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The Man with the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd

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This book brings together works by two of the outstanding talents of Soviet literature, Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky. It discloses a little-known tradition of absurdism that persisted during the Stalinist period, a testimony to both the hardiness of the Russian imagination in the face of socialist realism and the vitality of an important cultural and literary tradition.

258 pages, Paperback

First published November 1, 1971

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About the author

Daniil Kharms

228 books374 followers
Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev (Даниил Хармс) was born in St. Petersburg, into the family of Ivan Yuvachev, a well known member of the revolutionary group, The People's Will. By this time the elder Yuvachev had already been imprisoned for his involvement in subversive acts against the tsar Alexander III and had become a religious philosopher, acquaintance of Anton Chekhov during the latter's trip to Sakhalin.

Daniil invented the pseudonym Kharms while attending high school at the prestigious German "Peterschule". While at the Peterschule, he learned the rudiments of both English and German, and it may have been the English "harm" and "charm" that he incorporated into "Kharms". Throughout his career Kharms used variations on his name and the pseudonyms DanDan, Khorms, Charms, Shardam, and Kharms-Shardam, among others. It is rumored that he scribbled the name Kharms directly into his passport.

In 1924, he entered the Leningrad Electrotechnicum, from which he was expelled for "lack of activity in social activities". After his expulsion, he gave himself over entirely to literature. He joined the circle of Aleksandr Tufanov, a sound-poet, and follower of Velemir Khlebnikov's ideas of zaum (or trans-sense) poetry. He met the young poet Alexander Vvedensky at this time, and the two became close friends and inseparable collaborators.

In 1927, the Association of Writers of Children's Literature was formed, and Kharms was invited to be a member. From 1928 until 1941, Kharms continually produced children's works and had a great success.

In 1928, Daniil Kharms founded the avant-garde collective OBERIU, or Union of Real Art. He embraced the new movements of Russian Futurism laid out by his idols, Khlebnikov, Kazimir Malevich, and Igor Terentiev, among others. Their ideas served as a springboard. His aesthetic centered around a belief in the autonomy of art from real world rules and logic, and the intrinsic meaning to be found in objects and words outside of their practical function.

By the late 1920s, his antirational verse, nonlinear theatrical performances, and public displays of decadent and illogical behavior earned Kharms — who always dressed like an English dandy with a calabash pipe — the reputation of being a talented but highly eccentric “fool” or “crazy-man” in Leningrad cultural circles.

Even then, in the late 20s, despite rising criticism of the OBERIU performances and diatribes against the avant-garde in the press, Kharms nurtured a fantasy of uniting the progressive artists and writers of the time (Malevich, Filonov, Terentiev, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Kaverin, Zamyatin) with leading Russian Formalist critics (Tynianov, Shklovsky, Eikhenbaum, Ginzburg, etc.,) and a younger generation of writers (all from the OBERIU crowd—Alexander Vvedensky, Konstantin Vaginov, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Igor Bakhterev), to form a cohesive cultural movement of Left Art. Needless to say it didn't happen that way.

Kharms was arrested in 1931 together with Vvedensky, Tufanov and some other writers, and was in exile from his hometown (forced to live in the city of Kursk) for most of a year. He was arrested as a member of "a group of anti-Soviet children's writers", and some of his works were used as an evidence. Soviet authorities, having become increasingly hostile toward the avant-garde in general, deemed Kharms’ writing for children anti-Soviet because of its absurd logic and its refusal to instill materialist and social Soviet values.

He continued to write for children's magazines when he returned from exile, though his name would appear in the credits less often. His plans for more performances and plays were curtailed, the OBERIU disbanded, and Kharms receded into a very private writing life. He wrote for the desk drawer, for his wife, Marina Malich, and for a small group of friends, the “

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Displaying 1 - 27 of 27 reviews
Profile Image for S̶e̶a̶n̶.
824 reviews311 followers
January 20, 2020
I know I previously read some of these selections from the two most translated members of the Oberiuty, perhaps all, but not likely all, many certainly felt familiar, while others did not, or only parts of them felt familiar, so I might have read excerpts of others, but still it's always good to revisit the Oberiuty, every few years seems right, a reminder not to take literature too seriously but at the same time to take it deathly seriously, and to always have fun while doing so, fun that at the same time is dark, and dark fun always seems best to me. In the words of Daniil Kharms:
One must write poetry in such a way that if one threw the poem in a window, the pane would break.
Profile Image for Andrew.
Author 4 books26 followers
February 13, 2009
"My nonsense hurts a little" - there's no more accurate assessment of these treasures than that quote from the treasures themselves. Because nonsense does hurt; absurdity may at least be a stab at humor, but at the root is a fundamental void. This writing captures the incredible cathartic power of language while at the same time not ignoring dire reality that makes it possible.

