Daniil Kharms, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings
Translated from Russian by Alex Cigale
(Northwestern University Press, 2017)
Daniil Kharms, a key figure of second-wave Russian radical modernism, extends, distorts, and renews the achievements of La Fontaine, the Brothers Grimm, Poe, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekov, Lewis Carrol, Sholem Aleichem, Kafka, Shklovsky, and Khlebnikov. Kharms’s obliquely allegorical dark comedies are at once mystical and mythic, Daoist and Dadaist, daring and deranging, surrealist and satiric, metaphysical and metafictional. Kharms first became known to English-speaking readers in OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism, ed. Eugene Ostashevsky (also Northwestern, 2006). Three key OBERIU translations followed: Matvei Yankelevich’s Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook, 2009), Ostashevsky’s Alexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB/Poets, 2013), which is the first English-language collection of the great other main OBERIU writer, and Anthony Anemone and Peter Scotto’s “I am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary”: The Notebooks, Diaries and Letters of Daniil Kharms (Academic Studies Press, 2013). Alex Cigale’s sparkling translations are a welcome complement to these books. In Khams’s metamorphoses, “what if” becomes “and then”: the works hover between theater of the absurd, surrealism, and magic realism while maintaining their ever-uncanny grounding in the ordinary. Charting the experience of everyday life in Russia in the 1920s and ’30s, Kharms can perhaps be described best as an (anti-)Soviet realist. His fantastical parables refuse the syllogistic order of brutal causality. He may seem loony, and maybe he was; but in a world gone mad, Kharms is, ironically, a last refuge of sanity.