Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Russian Absurd by Daniil Kharms

Russian Absurd: Selected Writings by Daniil Kharms
English translation by Alex Cigale published in America by Northwestern University Press today, the 15th February 2017.

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How I got this book:
Received a copy from its publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A writer who defies categorization, Daniil Kharms has come to be regarded as an essential artist of the modernist avant-garde. His writing, which partakes of performance, narrative, poetry, and visual elements, was largely suppressed during his lifetime, which ended in a psychiatric ward where he starved to death during the siege of Leningrad. His work, which survived mostly in notebooks, can now be seen as one of the pillars of absurdist literature, most explicitly manifested in the 1920s and ’30s Soviet Union by the OBERIU group, which inherited the mantle of Russian futurism from such poets as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov. This selection of prose and poetry provides the most comprehensive portrait of the writer in English translation to date, revealing the arc of his career and including a particularly generous selection of his later work.

I don't think I have ever read absurdist writing before so expected to struggle somewhat with Daniil Kharms' ideas. The book is more or less in chronological order of writing date and I did find the earliest work simply baffling. However I stuck with it and am glad I did as by the time I got to his discussion of infinity I realised I not only understood the essay, but was enjoying it too. Another story that I particularly liked was Connections. I am not sure if my brain began to attune to Kharms or if his ideas became more accessible as time passed. He describes fascinating snapshots of everyday Soviet life - communal apartments, food queues, unexpected police visits. One story revolves around the inconvenience of a man sleeping on an apartment corridor floor. Other residents have to repeatedly step over him, yet the building supervisor cannot evict him because the authorities have allocated the man to this apartment although he is not allocated a room.

I think it is important to remember that Russian Absurd is compiled from notebooks that Kharms did not expect to see published. There is a raw quality to his words and several of the selected pieces are snippets and short ideas. I didn't like his chauvinism which treats young women as objects to be leered at and reduces older women to figures of fun. A banned author relegated to a mental institution at the time of his early death though, I could see an increasing sense of disassociation in his later stories. Kharms writes more on philosophical and religious subjects than on observations of life around him. The inclusion of his actual NKVD 'confession' is chilling especially after having read Nir Baram's Good People which, albeit fictionally, illustrated the horrific results of such confessions. Overall I found Russian Absurd a sobering book to read. Its contrasting silliness and shocking darkness were often difficult for me to reconcile and, while I am glad to have read this book, I don't think this is a genre I would want to revisit too frequently.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Daniil Kharms / Short stories / Books from Russia


  1. "Absurdist writing" is a thing? I don't think I've heard of that term before. I might have to do a bit of reading about this.

    1. It is a thing and a dark, surrealist thing at that. Incredible ideas, but not for reading too late at night!

  2. I don't think this is one for me. Even though it does sound interesting, I usually can't stand absurdist works... so I don't think this book and I would do very well.

    1. I'd describe it as an acquired taste! Once I got into the style, I did enjoy the book but Absurdist writing isn't a genre I would revisit often.