"If only human beings sin, this means that the sins of the world are to be found in the human being himself. Sin does not enter into human beings, it only comes out of them. That is similar to food: human beings eat good things and evacuate bad things out of themselves. There are no bad things in the world, only that which has passed through human beings can become bad."

"I judge
I cut
I sit
I rage
No, I don't sin.

One more time.
I judge
I cut
I sit
No, I don't sin.

One more time

I judge
I cut
I sit
No, I don't sin."

Profile Image for Ed Erwin.
899 reviews93 followers
June 22, 2021
It is very interesting to know that there was a movement in Russia in the 1920's and 30's similar to Absurdism or Dada. In fact, there were several, including "zaum" and "oberiu". This 1971 book collects a bunch of very short stories and one play by Kharms, one play by Vvedensky, and one longer story by Kharms. That longer story, "The Old Woman", is the only one that I actually enjoyed reading (at a 3-star level).

The plays could, maybe, be fun to see if produced by a gifted company or done as an animated film. They are no better and no worse than things like Ubu Roi or The breasts of tiresias. But simply reading them is not much fun. (Note that I do think "Ubu Unchained", one of the sequels to "Ubu Roi", actually is fun to read.)

I'm glad they tried to create new things. I'm sad they were punished for it. But, still, not very much fun to read.

(I read the 1971 edition. There is a later edition that has more contents.)
Profile Image for Peter Landau.
868 reviews44 followers
February 15, 2019
Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky are absurdists. You don’t have to read them to know that. Their names give them away — what’s with all those repeating vowels and consonants? THE MAN WITH THE BLACK COAT: RUSSIA’S LITERATURE OF THE ABSURD cements the deal with very short stories, plays, verse and even some tales for children. The truth is that today absurdity is realism and, I think, it might not have veered too far from that then, too. The 1930s in the USSR was a time of creative and political explosion, with everyone signing manifestos and groups splintering off into kindling that caught fire easily and consumed many. The joke turned sour quickly, as totalitarian has little tolerance for humor, which is rampant in those pieces. The authors were dead a decade later, falling foul with the new regime of social realism. But their work still elicits laughter or lol, as we might say today. We’re living in a time when it feels as if absurdity is the norm and we must be deadly serious and tolerate no deviations. Haven’t we learned anything?
Profile Image for Kristen.
20 reviews
September 10, 2016
(I don't remember exactly what year I read this.) A book I actually have kept over the years. Read it front to back with relish. Later, it paired well with psilocybin, though I couldn't concentrate for more than a few pages.
Profile Image for Madison.
4 reviews
August 25, 2008
While Kharms' work in this is better translated in other editions and provides nothing new, Alexander Vvedensky's Christmas at the Ivanov's makes this entire book worth reading.
Profile Image for tortoise dreams.
804 reviews41 followers
July 22, 2019
Selected works by Russian Absurdist Daniil Kharms and a short play by his compatriot Alexander Vvedensky.

Book Review: Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd is subtitled A Literary Discovery, and further subtitled Selected Works of Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky. In fact, the book, edited and translated by George Gibian, consists of various works by Kharms (1905-42) and a single short play by Vvedensky (1904-42). This may be the first collection of Kharms' work translated into English. Both authors were part of the Absurdist movement in Russia (the "Oberiu") in the early part of the 20th Century, and both may have been arrested by the Soviets after the Second World War began and died in custody shortly thereafter. The Russian Absurdists were trying to duplicate the radical nature of Communism in their art, but the government was less accepting of creativity and modernism in the arts than in economics and demanded socialist (soviet) realism, art that would serve the state. This didn't fit well with Kharms' vision, as he was a sort of literary Russian Salvador Dali (in Ireland, Daly). Dali isn't a bad choice because Kharms' work depends heavily on the visual. It's difficult to describe or explain Absurdist writing because it's, well, absurd. I can say that for the right mind it's hilarious, for some minds there may be deeper meanings, and for other minds it all will be meaningless (or, I suppose, absurd) at best and frustrating at worst. All I can really do is provide four shorter examples of Kharms' work (ellipses mine):

There was once a red-haired man who had no eyes and no ears. He also had no hair, so he was
called red-haired only in a manner of speaking ... He didn't have anything. So it's hard to
understand whom we're talking about. So we'd better not talk about him anymore.

