Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Stop Making Sense

Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, edited and translated by Matvei Yankelovitch. Overlook Duckworth. 287 pages. $29.95.

The late Russian writer Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) was that rarest of creatures: a dedicated absurdist working in Stalinist Russia. While Tristan Tzara in Zurich was drafting the non-rules of Dada, and Andre Breton was in France dreaming of Surrealism, Kharms and his buddies in the OBERIU literary movement were staging their own revolt of the imagination, and at considerably greater political cost.

As Matvei Yankelovitch, the translator and editor of this volume, puts it, Kharms' aesthetic theories centered around "fragmentation and disruption, and the autonomy of art from logical thought, practicality and everyday meanings." Even when his body was stuck in a Soviet labor camp, where he would eventually die of starvation, Kharms' mind was totally elsewhere.

This collection runs the gamut from playful to whatever the opposite of playful is: elliptic, ambiguous and often drolly funny little stories, head-scratchingly obtuse poetry, two and three-page plays that no sane person would perform, and notebook entries full of way off-the-wall thoughts, snatches of dialogue, hallucinogenic daydreams and admonitions to stop daydreaming. There isn't a dull page in it. Kharms' draws from the richly absurd tradition of Nikolai Gogol and echoes everything going on around him and much of what was to come: from Gertrude Stein, Kafka and Beckett to Woody Allen and Monty Python.

There are stories where people argue for the sake of arguing, a letter where a man repeats himself endlessly, and a play where actors can't get their lines out before vomiting. There are ludicrous observations ("Nowadays, everybody knows how dangerous it is to swallow stones"), throwaway lines of black humor ("Poisoning children is cruel. But something must be done about them!"), and literary parody.

"The Old Woman" begins as a spoof of Crime and Punishment and then takes on its own dark texture. Where Dostoesky's character killed an old woman and was plagued by guilt, Kharms' narrator is visited by an old woman who torments him with her own excruciatingly slow death: mortifying in front of him, stinking up the house, and forcing him to come with ever more inventive ways of removing her not quite dead body. The ending is rather typical for Kharms, who wasn't about to waste his time on a credible conclusion: "At this point I temporarily end my manuscript in the belief that it has gone on long enough."

Yankelevitch warns against taking the easy path of interpreting the stories politically, and indeed Kharms often seems so steeped in a private world of his own that it may not have mattered where he lived.

At the same time, you sense a darkening shadow as the book nears the end. Kharms speaks of "coming down with a bad case of fear"; stories focus on the cheapness of life, of messengers arriving late in the night, of time running out, both for Kharms' and everyone, just as ink runs out of his pen. Kharms didn't need Stalin to inspire him, but it couldn't have hurt.

Although absurdity seemed to come to Kharms rather naturally, his notebooks show he agonized over his work considerably, constantly yearning for inspiration. "Today I wrote nothing. Doesn't matter," he says in a notebook entry from 1937. A few months later, he is berating himself for laziness, and trying to build himself up. "Always write with attention and look on writing as a holiday," he tells himself.

As a believer, which also got him into serious trouble with his God-hating government, he'd pray for enlightenment: "Wake me up strong for the battle with meanings/and quick to the governance of words..."

This variously sublime, enigmatic, interesting and irritating collection answers that prayer in spades.

1 comment:

nnyhav said...

You sold me, where the NYTBR left me cold. But weirdly it didn't show up on the online system at the bookstore when I asked after it. Something called 'Incidences' did, reissued by 5-Star a year ago ... but they can't get that either.