About the Author
Daniil Kharms (1905–1942) was the best known nom de plume of Daniil Ivanovich Iuvachev. Daniil Kharms was a poet and writer of sluchay (tales) although later in his career he was only allowed to officially publish children’s literature. Kharms rested on the cusp of oblivion for most of the twentieth century. His artistic antics, which may have been moderately eccentric in the West, was not tolerated after Soviet authorities became comfortable in wielding autocratic power. However, the Soviet literary economics of Samizdat, preserved the adult works of Kharms for a select audience. Only two of his poems for adults were published in his lifetime. The increased intellectual freedom in the 1980s and 1990s (that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union) allowed the works of Daniil Kharms.
Daniil Kharms was born in St. Petersburg in 1905 on December 30. In his autobiographical sluchay “The Incubating Period”, Kharms describes being placed in an incubator after his birth. He also explains that since he was removed from the incubator on the first of January he considers this his real birthday. The playful recounting of his birth also indicates the interest Kharms had in modern technology and thought.
His father, Ivan Iuvachev, was involved in literature and political activities. Iuvachev was a member of The People’s Will, an organization that advocated for universal suffrage, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and permanent political representation. The People’s Will would eventually become frustrated with trying to negotiate with the Tsarist government and resort to terrorism. These terrorist acts would eventually claim the life of Tsar Alexander II. Kharm’s father was eventually imprisoned for his affiliation with the group. The political gains and losses of The People’s Will would anticipate the struggles of the Communists in the twentieth century.
From 1915 until 1922, Daniil Kharms studied at Tsarskoe Selo, Peterschule. At Peterschule, Daniil Kharms learned the basics of German and English. During this period, Kharms became fascinated with the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was particularly interested in the character of Sherlock Holmes. Kharms would use Russified versions of the name Holmes as a model for many of his pseudonyms. He twisted this name and conflated it with the English harm and charm. These names included Charms, Khorms, Kharms-Shardam, and Shardam. Eventually, the writer would settle on Kharms as his main alias. He felt such an affinity for the names Kharms that he would scrawl it in his official passport.
In 1922, Kharms continued his education at the Second Soviet Labour School. Kharms supplemented his education at Leningrad Electro-Technical College from 1924 until 1925. The college expelled Kharms for not participating in a sufficient number of social activities. His expulsion coincided with his greater interest in literature. Kharms began to associate with the sound poet Aleksander Tufanov and his literary colleagues. Kharms was to meet the poet Aleksander Vvedensky who would become a close friend and collaborator. Kharms’s writing from this period shows influence from Velemir Khlebnikov and zaum poetry.
In 1926, Kharms began to study film at the Leningrad Institute of the History of the Arts. He did not complete this program of study; however, interest in modern technologies and thought. This was also the year that Kharms began his association with the Radiks Theater group.
The Association of Writers of Children’s Literature granted Daniil Kharms membership around 1927. In 1928 Kharms published Ivan Ivanych Samovar and in 1930, he published Million. Both of these works are considered to be important in the canon of Soviet Children’s Literature. In general, children’s writing would be relatively successful and provide what little literary reputation he had once his mature writings were black listed. However, even in the innocuous world of Children’s Literature his penchant for experimentation and dark subject matter would lay the framework for his eventual demise.
Aleksander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms would officially join forces in 1928 when they created the Union of Real Art (OBERIU). Many view the OBERIU as the last face of the Russian Avant-Garde before Soviet Centralization nullified the prospects of wide spread non-sanctioned aesthetic movements. Essentially, Kharms and his Oberiuty compatriots believed in the autonomy of art and literature from real world logic and expectations. The literature centers on unmotivated action and draws inspiration from the world of folk tales and jokes.
The OBERIU group attracted writers, musicians, actors and filmmakers and their work showcased multi-discipline interventions, public stunts, and philosophically based play. In many ways, the OBERIU anticipated the French Theater of the Absurd. Some of Daniil Kharms personal aesthetic interventions included wearing fake mustaches, demanding to drink out of silver cups at workers’ bars, and assembling a pseudo-mechanical installation in his apartment. He explained that now everyone had a machine. During the twenties as the rest of the Soviet Union turned its style to a proletarian aesthetic, Kharms dressed as an English dandy (perhaps a nod to his earlier literary interests). He completed this look with a calabash pipe.
Daniil Kharms used his writing to be critical of previous great Russian authors including Aleksander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Lev Tolstoy. He also used his writing to explore his anxieties, which included children and the elderly. Arguably, his most important trope is the unmotivated violence that is woven into the quotidian framework of his literature. His work is predominately comprised of short narratives. It also included drama such as Elizaveta Bam, which demonstrated an understanding and critical view of genres of drama. However, his longest work was The Old Woman. This novella showcases Kharms’s aesthetics. It is also the clear inheritor of a literary tradition that includes Aleksander Pushkin’sQueen of Spades and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
In 1931, Daniil Kharms, Aleksander Vvedensky and many other writers were arrested. Kharms and the other writers were accused of producing Children’s Literature that was anti-Soviet. Their children’s literature provided the evidence since it was absurd logic and failure to cultivate a materialistic intellect in children. Kharms was exiled from Petersburg and sentenced to live in Kursk. When Kharms returned from exile, he also returned to writing Children’s literature. Ironically, Kharms hated children. Although he did gain some money through his writing, Kharms did not earn enough money to pay his bills. He and his wife descended into poverty and hunger.
After Daniil Kharms returned to Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), he supplemented his intellectual development by participating in a private group known as the Chinari. The Chinari explored philosophy, art and music.
The NKVD (a precursor to the KGB) arrested Daniil Kharms on charges of treason. He was incarcerated at Leningrad Prison No. 1 in the psychiatric ward. The following February Daniil Kharms starved to death in his cell. He was a victim of both the apathy of the Soviet Penal System and the cruel tenacity of the Nazi blockage of Leningrad.
His adult writings were preserved by his friends and selectively distributed through Samizdat until the 1970s. Because of Kharms’s writings illicit status, his influence in Soviet writing though present is not openly presented. Kharms’s writings for adult were finally officially published in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Glasnost provided publishers the freedom to embrace these works. Translations of Daniil Kharms have started to show clear influence in American experimental literature.