Neil Cornwell

6 Daniil Kharms 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 ‘Daniil Kharms’ was the main, and subsequently the sole, pen-name of Daniil Ivanovich Iuvachev (1905–42). The son

in The absurd in literature
Author: Neil Cornwell

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.

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Neil Cornwell

the proceedings, as perhaps is already obvious, began to make similar incursions. Nabokov, Daniil Kharms 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

in Odoevsky’s four pathways into modern fiction
The Theatre of the Absurd
Neil Cornwell

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 Daniil Kharms. 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 mere

in The absurd in literature
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Neil Cornwell

writer (and founder member of ‘Groupe Panique’, which included Arrabal). His minimalist short stories are reminiscent of Daniil Kharms, 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

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An introduction
Neil Cornwell

purpose as an analytical tool, for instance by Ann Shukman (in relation to the short prose of Daniil Kharms) 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

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Towards the absurd
Neil Cornwell

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 Daniil Kharms.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

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Neil Cornwell

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 Daniil Kharms, 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

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Twentieth-century absurdist practice
Neil Cornwell

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’, Daniil Kharms: ‘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

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Otherness in the labyrinth of absurdity
Neil Cornwell

what 200 Special authors 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 Daniil Kharms

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