Let us consider Daniil Kharms, the Russian writer often described as an absurdist, largely unpublished in his lifetime except for his children’s books, who starved to death in the psychiatric ward of a Soviet hospital during the siege of Leningrad, having been put there by the Stalinist government for, among other reasons, his general strangeness. Kharms gave flamboyant poetry readings from the top of an armoire, did performance art on the Nevsky Prospect — by, for example, lying down on it, sometimes dressed as Sherlock Holmes — and was a founder of the Union of Real Art, an avant-garde group also known as Oberiu. His brilliant, hilarious, violent little stories, written “for the drawer,” are now being discovered in the West through translations by Neil Cornwell (collected in “Incidences”) and by Matvei Yankelevich, whose anthology “Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms” has just been published.
Kharms’s work is exhilarating, especially in a time when, if Beckett were alive, he might find himself on television leading a panel discussion about “People Who Have Waited Too Long for Someone!” It’s good to be reminded that fiction is more than just a device for transmitting information or learning about reality or dissecting problems. Fiction is about simultaneously outing and satisfying our innate desire for narrative. Kharms, admittedly, does more of the former than the latter. Exiting a Kharms story, we are newly aware of how hungry we are for rising action, and we have a fresh respect for, and (importantly) suspicion of, storytelling itself. We’re reminded that narrative is not life, but a trick a writer does with language, to make beauty.
Fragments from New York Times (Dec. 9, 2007): by George Saunders, the author, most recently, of “The Braindead Megaphone,” a collection of essays. He teaches creative writing at Syracuse University.