The term “the absurd” is applied to literature in several ways. It describes a “school” of dramatic writing (though not all care to accept it as such), in the case of “Theatre of the Absurd”. It is also considered a prominent period style – observable, approximately, over the two middle quarters of the twentieth century (stretching roughly from the end of the First World War up until, say, the 1970s). Or it may be a category with philosophical (usually Existentialist) implications – in other words, a timeless quality, which may be seen pertaining here and there throughout literary history.
A major figure of the first half of the twentieth century was Franz Kafka. Most of his work was published only after his early death in 1924 and his reputation has burgeoned ever since, to the point that adaptations and imitations of his works abound (by, among others, Harold Pinter, Steven Berkoff and Alan Bennett), and “Kafkaesque” has become an everyday adjective. His novels The Trial and The Castle, along with shorter stories (notably Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony) have established Kafka as the unsurpassed master-purveyor of endless streams of sinister bureaucracy and the creeping encroachments of indeterminate and hostile powers. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (Metamorphosis) stands as one of the most startling opening sentences in world literature. Kafka may be classed as an absurdist par excellence – one whose creative career ended a quarter of a century before the Theatre of the Absurd, as it is now recognised, had begun.
A principal representative of both absurdist prose and Theatre of the Absurd (of which he is seen as one of the founding figures) is Samuel Beckett. A writer spanning Anglo-Irish and French literature in unique fashion, Beckett was resident in Paris from the 1930s, writing in English, then in French, and subsequently in both, translating his own works both ways. His early English prose writings, notably Murphy (1938) and Watt (begun 1941; published 1953), are, in part at least, examples of what might be called “Irish grotesque”. But Watt (written in wartime France) marks a turning point in Beckett’s prose – one indeed firmly towards the absurd. The emphasis here is placed greatly on Watt’s inner world, along with the introduction of a mysterious third world – that of the house and system of Mr Knott (in and under which the protagonist spends much of the novel’s “action”). After Watt, Beckett soon began writing his prose in French (“from a desire”, he said, “to impoverish myself still further”), as well as making another switch – into first-person narrative. First Love and the three other novellas of 1946 were written almost in anticipation of the so-called “trilogy” of novels – Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. These were the works that established Beckett as an exponent of absurdist prose, retreating ever further into what have been called “skullscapes” (or “frescoes of the skull”, the term used by James Knowlson and John Pilling), alongside his rising theatrical prowess. Beckett’s next fiction, Texts for Nothing, confirms the progression towards constriction and the minimal – a self-styled “farrago of silence and words”, engaged in “panting towards the grand apnoea” of negativity. Of his subsequent prose, let’s mention just The Lost Ones, in which Beckett creates a horrific and entropic mini-universe, the enclosed space of a flattened cylinder, inhabited by 200 people engaged in a hopeless “quest” for an exit. The observation that “in this old abode all is not yet quite for the best” stands as one of absurdist literature’s great understatements.
Another Irishman making a significant contribution to absurd prose was Flann O’Brien (the novelistic pen name of Brian O’Nolan: 1911-1966). A famed Irish Times columnist, O'Brien wrote the novel The Poor Mouth (1941) in Irish, his first language, but is now mainly remembered for two remarkable experimental and absurdist novels: At Swim-Two Birds and The Third Policeman. The main feature of the former – its stylistic and generic variations apart – is the presence of a novel within the novel, and the takeover of the inner novel’s writing by its characters, who exact revenge upon their author. The Third Policeman, suppressed by its author during his lifetime (or, rather, just left lying about), is O’Brien’s masterpiece. Here complexity of form is equalled, or even excelled, by that of a content having a strongly disturbing effect on many readers (including reportedly O’Brien himself). The plot involves murder and a hellish and apparently circular afterlife, in which the narrator is tormented by absurd policemen in a supernatural zone called “The Parish”.
In America, two notable novels of the absurd are J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). Donleavy uses a mainly (all but infernal) Dublin setting of chaos and absurdity, largely created by the protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield – the anglicized-hibernicized American antihero and mock-Christ figure. Catch-22 is dominated by a bureaucratic-military absurd, represented emblematically by the title, which is, of course, itself now more than a catch phrase. Set in the World War Two “theatre” of Italy, this novel was influential during the Vietnam War period, and takes on a renewed significance with the Gulf wars and the “War on Terrorism”.
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 second of a three-part series.