February 2007

Joshua Cohen


Incidences by Daniil Kharms

“Professionally” reviewing the work of Daniil Kharms amounts to masochism: it’s violence done against the self. His stories expose the immaculate stupidity not only of book reviewing, but of books themselves, reading them and, especially, writing them -- they’re literature that’s an indictment against literature, and, interpreted more personally, against the small lives lived in literature’s support.

The world’s much larger than all that, or so I’m told.

To explain: A woman in Chicago sends a book to a man in New York. The man in New York reads the book, and then he sends the woman his thoughts about it, and, in return, she sends him a little money. With this money, he goes out and buys cigarettes. He smokes them while thinking, “I’m not getting paid enough, I’m not getting paid enough, I’m not getting paid enough…” And then he falls asleep. 

He might have tried to write seriously in his review, but why? After all, Daniil Kharms is a Russian writer. And not only that, he’s a dead Russian writer. He can no longer be fed or clothed or housed.

The New York writer might try to keep to the facts: Kharms, which was not his real name, was born in 1905. He founded a group named The Association of Real Art. His writing offended the communist censors. He was first arrested in 1931, and then released, but only allowed to publish stories for children. One of his children’s stories features a man who goes out to buy cigarettes, and never returns. Presumably, he’s arrested. Like Kharms was again, in 1941. He died in February a year later, of starvation, in a Leningrad prison hospital a few blocks from his home. German bombs were falling that winter. Apparently, there was a war.

Here is one of his stories, or, as they’re called, Incidences, in full, entitled "An Encounter":

On one occasion a man went off to work and on the way he met another man who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was wending his way home.

And that’s about all there is to it.

This is funny if you’re drunk, which Russians have been known to be, and it’s less funny -- meaning even funnier -- if you’re hungry, which Kharms often was.

All of his Incidences are like this.

The New York writer could ask: why couldn’t these Incidences be called “Incidents” -- as the titular translation choice seems too precious for Kharms, who was often as blunt as the axes with which he would kill his characters.

To explain: All of Kharms is short. All of Kharms is repetitive and short. His characters are often murdered, or else they fall out windows. They are cold, and when they don’t fall out windows, they tend to fall asleep. Hazily gleeful and dreamily desperate, they find their power in powerlessness in a manner that’s strangely peculiar to international teenagers and dissident Soviet writers. Kharms wrote plays and letters, both included here. What else? This edition is a reprint of last century’s Serpent’s Tail edition, translated by Neil Cornwell, with nothing much changed save a self-glorifying, adolescently snarky introduction by a man named Simon McBurney, who is apparently an actor and theater director. The New York writer has been told that Ardis/Overlook Press will be publishing a Selected Writings, available in the Fall of 2007. Though it promises to be better in translation and let’s say context, that’s not the book the woman from Chicago sent me for review.

She sent me this one, which I’m sitting on now.

If I were Kharms, I’d be smoking its pages.

How else to end? Kharms is important, or not. And he’s funny, or not. And he wrote little tiny stories that are absurd. And he makes me feel absurd, in the American sense of the word, for writing about him and getting paid for it. And, too, for taking him seriously. Or humorously. Or funnily. Or whatever. His real name was Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev.

Incidences by Daniil Kharms
Five Star
ISBN: 185242480X
240 Pages