Monday, 11 August 2014

Daniil Kharms : Tumbling Biddies

A new translation of 'Tumbling Biddies' ('Vyvalivaiushiesia Starukhi') by Trinity's own Brigit McCone, followed by a short cartoon in which the biddies tumble chaotically from a stack of Russian classic literature - a nice twist on Kharms' radical demolition of the traditions of Russian prose.

A surrealist and absurdist avant-garde Anglophile (ironic as his own work anticipates later English surrealists such as Monty Python), who took his name 'Kharms' from the Russian pronunciation of 'Holmes' (as in Sherlock), Daniil Kharms (1905 - 1942) is known for his dark and twisted children's literature (resembling a Russian Roald Dahl), but also wrote work for adults that was far ahead of its time: the absurdist play 'Elizaveta Bam', a novella 'The Biddy' ('Starukha' - a disrespectful word for an old woman) and Russian Futurist poetry and sketches with 'The Union of Real Art' (OBERIU) which he himself founded.

In the 1930s, the wild experimentation of the Russian avant-garde and their attempts to reimagine life and ideology from the ground up, began to be persecuted and suppressed as anti-Soviet. A simpler, more obvious style of realistic propaganda, "Socialist Realism", took over and Kharms found himself arrested and exiled to Kursk as an anti-Soviet writer, forced afterwards to write his children's stories anonymously. In 1941, Kharms was arrested on suspicion of treason and confined in a psychiatric ward, where he died in 1942 during the Nazi blockade of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), probably of starvation.

'Tumbling Biddies' combines a taste for the surreal and absurd with what seems a comment on the casual cruelty of the Stalinist period, and on the desensitised apathy of onlookers to the many disappearances and deaths that characterised the time. Perhaps, after all, the meaninglessly repeated casual cruelties of a Kharms story best express the climate of the time:

Tumbling Biddies

 An old biddy, out of excessive curiosity, slipped and tumbled from a window, splattering herself.

  Another old biddy poked her head out to look at the splattered one and, from excessive curiosity, also took a tumble, splattering herself.

 Later, from the window tumbled a third old biddy... then a fourth... and a fifth one.

   By the time the sixth came tumbling out, I was sick of looking at them and took a stroll to Maltsevsky Market, where they say some blind cripple was given a knitted shawl.

Lectures focussing on the work of Daniil Kharms are among the topics covered by the department's evening course of lectures in Russian culture. Click on the 'Evening Courses' button to the left to find out more.

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