Some of Ian Frazier’s customary whip-smart, wondrous prose is on display in his NYRB piece about a raft of volumes by and about Daniil Kharms, a writer from that self-inflicted wound called Russia, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and starved to death at 36. He matured as an artist in Stalin’s Soviet Union, an era bathed needlessly in blood, his dark, absurd sensibilities perfect for the time and place or perhaps warped into midnight by them. The opening:
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.•