As a self-taught observer of the absurd – my training comes from trips to the DMV, trying to converse with Russian bureaucrats, and reading about politics – it feels strange to read analysis of Daniil Kharms’s absurdist writing. Deciding what, exactly, made Kharms “weird” or absurdist feels like an inherently absurd act.
That’s not to say that “Soviet Deadpan,” George Sauders’s essay about Daniil Kharms in today’s “New York Times Book Review,” isn’t worth reading. It is! Saunders appreciates the energy and paradox of Kharms’s stories, and touches on the borders between Kharms’s narratives and what he calls “traditional stories.”
Russian literature has a long tradition of absurdity. One classic 19th century example is Nikolai Gogol’s “Нос” (“The Nose”), the tale of a man who wakes up without his nose, only to find the nose on the street, now man-sized, dressed in a nice uniform, and exiting a carriage. Gary Saul Morson’s article “’Absolute nonsense’ – Gogol’s Tales” from The New Criterion provides a wonderfully readable introduction to Gogol’s world.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog) is another favorite that combines absurdity with fantasy as it shows, among other things, what happens when a man’s organs are transplanted into a stray dog. (For one thing, he becomes head of cat control…)
Sergei Dovlatov takes a very different angle on absurdity in Soviet life and journalism in the book I’m reading now, Компромисс (The Compromise). So far The Compromise is nominally realistic – none of Bulgakov’s talking animals or Gogol’s walking body parts – as it addresses the meaning of truth in the USSR. I’m not worried if using “realistic” to describe absurdity sounds paradoxical: that’s what absurdity is all about.
An earlier Lizok's Bookshelf piece on Kharms: “The Charms of Kharms”
Daniil Kharms book on Amazon
Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog on Amazon
Dovlatov's The Compromise