Today I Read Everything, July 1, 2009
By Pavel Somov, Ph.D., author of "Lotus Effect," "Present Perfect," & "Eating the Moment"
This review is from: Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writing of Daniil Kharms (Hardcover)
I have read Kharms both in English and Russian quite a few times since my dad (a journalist and "ghost" writer in the USSR) introduced me to Kharms in mid 80s (after he had reportedly "snagged" the last copy of the "Incidences" from some street bookseller in Perestroika-era Moscow).
Each time I read Kharms I'd browse through any given compilation of "selected writings" and read at random. In later years I'd either re-read the stories I had liked or, on the contrary, choose only to read the ones I had skipped on previously. But today I read everything - the entire "Today I Wrote Nothing" from cover to cover.
Two reasons: this particular collection of Kharms' writings is skillfully organized: the incidences/old woman/blue notebook/other writings sequence is an excellent warm-up. Each pattern-interrupting-absurdly shocking-non sequitur-laden "incidence" - like a notorious Moscow pothole - violently shakes up the mind and loosens the inflexibly default of expectations of sense and logic. These "incidences" quickly warm up the reading mind for the absurdly cold scenery of the "Old Woman" novella. Just as you begin to tire of the "Old Woman" you are thrown into the paradoxical vortex of the 29 vignettes from the "Blue Notebook." And after that - with the mind cracked open for possibilities - you sail off into the greater philosophical, esoteric, metaphysical depths of "other writings" where you after such a deep dive as "On Phenomena and Existences," with compiler's astute guidance, you are helped to resurface to the by-now-familiar "shallows" of the absurd.
The sequence of this presentation is no small achievement. Consider that the people behind this collection have been charged with a mandate of dosing micro-shocks, with a task of figuring out how to tactfully deliver Kharms' literary micro-concussions. Reading Kharms - any Kharms' collection - is on par to spending an evening in a batting cage where each and every ball is a curveball of the oddest spin.
Confusion - as I have learned from Kharms - is a prerequisite for enlightenment. Kharms models that we have to lose our mind (our "equalibrium" - a genius rendition of intentional misspelling by the translator Yankelevich) to find our consciousness, our sense of self. Kharms - as I am more and more convinced - wasn't an absurdist or a literary shock-jockey, he was a mystic with a Zen bent who, I believe, wrote to stay awake during one of the darkest dreams in modern history (Stalin years).
For an English-speaking Russian, Kharms seems deceptively easy to translate. But he is anything but easy. Kharms' subtle connotation-level puns coexist next to the grotesque and the idiosyncratic. Translating Kharms' koans is like translating a haiku: with often so few lines of text to work with, one linguistic misstep, one connotational bias and you end up reading an entirely different story. Matvei Yankelevich has skillfully navigated the fiords of Kharmsian translational incidentals.
Kharms is a "monk that walked into a mausoleum" and never walked out; an inquisitive and quizzical mind born at the wrong time and in the wrong place who seems to have managed to complete the long existential arc from neurosis to acceptance just in time to die hungry in a Leningrad jail, utterly unrecognized and unknown. In this literary mausoleum, I see Kharms next to Kafka and Hamsun. I wonder where you'll place him...
Pavel Somov, Ph.D.