‘The Connection’ by Daniil Kharms, translated by Matvei Yankelevich

Comrade of bleak ontologies, Russian writer Daniil Kharms played with chance, formulas, Philokalias, commercial language, ideologism—anything to spite the implied reasonability that the Enlightenment brought to letters. Written in 1937, ‘The Connection’ opens in a direct address to the reader: “Philosopher!” What follows is a brief, numerated list of disparate events which Kharms connects against common sense and logic.  The plot is nonexistent, apart from the challenge to the philosopher.

In Kharmsland, shadows are divided from their owners to roam the streets and theorize the actual. Every word matters because every significance will be sliced apart from it. Certain translators capture his absurdism better than others. My preferred translations of Kharms pay tribute to his mixed dictions, and to the spirit of his absurdism rather than literalism.

“1. I am writing to you in answer to your letter which you are about to write to me in answer to my letter which I wrote to you.

2. A violinist bought a magnet and was carrying it home. Along the way, hoods jumped him and knocked his cap off his head. The wind picked up the cap and carried it down the street.”

The magic occurs at the level of the syntax, in the margins, in the kinked links that bloom from juxtaposition. No one antagonizes reality through juxtaposition like Kharms. “It’s so nice to know of what has passed, so pleasant to believe in that which has been proven,” Kharms tells us in ‘Hyma.’ And so precious to believe in time, or evidence.

Collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, The Overlook Press, 2009. Available online here. Also available in an illustrated version with John Freedman’s translation here

‘Anecdotes from the Life of Pushkin’ by Daniil Kharms

Kharms, the absurdist Russian grandfather of flash fiction, has many pieces that could be included in an anthology of the history of the form. For me, he can be too harmlessly gruesome (stories where one grandmother after another fall out of a window, for example). But this one I enjoy very much, because it does that charming, petty thing of taking a well-known figure and putting them in odd situations, rewriting what one might expect about their way of seeing the world and behaving in it. In these anecdotes, Kharms reforms Pushkin as a kind of benignly weird public nuisance:

‘6. Pushkin liked to throw stones. If he saw stones, then he would start throwing them. Sometimes he would fly into such a temper that he would stand there, red in the face, waving his arms and throwing stones. It really was rather awful!”

Pushkin, in Kharms’ narrative, also reacts badly to being teased by his friends (for having broken his legs and having to use a wheelchair), envies beard growth, and repeatedly falls out of chairs along with his ‘idiot sons’, none of whom know how to sit. What value does all of this have? Perhaps in the fact that it will forever alter your impression of Pushkin. Read Eugene Onegin, and imagine him leering over your shoulder, rock in hand. The world has been changed, just a little bit. For the better or worse is not the point.

(In Today I Wrote Nothing, Duckworth. Read online here)