Sunday, August 5, 2007

Daniil Kharms's "So It Is In Life"

This week's New Yorker story is a series of vignettes--if you could call them that--by an obscure early-twentieth-century Russian writer whose prose has not appeared in English before. Reading them, I wondered how many people like this guy are out there, waiting to be translated and appreciated by a worldwide audience. According to the introduction to these pieces (translated by Matvei Yankelevich, Simona Schneider, and Eugene Ostaeshevsky), Daniil Kharms was a founder of an avant-garde Russian artists' group called OBERIU, was arrested for anti-Soviet activities in 1931, was exiled, arrested again, and died in a prison mental hospital in 1942.

The most obvious comparison is to Babel, both in his lithe, unpredictable prose style and life history--but the stories remind me most of one of my favorite collections, Thomas Bernhard's The Voice Imitator, which I brutally plundered for a similar book of my own. They have the same wry, bitter detachment, though Kharms's pieces are most noteworthy for their unusual habit of veering off onto some tangent and ending there. A fairly static story about a sick man who whiles away his time, listlessly, in his quiet apartment, suddenly shifts when the man realizes he has forgotten some important word, perhaps beginning with "M" and perhaps beginning with "R." The piece ends:

I was making coffee and singing to myself all the words that started with "R." Oh, what a tremendous number of words I made up beginning with the letter "R"! Perhaps among them was that one word, but I didn't recognize it, taking to be the same as all the others.

Then again, perhaps that word didn't come up.

Come to think of it, that ending is pure Lydia Davis--another W6 favorite. There's a colleciton of this stuff coming out in the fall, and these excerpts suggest that it might well be a new classic in the literature of the non-sequitur. Bring it!

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