The other day a man went to work, but on his way, he met another man, who had bought a loaf of
Polish bread and was on his way home, to his own place. That's about all.

When Pushkin broke his legs, he got about on wheels. His friends liked to tease Pushkin and
caught the wheels. Pushkin became angry and wrote poems in which he swore at his friends. He
called these poems "erpigarms."

Khvilishevsky ate cranberries and tried not to wince. He expected everybody to say: What
strength of character! But nobody said anything.

You'd really be better off reading the actual book. Apparently, this volume was expanded and republished in 1997 as The Man with the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd with the same two authors and the same editor slash translator. This edition contains a useful introduction by Gibian, numerous "Mini-Stories," the longer story "The Old Woman," a play Elizabeth Bam, and two of Kharms' children's stories. To justify the second subtitle, a play by Kharms' compatriot Alexander Vvedensky is included as well as the Oberiu Manifesto. The Oberiuty (including Kharms and Vvedensky) were a group of Absurdists (related to the Futurists) who were working in all forms of the arts in 1920's Russia. The Manifesto seems to be a plea to the government to be allowed to continue their work despite the lack of Soviet Realism or a direct contribution to the regime. Although now there are numerous editions of Kharms' brilliant absurdist creations (e.g., see Today I Wrote Nothing), George Gibian performed a valuable service by gathering, preserving, and translating these works during his trips through Eastern Europe in the late Sixties. Having read Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd and being introduced to Daniil Kharms, I not only have a better understanding of Absurdism, but a new author to explore. [4★]
128 reviews4 followers
July 11, 2013
Mostly comprised of Daniil Kharms' parable-like 'nonsense' stories, this book displays the Russian absurdists' (failed) attempt to rescue imagination and individuality from a national literature that was headed toward pedantic 'proletarian' fable. The result is writing that is as filled with wonder and dream-like fantasy and as honest and innocent as children's lit, where its authors finally found political shelter.
Profile Image for Gerry LaFemina.
Author 31 books57 followers
November 1, 2013
Gibian's introductory essay contextualizes smartly this wonderful anthology that features mostly the work of Daniil Kharms. Much of this work had never been published in any language before and the mini-stories of Khaarms (some prose poems, some fables, all fabulous are a must read).
Profile Image for Angelique.
771 reviews14 followers
February 10, 2019
If you’re looking for absurd, look no further than here. Maybe it should stay lost? A great read for inspiring my writing, but found most of it not fun to read. I loved Falling-Out Old Women and A Children’s Story - everything else was meh/absurd for absurd sake/wild.
Profile Image for Namrirru.
267 reviews
July 13, 2007
If you like this book, you will also like Cortazar's "Cronopios and Famas" and Ionesco's "Rhinoceros."
19 reviews4 followers
January 22, 2008
i read snippets of Kharms' writing in the new yorker and i was a smitten kitten. he is whimsical and eerie.

finished! absolutely amazing.
Profile Image for Nicholaus Patnaude.
Author 11 books29 followers
September 5, 2008
Why couldn't he have written a novel? It would have rivaled "A Confederacy of Dunces." These stories are funny and outrageous and perfect for the easily bored.
6 reviews2 followers
March 5, 2011
Russian Absurdism at its finest.
Profile Image for Michael Seidel.
41 reviews6 followers
July 18, 2011
Weird balance of work by the two featured writers. Should have just been a Kharms book and then done a separate book for Vvendsky. Buuut. All really great, funny, dark writing.
Profile Image for S.
251 reviews25 followers
August 25, 2014
Some of it is quirky, but most of it left me feeling mleh.
Profile Image for Daniel.
61 reviews1 follower
March 8, 2019
Couldnt put it down. Love learning and exploring the Russian avant garde.
Profile Image for Dixie.
Author 2 books10 followers
November 27, 2021
I love the mini-stories (the first half of the book). The longer ones in the second half feel too long. For me the complete absurdity of the stories works much better in the shorter format.
Displaying 1 - 27 of 27 reviews

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