Except for his children’s books, Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer born in 1905—on the cusp of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and Stalin’s rise to power—didn’t see much of his work published during his lifetime. That he worked at all was a miracle: the man was often just short of starving, especially after he was prevented from publishing even his writing for children. But Kharms’s whole life was art. He often dressed up like Sherlock Holmes and paraded around the busy Leningrad streets. He wrote while he could for underground literary magazines. Now, he’s heralded as a key figure in avant-garde and twentieth-century Russian literature. He creates such objects with language—hunks of words or descriptions or dialogue move his visions along. Without plot, his work moves according to internal energies; it is strange, estranged, savage, dark—and funny.
In A Failed Performance: Short Plays & Scenes by Daniil Kharms, translated by Emma Winsor Wood and C. Dylan Bassett, we have a book by a man who goes against it all—the literary establishment, society, sense. Kharms is the ultimate literary anarchist. Stalin’s regime feared him for this, ultimately accusing him of spreading “defeatist propaganda”; Kharms starved to death in a Leningrad prison cell in 1942.
Wood has an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and BA from Harvard in Russian History and Literature. She teaches writing and edits Stone Soup, the literary and art magazine for kids, in Santa Cruz, CA.
Bassett, also an Iowa MFA, is a PhD student in the Creative-Critical track at the University of California Santa Cruz. He is the author of The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theater (Plays Inverse, 2015), and six additional chapbooks.
I spoke with Wood and Bassett recently through email. This is their first translation project.
The Rumpus: What brought you to Kharms’s work?
Emma Winsor Wood: I majored in Russian History and Literature in college, but I was a Tolstoy/Chekhov kind of Russian major, and I strongly disliked Kharms’s work at the time. Back then, I wanted to be moved by literature—not… hmm… provoked? by it. I remember one of my friends making me read Kharms sophomore year, and I just didn’t get it. His writing seemed gross, violent, and disturbing. And actually it is all of those things, but now I understand why a writer might want—or need—to work in those modes. And my sense of humor has changed, and I’m more willing to work through initial frustration with/fear of a “difficult” text, and so on. But, because of that initial impression, I needed some convincing (and to do some serious rereading) when Conner initially suggested the project to me. Once I’d reread some of his stories, though (and read many of his plays for the first time), I was one-hundred percent onboard.
C. Dylan Bassett: I discovered Kharms while living in Russia. I wanted to improve my Russian reading skills and thought to read poetry or fiction. In a St. Petersburg bookstore, I found a collection of Kharms’s stories or, as he called them, incidences, happenings, occurrences, accidents. I gravitated toward them if I’m being honest—because they were short (often two or three paragraphs in total), and they seemed accessible. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I remember reading that book later, at home, and experiencing something physical. I remember feeling completely disoriented and uncomfortable. I didn’t know whether to be entertained or disgusted, charmed, or offended—whether to laugh or throw up. My reaction was visceral and nauseating. I was sick. The world was sick.
Initially I assumed my reading was somehow incorrect or partial. My Russian just isn’t good enough. I’m missing something. There’s no way I read that correctly. But, no. It turns out that Kharms is ambiguous and complex—funny and terrifying simultaneously. He’s constantly challenging our sense logic, our aesthetic judgments, and our neat moral niceties. My Russian friends later discouraged me from reading Kharms, recommending, in his place, Pushkin, Mandelstam, or Tsvetaeva. “Kharms is the death of literature,” someone told me. I think that person was right. Maybe. Or maybe the opposite is true—that Kharms ignites a new wakefulness into a reader asleep in verisimilitude.
Rumpus: As you discuss in your introduction, Kharms is no easy writer to translate. What was it about him that convinced you translating him was your next project?
Wood: Well, you probably hadn’t heard of him before, and probably most of you reading this hadn’t either! However, he’s kind of a cult favorite among Russianists around the world—and among a certain crowd in Russia, too. We knew his plays hadn’t been done before, and Conner had a connection to Tyler Crumrine, the founder and editor of Plays Inverse Press, which is an incredible young publisher of experimental plays, so we threw around a few ideas together and were all really excited about Kharms.
His plays are hugely informed by the political chaos and terror in which he lived and wrote and, with the election, etc. etc., it seemed like an important time to bring him—and his specific ways of transmuting that anxiety and fear into literature—back into the literary conversation. What he’s doing is very different—almost the opposite?—from what we’re seeing in most “political” poetry and literature today. On the one hand, there is the movement toward expanding the field of mainstream literature to include many more historically marginalized voices, and that includes many more narratives from those writers—not only of their traumas but also of their daily lived experience. This movement is crucial. But it’s not the only way to be “political” (I use air quotes, by the way, not to belittle the political but simply because I am dubious of the term—what gets labeled “political” or not, and why, is also very… political.)
But, for Kharms, there was another way. He looked around at all the state-sponsored Socialist Realist literature that was being published—which, far from being “real” was instead a morally black-and-white, sunny depiction of communist life—Kharms saw this, and he said (I imagine), “Okay, you’re going to co-opt our language? You’re going to rely on ‘realist’ narratives? Well, fuck that state-co-opted language, and fuck narratives.” He just destroyed all the narratives, and language itself, in a way that I find really disquieting—and that was also disquieting to the state. After a certain point in Stalin’s reign, his writing had to be relegated to his notebooks, and he died in prison.
It is a good time for all writers to be reminded that there is more than one way for literature to be political, that reimagining what language is and how it can be used (writing “nonsense”) can be political.
