Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms
Those lives that sprung from the mind of the late Daniil Kharms were absurd and brutish, protracted or short. The Russian author, who hailed from the OBERIU literary school and in 1942 died while imprisoned in a gulag for "anti-Soviet activities," had a tendency to conclude stories and poems abruptly with roadblocks like "That's All"--as though inspiration had suddenly abandoned him or he wanted to drive home a point about the impermanence of existence. Today I Wrote Nothing is a generally knuckleheaded collection, so rife with undeveloped ideas and nonendings that you suspect that Kharms took great pleasure in tweaking his reader. In most cases, he really might as well have not written anything; Richard Brautigan-length, sub-Seinfeld-ian pieces abound, empty one-note epigrams or experimental exercises in repetition.
"An Unexpected Drinking Party" sets up an impromptu extra-marital affair between a nude, seething wife and a building superintendent, then dodges the would-be fireworks of the husband's entrance by having the trio guzzle vodka until all are asleep. In "Sinfonia #2," Kharms can't be bothered to say much about the devices therein--calling them people would be too generous--so he just starts talking about himself: "I don't drink, don't attend the races, but I am drawn to the ladies. And the ladies don't try to shirk me." In "An Unsuccessful Play," actors enter--only to utter a few words before running off to puke; at the end, a child exclaims, "Daddy asked me to tell all of you that the theater is closing. All of us are getting sick!"
"The Old Woman" is one of his better stories, a surreal tale of an author beset by lethargy and writer's block who--after vivid daydreams in which he imagines himself unable to stop writing--is spurred to action by the apparent inexplicable death of the titular crone in his flat. Eventually he forces her body into a suitcase and boards a train to dispose of her; after a spell in the bathroom, he returns to his seat to find that the case has vanished, driving this avowed atheist to prayer. This story, with the narrator's hyper-awareness of his surroundings and desires, recalls Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist downer Nausea. Also worthwhile is the blackly comedic "Rehabilitation," in which a murderer and rapist calmly and succinctly rationalizes his crimes, and "Prayer Before Sleep March 28, 1931 at 7 O'Clock in the Evening," a poem that deserves to be renamed "The Scribe's Prayer": "Wake me up strong for the battle with meanings/ and quick to the governance of words/ and assiduous in praising the name of God/ for all time." Maybe it's a matter of perspective: Either God paid him no mind, or the compilers of this long-posthumous collection needed to be much more selective.