My experience with the absurd in literature started when my writing teacher recommended Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. From there, I moved into his flash fiction, then to Kawabata Yasunari’s collection of Palm of the Hand Stories and Natsume Soseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams. More recently I’ve recognized the absurdity in Lewis Carroll, Albert Camus and even Murakami Haruki. I read all of them before I had even heard the title ‘Absurdist,’ and like most readers and especially writers, I was plagued by two questions: 1) how did they publish this nonsense and, more importantly, 2) what was the point?
It wasn’t until I found Russian writer Daniil Kharms just last week that I realized my approach was completely wrong. Instead of searching for the meaning in their nonsense, I found I should unconditionally embrace the absurdity I love so much. I should be getting as much pleasure from the work as the author did writing it. I read a few of Kharms very short works and instantly I appreciated the absurd without needless questions. My writing that day didn’t get stuck in the mire of questions like:
What is this going to be about? Why am I writing this? What’s the meaning? What will people think?
Literature must have meaning. I’m not disputing that, but by simply running with the nonsense, the writer can overcome writer’s block, develop interesting personalities, premises, scenes, plots, and perhaps create a story that can be injected with meaning. Letting the nonsense loose allows the writer freedom to discover what things, like word choice, sentence rhythm, sound, and having fun can do for your writing and your identity as a writer. Often these things are left behind in the pursuit of highfalutin components, like theme, originality, purpose, and meaning.
Overjoyed, I recited a short piece to my friend/co-worker and she said, “It’s amazing, people are willing to pay for that stuff.” And while I don’t agree that it’s ignorance that drives people to buy and read nonsense (because I bought the stuff), it helped me to appreciate that people do pay attention to this work: no matter how absurd, obscure, strange, deranged, or just plain off the wall it is.
“I choked on a lamb bone. I was taken by the arms and brought away from the table. I lost myself in thought. A mouse ran by. Ivan ran after the mouse with a long stick. A strange old woman watched from a window. Running by the old woman, Ivan hit her in the face with the stick.” (Khams excerpt The Blue Notebook)
What does it mean?
Who knows and who cares? Nonsense or no nonsense, the man wrote every day.