Friday, October 26, 2007

The Charms of Kharms

Daniil Kharms is back, just in time for this year's Russian elections! Natal’ia Mitroshina’s Падение в небеса (Falling into the Heavens), based on Kharms’s diary and cycle of stories, Случаи (Incidences), is a featured film at this fall's 2morrow/завтра film festival in Moscow.

Kharms is tremendously popular in Russia, at least among my friends, but it took me years to appreciate his absurd stories and poems. By the time I understood, from personal experience, what my friends meant when they said that living in Russia meant always having to prove that you’re not a camel, I was ready for Kharms. Maybe it’s time to try Waiting for Godot again, too.

Kharms may be an acquired taste, at least for some of us, but he does have his charms, particularly for students of Russian. His writing is often simple and repetitive, with fairly easy vocabulary. And the element of absurdity builds a skill that’s often overlooked: confidence in your reading comprehension skills. Can blows to the head with a cucumber really kill? In this world, yes.

I like to page through my Kharms book and read random pieces. My favorite so far has been his longest story, Старуха(“The Old Woman”). Here’s what I wrote about it for a Soviet literature workshop last year:

The Old Woman” is one of Daniil Kharms’s longest works but, at 20+ pages, still quite short. Kharms is known and much loved in Russia for his avant-garde, absurd, and very short stories, many of which are difficult for us to relate to. “The Old Woman” combines, among other elements, black humor, a Stalin-era feeling of desperation about life (Kharms was arrested more than once), the St. Petersburg tradition of fantastically strange events. Absurd stories don’t often appeal to me, but I found this one oddly compelling. There is a dual-language version available on; much of the language in the Russian original is quite simple. Kharms: The Old Woman (Bristol Russian Texts Series) (Bristol Russian Texts Series)
-For more Kharmsian absurdity, try these translated stories in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

-On a non-Kharms note, if you’re interested in the connection between camels and absurdity, you might enjoy Jerzy Stuhr’s “The Big Animal,” summarized nicely in this review. I loved this movie.


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