The “absurd” (see Chris Baldick’s Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms) is “a term derived from the existentialism of Albert Camus, and often applied to the modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value”. The “Theatre of the Absurd”, particularly Waiting for Godot, and the works of Kafka have been especially singled out. Indeed, it is largely through the Theatre of the Absurd, and Martin Esslin’s study bearing that title, that “the absurd”, as a label, achieved widespread currency through the second half of the 20th century. However, citing Kafka and Camus suggests a strong absurdist presence in prose writing as well.
Absurd theatre has its roots back in Greek drama. Approaches to the absurd can be made through philosophical texts (particularly the tenets of Existentialism, but also much earlier instances, going back as far as the Stoics, and on through “negative theology”). Later, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are seen as significant thinkers, as, in the 20th century, are Heidegger and Wittgenstein (in particular, the latter’s “language games”). Other approaches come through theory of humour (Bergson, Freud etc.) and “nonsense”, socio-linguistic theory of pragmatics and relevance, and linguistic theory of verbal communication (particularly Roman Jakobson’s model). Lack of communication and the inadequacy of language – resulting in the unsaid, the “unsayable”, or the “unnamable” – are constant constituents, as are incongruity and incoherence. Elegiac monologue may accompany, or vie with, conspicuous pointlessness. “Mirth cannot move a soul in agony” (Biron: Love’s Labour’s Lost). Absurdist literature, however, would see that it did.
Regarding literary prose, one can indicate the proto-novels of the late classical period and, subsequently, the inventive and fantastical compositions of Rabelais as absurdist antecedents. Then, with the rise of the novel, works by Swift and Sterne come into play: satire, parody and the “English nonsense” tradition, from the 17th century to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll – all feed into a developing absurdism. A number of prominent 19th-century writers, as proto-absurdists in their own right or as incorporators of absurd elements within more mainstream novels, also contributed to what can now be seen as a growing tradition. One thinks particularly of Gogol and Dostoevsky in Russia (the latter becoming especially important to Camus) and Dickens in England; other European influences on 20th-century absurdism include the (anonymous) The Night Watches of Bonaventura (1804) and Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1868).
Early in the 20th century, what we might consider proto-absurdist moments occur in works by novelists who – at first sight – seem unlikely candidates for absurdism; these include Conrad, Henry James (especially in The Sacred Fount, 1901) and Ford Madox Ford. However, it was the emergence of the modernistic avant-garde artistic movements of Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism, along with the (at the time unknown and unpublished) Russian OBERIU grouping, that gave absurd writing such a significant boost in the period from the early 1900s to World War Two. Poetry and manifestos apart, the Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti produced an extraordinary purported parable-novel (or “free-word book”), The Untamables in 1922; the Russian Futurists are mainly known for their poetry (though Mayakovsky also wrote plays and Khlebnikov wrote prose). Of the Dadaists, Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters left notable prose works. Among the Surrealists, André Breton and Louis Aragon were prose writers; not least, Breton produced an Anthology of Black Humour (1940) – a genre allegedly initiated by Swift, and a term Breton is said to have coined. Black humour surfaced too in the unlikely environment of Stalinist Leningrad, in the activities of OBERIU (the “Association of Real Art”), whose principal figure was Daniil Kharms (1905-42), active from 1927 until his suppression during the siege of Leningrad. His Kafkaesque drama Yelizaveta Bam apart, Kharms is noted for his black miniatures (sluchai or “incidents”) and for his haunting novella The Old Woman [Starukha, 1939]. A selection of his works (translated by the present writer) is collected under the overall title Incidences (Serpent’s Tail, 2006).
European prose of the inter-war years, with the general rise of modernistic experimentalism, saw abundant examples of absurdist prose. Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a number of fantastical prose works, as did his Flemish admirer, Paul van Ostaijen, who styled his satirical stories “grotesques” (see his Patriotism Inc. and Other Tales), while Joseph Roth included the absurdist novel Rebellion (1924) in a body of work chronicling the Hapsburg imperial collapse. From Central and Eastern Europe, mention should be made of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-23), an unfinished saga of unremitting military farce in an endless march towards the front. Poland produced two slim volumes of surreal stories from Bruno Schulz (The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass), before he was (tragically and farcically) murdered by the Nazis. Gombrowicz’s bizarre novel Ferdydurke (1937) also deserves mention, along with certain Russian writings by Vladimir Nabokov (a Berlin resident for most of the 1920s and 30s) – especially Invitation to a Beheading.
As well as translating selections from the writings of Daniil Kharms (see above) and Mayakovsky’s My Discovery of America (Hesperus, 2005), Neil Cornwell is author of The Absurd in Literature (Manchester UP, 2006) and editor of Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd (Macmillan, 1991). He is also Russian editor for the online Literary Encyclopedia. This article is the first of a three-part series.