Bassett: The motivation for the translation was twofold. On one hand, I’d been wanting to translate Kharms since I learned about him. The project was, in this way, entirely self-indulgent. I wanted a reason to learn more about Kharms’s life and writing. The translation afforded me time and reason to be with Kharms—to live with him for a while, to read, interpret, and think about his work in ways that I hadn’t before. I was about to focus less on what he was writing, and more on how he was writing it. Later, once Emma and I began to translate Kharms together, we found that—although there are several outstanding English translations of Kharms already in the world—there was a need to translate his plays into English, not only because his plays/scenes hadn’t received as much critical attention as his poetry and prose, but because it seemed to me that Kharms is, first and foremost, a writer of drama. We wanted to showcase this aspect of Kharms’s legacy. Kharms belongs in the fields of theatre arts, performance studies, and playwriting.
Rumpus: Dinner was a short play in verse I found particularly striking. Could you talk about this piece?
Bassett: Many (maybe most) readings of Kharms are sociopolitical. We tend, for good reason, to interpret Kharms within the context of Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. But narrow political readings of Kharms totally miss out on the more metaphysical qualities of his work. In his journal, Kharms wrote that “the only interesting thing is the miracle.” The miracle, in Kharms, is a kind of rupture within the physical structure of the world. It is an ontological change or metamorphosis. What we call “the absurd,” Kharms might call “the miraculous” or “the magical.”
Dinner is a magic trick—it is a conjuring, an enchantment, a miracle. Each character utters a charm. The language of the charm calls into being the thing it names. The language performs a trick. As in all Kharms’s plays, the word becomes flesh. The disembodied voice names Kika and Kika emerges onto the stage. Kika names the wizard and the Wizard appears, and so on. In a way, this play is microcosmic of Kharms’s work as a whole: language de-scribes its own reality. In a very literal sense, it becomes the thing it names, collapsing the space between signifier and signified.
Rumpus: Can you walk me through a tough moment in the process of translating his work? Was there a phrase or section that gave you more pause than most? Anything you disagreed on?
Wood: The first thing I want to say is that we are novice translators—this is our first project—and that we think of ourselves primarily as poets. When we started out on the book, especially since we were working on drama, we knew we wanted our translation to be contemporary and, above all, to preserve Kharms’s weird humor. But, as new translators, we mostly had to figure out how to do that as we went along. In general, this meant we only figured out specific stylistic points (for instance, would we translate unusual names built off Russian nouns [like “Motilkov” which contains the word for “moth” as “Mothman”]—or simply transliterate them [Motilkov]?) as needed, and then had to do a lot of circling back to make sure we were being consistent.
We were generally always able to reach consensus, though one thing we had a lot of trouble with was punctuation. Kharms’s punctuation, at least in his plays, is wildly inconsistent; often in the same play, and sometimes even the same monologue, he will move between commas/no commas, periods/no periods, capital and lowercase letters, etc. And, of course, even if he had been a strict grammarian, there is the fact that punctuation itself is something that needs to be “translated” between languages. My impulse was probably to over-punctuate at first—I love punctuation!—whereas Conner’s translations were on the minimalist end, punctuation-wise. We ended up going with a more-or-less minimal approach, in the end, which frustrated the copy editor to no end, and also made us a bit worried about typos. Not about actual typos, but that readers might perceive an intentional omission—of a period for instance—as a typo. This is also an issue with a couple of Kharms’s invented words. But, in the end, it’s a risk we chose to take. I believe the book teaches you how to read it.
To give you a more concrete sense of our translating process, I’d also like to briefly discuss one difficult passage. I translated the majority of the plays in verse because I love the puzzle-like challenge of finding rhymes—and we tried to preserve rhymes in most cases. One of those cases was in the play Joy, in which two characters are having a conversation that centers around two similar sounds: yesh, the second-person singular form of the verb “to eat” or “you eat,” and the second person singular verb ending -yesh / -yish.
Given that this sound is a verb ending, it’s very easy for Kharms to rhyme, and continue rhyming, once he gets going. Our challenge was how to translate this while preserving not just the rhyme but the play with verb endings and the larger pun on “eat,” as a word, being ensconced with all these other words? Although -eat is not as common in English verbs as the –yesh/-ish ending in Russian, there was a similar sound that could be used in consonance with -eat, and that sound was –eep. I chose to use different words. In the end, our translated passage read like this:
Еh, I couldn’t swallow a fly,
but you eat and eat and eat and eat.
Think a little, why
is everything earthly – eep and eat?
Cape Afilei: (catching on)
It’s true—eep and eat!
When you sleep, you don’t eat,
when you eat, you don’t sleep,
when you weep, you retreat,
you retreat,—and overeat.
But jam isn’t a meal
stick the spoon in your mouth, and bleat—
“It needs sugar.”
Rumpus: Why do you think plays were something Kharms gravitated towards?
Bassett: We should acknowledge that Kharms himself probably wouldn’t have called many of these works “plays.” Some of the shorter works in our volume were, in fact, nothing more than marginal notes in his journals—outlines for future plays, experiments, performances. That being said, it is undoubtedly true that Kharms was interested in dramatic or theatrical writing. His writings showcase elements of the dramatic in their most elemental forms as they communicate, interact, reverberate, echo, and transform into each other. His drama is a “drama as such,” or as he puts it, “a pure theatricality.” The dramatic is either an interruption in the rigid structures of social life. His plays don’t aim to reflect human relations so much as impede them. Kharms stages a state of constant suspension, wherein some nonsensical, absurd reality compulsively intervenes into the matrix of polite society.