DaniilKharms as minimalist-absurdist
Story Without Title
There were about eleven of us in the room amd we all talked an awful lot.
It was a warm May evening.
Suddenly we all fell silent.
– ‘Gentlemen, it’s time to go!’ said one of us.
We stood up and went . . .
(anonymous parody of Turgenev’s ‘Prose Poems’, 1883)1
A Kharms sketch
The basic facts about Kharms have now become common knowledge, but
might still be worth brief recapitulation here.2 ‘DaniilKharms’ was the
main, and subsequently the sole, pen-name of Daniil Ivanovich Iuvachev
(1905–42). The son
This book offers a comprehensive account of the absurd in prose fiction. As well as providing a basis for courses on absurdist literature (whether in fiction or in drama), it offers a broadly based philosophical background. Sections covering theoretical approaches and an overview of the historical literary antecedents to the ‘modern’ absurd introduce the largely twentieth-century core chapters. In addition to discussing a variety of literary movements (from Surrealism to the Russian OBERIU), the book offers detailed case studies of four prominent exponents of the absurd: Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Daniil Kharms and Flann O'Brien. There is also wide discussion of other English-language and European contributors to the phenomenon of the absurd.
the proceedings, as perhaps is already obvious, began to make similar incursions. Nabokov, DaniilKharms and Orhan Pamuk make brief intrusions. Even Boris Akunin’s Pelagia & The Black Monk , with its overt play on Chekhov’s figure, as well as on works by Dostoevsky, could encroach too on detection (though employing a non-psychic conventual sleuth) and on at least elements towards science fiction. Moreover, Akunin even casts a nod at Odoevsky – if only as the (unnamed) writer of ever-popular children’s fiction, by alluding to his story ‘The Little Town in the
other chronological end of the scale, we have earlier briefly noted
the pre-war work of Witkiewicz. Even closer to postwar Theatre of the
Absurd, arguably, are the main plays of the Russian OBERIU writers
Kharms and Vvedensky. The OBERIU movement (or ‘Association of Real
Art’) has already been summarised in general terms (see Chapter 3) and
there will follow a separate chapter on the prose writings of DaniilKharms. However, we here and now turn to Kharms’s main dramatic
work, Yelizaveta Bam.
Written in twelve days at the end of 1927 (when Kharms was still a
writer (and founder member of ‘Groupe Panique’, which
included Arrabal). His minimalist short stories are reminiscent of DaniilKharms, in their featuring of grotesque exaggeration, senseless violence,
paranoia, irony and ‘what if?’ reversals of norms or archetypes. Accused
– and not unjustifiably – of ‘sick humour’, Topor frequently dwells on
amputation, cannibalism and acts of medical and mental aggression.
Identity is played with, as friends and strangers are suddenly reversed
(‘My Dear Friends . . .’; Amis très chers . . .) or the acquisition of a telephone brings
an analytical tool, for instance by Ann Shukman (in relation to the short
prose of DaniilKharms) and by David Lodge (applied to a short dramatic
sketch by Harold Pinter). Isaak and Olga Revzin, adherents of the (then
Soviet) Tartu school of semiotics, developing Jakobson’s system by adding
further axioms of their own, demonstrated absurdness in plays by Ionesco
(The Bald Prima Donna and The Lesson) on the grounds of ‘their
frequent infringement of certain presuppositions which lie behind every
normal act of communication’ (Shukman 1989a, 65). Jakobson
to play on in his
story Terra Incognita (1931; English version 1963).10 For that matter, the
barest bones of the plot of Heart of Darkness, or of isolated incidents
there within (the Fresleven episode, for one: Conrad, 8–9), could almost
suggest even the violent plotlines (in so far as they may be so described)
of certain of the mini-stories (or ‘incidents’) of DaniilKharms.11
The expansive external (and internal) worlds of Conrad may seem a far
cry from those of Henry James, yet jungles of irrationality are explored in
both, whether sought or feared, actual or
Hugh Maxton), that same commentator had
contributed, as an ‘Afterword’ to an earlier volume in the same series
presenting a selection of the briefer stories of DaniilKharms, a short essay
entitled ‘Kharms and Myles’ (Maxton, 1989).8 M. Keith Booker
comments in more detail on affinities between Kafka and O’Brien,
mentioning also shared elements of Menippean satire discerned between
O’Brien and writers from Central and Eastern Europe, already familiar to
us on absurdist grounds, such as Hašek, Bruno Schulz and Gombrowicz
(Booker, 1995, 127–33; 126, n. 6). Furthermore
by Witkiewicz’s protagonist in The
Cuttlefish (1922; performed 1933): ‘Together we’ll create pure nonsense in
life, not in Art’ (The Cuttlefish, or The Hyrcanian Worldview, in Cardullo and
Knopf, 297–320, at 319). At a somewhat different level, their contemporaries,
Aleksandr Vvedensky and Yakov Druskin, said of another exponent of
‘cruelty’, DaniilKharms: ‘Kharms does not create art, but is himself art. . . .
This was not aestheticism: “the creation of life like art” was, for Kharms, a
category not of an aesthetic order but what would now be called an existential
one puts down falls over oneself. All these young girls in china factories who
incessantly hurl themselves downstairs with mountains of crockery give one
a headache. (Kafka to Brod, 1909: Brod, 87; LFFE, 58)
Kafka saw ‘the poetic potential contained in the phantasmic nature of
offices’ (Kundera, 1988, 113). Falling (‘I fall insensibly and that is best’:
Diaries, 275; a motif too in The Bridge) is frequently alluded to in Kafka’s
writings and one can only conjecture as to what that masterly exponent
of absurdist plummeting DaniilKharms