Someone has collected some short (very short) stories that Daniil Kharms wrote and put them online, including some about Pushkin:
1. Pushkin was a poet and was always writing something. Once Zhukovsky caught him at his writing and exclaimed loudly: – You’re not half a scribbler!
From then on Pushkin was very fond of Zhukovsky and started to call him simply Zhukov out of friendship.
2. As we know, Pushkin’s beard never grew. Pushkin was very distressed about this and he always envied Zakharin who, on the contrary, grew a perfectly respectable beard. ‘His grows, but mine doesn’t’ – Pushkin would often say, pointing at Zakharin with his fingernails. And every time he was right.
The latest issue of Stop Smiling has an excellent interview with Matvei Yankelevich about his translation of Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing.
A good portion of the interview consists of Yankelevich talking about the process of translation and other translations of Russian literature, including this bit encapsulating one of the main debates in the world of translation:
really enjoy Nabokov, particularly the work he did on Onegin, although I think it’s flawed in many ways. I have to confess to not having compared Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations with others, or with the original. A lot of the early twentieth-century translations veered toward making Russian literature fluent and readable and pleasant, whereas someone like Dostoevsky, who’s a rather clumsy writer in certain ways — or perhaps on purpose, who knows — that took away from the dynamic of the original Russian. Smoothing it out is something that happens in translations a lot. It’s something you become more and more aware of. In a way, I like Nabokov’s way of making Onegin really difficult, although I think he does it to an extreme, by using words that are obsolete in English, in a way that the Pushkin text in its original Russian does not. Nabokov’s Onegin is a new text, very different from Pushkin’s, and yet it claims to be hyper-literal. It’s a strange kind of paradox there, because the English text is certainly not as light and easy to read as the Pushkin original. The translation is heavy-handed and obtuse, whereas Pushkin’s Russian is light and airy and feels very contemporary. When Nabokov did this very closely read, very literal, very exact translation, he made something out of Onegin that is really not as pleasant to read. [Laughs] On the other hand, there are the translations of Russian literature that tried to be overly readable, and they lose some of the specific style of the writers.
And for anyone curious about Kharms himself, he sounds like he was a, well, curious guy:
I think you’re onto something. In forcing himself to not look at the world the way others did, he acquired — either on purpose or through the process of training himself to think along these anarchic, chaotic lines — some nervous tics and habits that were somewhat close to going mad. He had this thing about hiccups. He apparently created a tic that would happen without his actually wanting it to happen. He practiced having this tic, and finally it became uncontrollable. His friends in the late thirties would remark that he had these weird body movements, these spasms, these hiccups. He was trying to create this moment of unpredictability — as if life wasn’t unpredictable enough — but to break up the continuum and to be aware of the present moment in a different way. He seemed to desire that kind of destabilization. It was his idea of what he wanted to be: he wanted to implement his thinking about the world into real action. That demanded of him an abnormality: in the way he dressed, the way he behaved, and the way cause and effect worked in his own life. His belief in miracles, obviously, something that would disrupt the chain of cause-and-effect, was really important to him. In some ways, it probably did drive him to a certain level of — I wouldn’t say insanity or madness, but he was probably on the way to a schizophrenic state. That was also fueled by the stress of being hungry, of not being able to publish his work, of knowing, at some point, that somebody would come and arrest him, like many of his friends had been arrested.
It’s a few days old now, but the New York Times review of Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing is worth checking out.
Saunders does a good job of explaining how Kharms isn’t simply an “absurdist,” but an author who basically objected to the essential artifice of fiction:
All of us who write fiction have, I suspect, felt some resistance to this moment of necessary artifice. But for Kharms this moment hardened into a kind of virtuous paralysis. I imagine him looking out his little window there in St. Petersburg, seeing people walking around out there in those Russian hats, and just as he’s about to invent some “meaningful,” theme-causing things for them to do, he freezes up, because per his observations, such meaningful, drama-exuding things do not happen so tidily in reality. [. . .]
Art requires artifice, but certain souls balk at artifice the way a horse balks at a snake-smelling stall. Stories make emotion and moral truth, or the illusion of these, but reading Kharms we sense his fear that the smallest false step at the beginning, magnified over the course of the tale, might produce monstrous results: falsity clothed as truth, whistling in the dark, propaganda or (worst of all) banality.
It’s a beautiful game Kharms plays with language and creating and dismantling possible stories, such as is “The Meeting,” which Saunders also quoted in full:
“Now, one day a man went to work and on the way he met another man, who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was heading back home where he came from.
“And that’s it, more or less.”
It seems like a while since my last Ben Lytal post . . . Thankfully today in the NY Sun he has an interesting review of Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing, edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich.
Kharms was part of the OBERIU—a group of avant-garde, Russian writers, who are often categorized as “absurdists.”
To frame this renaissance, Mr. Yankelevich wants to banish the term “absurd” in favor of OBERIU-specific terms. Beckett and Ionesco might be useful points of reference, but talk of Russian absurdism is a misnomer and, according to Mr. Yankelevich, ultimately a lazy attempt to fit OBERIU into familiar dichotomies: “absurdist writer in a repressive society” or “artist writing under Stalin.” [. . .]
Where previous poets experimented with phonetics, the Oberiuty would experiment with semantics — they would invent crazy situations, but describe them in terms anyone would understand. An example from an early poem by Kharms, written in 1927, around the time of the manifesto, is as realistic as a Chagall: “A room. The room’s on fire. / A child juts out of the cradle. / Eats his kasha. Up above, / just below the ceiling now, / the nanny’s napping upside-down.”
As Lytal points out later, there’s an “alogic” or “anti-logical” that powers Kharms’s writings, which are generally very funny, like Events.
The Winged Elephant has an excerpt of the new Kharms book that, like most of Kharms’s writing, is short, precise, hysterical and fantastic.
This is all I can comfortably quote here without violating free use rules:
One day Orlov stuffed himself with mashed peas and died.
When a story opens like that, you just have to keep reading. And you can do so here.
Now if they’d only get rid of the lame cartoons, I’d really like the New Yorker. Anyway, on top of the Kunkel review of Robert Walser, this week’s New Yorker includes some pieces from the OBERIU-founding, grand-absurdist Daniil Kharms.
Any Kharms books, stories, excerpts you can get your hands on are definitely worthwhile, and this November, Overlook is releasing Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms translated by Matvei Yankelevich, who also runs the very interesting Ugly Duckling Presse. UDP may be the best source for European poetry—especially of the more avant-garde variety.
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