fedya Davidovich:

Fedya kept prowling round the butter-dish and finally, seizing the moment when his wife was bending over to cut a toe-nail, he quickly, in a single movement, took all the butter out of the butter-dish with his finger and shoved it into his mouth. As he was covering the butter-dish, Fedya accidentally clattered the lid: his wife straightened up immediately and, spotting the empty butter-dish, pointed at it with the scissors, saying in a severe tone: -- The butter's not in the butter-dish. Where is it?

Fedya's eyes flashed in surprise and, extending his neck, he had a look into the butter-dish.

-- That's butter you've got in your mouth -- said his wife, pointing the scissors at Fedya.

Fedya began shaking his head in denial.

-- Aha -- said his wife -- you say nothing and shake your head because your mouth's full of butter.

Fedya finally escapes from his scissor-wielding wife who, it turns out, is completely naked and can’t follow him down the corridor. He steals into a dirty room where a pale man with freshly washed feet is reclining on a sofa. Fedya regurgitates the butter and presents it to the man who then fails to pay him and tells him to bugger off.

Kharms3
Kharms3

In 1939 Kharms wrote his longest surviving piece, ‘The Old Woman’. In this story a manic writer is visited in his apartment by an old woman who demands he kneel before her in submission. As sprawls on the floor, she sits in a chair, where she promptly dies. The narrator describes her teeth “sticking out of her mouth” so that she “looks like a dead horse.”

“What did she die in my room for?” he complains. “I can’t stand dead people.” Instead of dealing with the problem he heads into the city where he has a romantic dalliance in the queue at the bakery, only to realise he can’t invite the woman back to his flat because of the corpse. He goes for a vodka drinking session with a friend then returns to the apartment. When he opens the door he sees the dead woman crawling across the floor towards him. There follows an extraordinary passage in which the narrator considers the notion of the undead. “They need to be watched and watched,” he warns. “Ask any mortuary watchman.” In relating incidences of the dead coming to life in mortuaries, he describes how one corpse, “crawled as far as the maternity ward and so frightened the inmates that one child-bearer produced a premature foetus on the spot, while the deceased pounced smartly on the fruits of the miscarriage and began to devour it, champing away vigorously.”

As he was writing this Kharms must have suspected that he too was one of the walking dead. He was arrested again in 1941, charged with spreading defeatist propaganda, and sent to a psychiatric prison hospital where it is believe that he died of starvation in February 1942. Nobody knows exactly how and when he died. As with many of his fictions, Kharms simply stopped being.

“And that's just about all there is to it.”

Gareth's debut novel, Marshlands, will be published by Influx Press this autumn