A Strangely Funny Russian Genius

The Old Woman

by Daniil Kharms, adapted by Darryl Pinckney, directed by Robert Wilson
Brooklyn Academy of Music, June 22–29, 2014

An Invitation for Me to Think

by Alexander Vvedensky, selected and translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky, with additional translations by Matvei Yankelevich
NYRB/Poets, 135 pp., $12.95 (paper)
frazier_1-050715.jpg
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Daniil Kharms, early 1930s

Russia is the funniest country in the world. Some countries, like America and England, are funny mostly on purpose, while others, like Germany and France, can be funny only unintentionally. (But that counts! Being funny is tricky, so any way you do it counts.) Russia, however, is funny both intentionally (Gogol, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov) and unintentionally (Vladimir Putin singing, as he did at a televised event a few years ago, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”). Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.

Surveys that measure such distinctions often rate Russians among the world’s least happy people. To judge from the Russians I know, this information would hold little interest one way or the other. To Russians, happiness is not the big deal it is to us; the Declaration of Independence they don’t have makes no statement about it. On the street or otherwise encountering strangers Russians don’t paste big grins on their faces, the way we tend to do. They look sternly upon reflex smilers. Their humor is powerful without a lot of jollity, and it’s hard to imagine Bulgakov, say, convulsed and weeping with laughter, as I have been when reading certain scenes in his novel Heart of a Dog.

Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who came of age in the worst of Soviet times, is categorized as an absurdist, partly (I think) because it’s hard to know what else to call him. To me he makes more sense as a religious writer.

He is really funny and completely not ingratiating, simultaneously. I believe he knew he was funny and tried to be funny in his work, but I can’t find a single instance of him using the word “funny” in any of his writings, except at some distance from its straightforward meaning. In his personal notebooks, published for the first time in English in 2013, he never exults in how funny he has been or boasts that a witticism he said or wrote had ’em rolling in the aisles. For an American humorist or comedy writer such diffidence would be out of character, if not unheard of.

Kharms’s life gave him a lot not to be jolly about. He was born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov in St. Petersburg in 1905. Formerly his father had been one of many young revolutionaries plotting against the life of Tsar Alexander III, a pastime that got him imprisoned for four years and then sent to a labor camp on Sakhalin Island for another eight. Later, Ivan Yuvachov became a Soviet in good standing and head of accounting at a…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.