St Petersburg

Daniil Kharms (1926)

Kharms portrays his
non-existent brother,
Ivan Ivanovich Kharms,
lecturer at
St Petersburg University

Daniil Kharms and Alisa Poret

Who was Daniil Kharms?

Daniil Kharms was: a pipe-smoking St Petersburg bachelor, an author of stories for children, a wearer of outlandish clothes and pseudonyms ('Kharms' perhaps a hybrid of the French 'charmes' and the English 'harms' was only one of a large wardrobe kept by Daniil to suit every occasion; his real name was Daniil Yuvachev), a regular arrestee for alleged political offences including spying for a foreign power, and a member of OBERIU, the Union of Realist Art. He was also an absurdist poet and prose writer of the 20s, 30s, and early 40s - perhaps the St Petersburg poet and prose writer of his generation.

If he was so good, why isn't he better known?

Two reasons. Firstly, the bulk of Kharms' serious (i.e. adult) work was never published in his lifetime or for long after. Secondly, Kharms' absurdist writings are commonly supposed to be untranslatable.

Meaning: they're full of difficult words?

No. On the contrary, much of what Kharms wrote is in language so simple it could be understood by a child. What is supposed to be impossible to translate is the emotional tenor and humour of Kharms' work, the ironic or bitter or tragic slant to his absurdism. In Kharms' writings people die like flies (in large numbers, undramatically, and without warning, making no difference to their surroundings); dogs fly; corpses crawl; and the dead come back to life just as suddenly and undramatically as they left it, making just as little difference to their surroundings. This may seem like so much playing around with reality for the sake of mere literary effect.

Was Kharms merely playing around?

Well, he did once write, 'I am interested only in nonsense, only in what makes no practical sense '; but 'nonsense' doesn't have to imply a lack of seriousness. Not all nonsense is idle nonsense. Remember that Kharms was an absurdist who called himself a realist - he was a founding member of OBERIU.

Just another playful paradox?

No, I don't think so. Kharms' absurdism is real in the sense that it reflects the real life of his time, perhaps the real spirit of this city. If people die suddenly and in large numbers in his writings, so did people in St Petersburg at the time - from starvation, from the war, from Stalin. And so did Kharms himself, in a prison hospital in 1942, after arrest as a foreign spy - which, of course, he was not. And if people in his writings come back to life and dogs fly, is that really so absurd compared with communism itself - or people crying at the death of Stalin. The absurd was the only reality Kharms knew.