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Joanna Walsh on Absurdist Literature

‘Absurdism is completely out there – it’s about clashing and bright colours and over-the-top metaphors.’ Author and critic Joanna Walsh considers the peculiar nature and aims of absurdist literature, from Daniil Kharms’s shattered narratives to Isabel Waidner’s joyful assaults on sense.

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Joanna Walsh

Joanna Walsh is the author of Hotel, Vertigo, Fractals, Seed, and Grow a Pair. Her latest book is Worlds From The Word's End. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies including Granta Magazine, Salt's Best British Short Stories and Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction. She was awarded the Arts Foundation 2017 Fellowship for Literature. She is also an editor and literary critic.

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Joanna Walsh

Joanna Walsh is the author of Hotel, Vertigo, Fractals, Seed, and Grow a Pair. Her latest book is Worlds From The Word's End. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies including Granta Magazine, Salt's Best British Short Stories and Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction. She was awarded the Arts Foundation 2017 Fellowship for Literature. She is also an editor and literary critic.

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What is absurdism? Or do we need to speak of absurdisms?

I like movements that have unsteady, or weak, borders – “weak” is very much a buzzword in critical theory at the moment, there’s the idea of “weak theory” and weak affects. Absurdism is associated very strongly with modernism, which was kind of growing up around the same time, but it’s not the same thing. There are some who would argue that Modernism is still going on, but I associate it very much with a certain period.

Absurdism seems to go on and on. I think about it in terms of language quite often – about the parts of language that are not tenses like the past, or present, or future but moods, like the subjunctive – which, of course, if you speak French you use all the time, unlike in English. So I think that absurdism in literature is like that: not something governed by time but a kind of mood.

There’s absurdist philosophy too, of course, which is mostly associated with writers like Kierkegaard and Camus. It seems to be about finding lack of meaning whereas absurdist writing seems to be very much to do with a proliferation or confusion of meaning.

“Absurdist writing seems to be very much to do with a proliferation or confusion of meaning”

English literature doesn’t have many absurdists, which is quite surprising because we have such a huge vocabulary in English – so many words that mean very slight shades of the same thing. I suppose there have to be factors other than language.

Historical context has a lot to do with it, and the contexts in which the books you’ve chosen were written vary widely. One can speculate as to why absurdism might have flourished in all cases: we have one from the Soviet era, one from the eve of the Second World War, and one from 2016-17, a year which speaks for itself.

One of the questions I ask myself about absurdism is ‘What is it doing today?’, so I chose a mixture of contemporary authors and people like Daniil Kharms who was there from the beginning, as well as Leonora Carrington and Flann O’Brien who were writing in the 20th century. Carrington’s stories cover a fairly wide period. The Third Policeman, of course, was written just before the Second World War but wasn’t published until 1966, after O’Brien’s death. It was considered too absurd.

His publishers wrote that famous rejection letter: “We realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so.”

And yet I think it’s by far his best book, even considering his other works like At Swim Two Birds (1939). It’s terrible that his best book was rejected.

I think a common mistake—perhaps less so in literature specifically—is to confuse the absurd with the nonsensical.

I think the main difference would be something to do with its aims. Though absurdism seems nonsensical it doesn’t operate in the realm of nonsense. Absurdism often has a clear satirical intent, but satire tends to be directed at a specific movement or person. Although it can be political, absurdism tends to treat the effects of the way that we live – it’s social-political rather than party-political.

Absurdism of the 20th century has to do with work and systems of employment. I love Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (1968). Perec spent most of his life – he died in his mid-forties – writing novels and essays, but he had no money so he had to have a day job. He was an archivist at a hospital and his systems were used right up until the development of the internet. The Art of Asking is a short story/essay and a kind of written algorithm, or pre-internet algorithm. Of course the pathways all lead back to the same point at which you have to start again, so you never actually succeed: you’re either too shy or you’re put off or your boss not in his office or something happens…. So, yes, a lot of absurdism – think of Gogol or Kafka – is about work and bureaucratic systems, and about the conflict between these and humanity; about what happens when a system is imposed on you and whether you can live with it, or how absurd it is to live with it.

Let’s talk about your first book, Today I wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms (1905–1942). He’s often credited as one of the grandfathers of absurdist writing. Tell us about him.

I like the fact that he invented his own name. He was born Daniil Ivánovich Yuvatchov. It marks a step into artificiality. He was a necessarily political author – he died in prison after falling foul of the Soviet regime in 1942, as many people did. But his absurdism seems to be more socially or linguistically oriented.

His stories are also about storytelling itself, so there’s one about women tumbling out of windows, which is very short – many of his stories no more than a paragraph. He often abandons narrative towards the end.

So here’s “Tumbling Women”:

Because of her excessive curiosity, one old woman, tumbled out of her window, fell and shattered to pieces.

Another old woman leaned out to look at the one who’d shattered but out of excessive curiosity also tumbled out of her window, fell and shattered to pieces.

Then, a third old woman tumbled out of her window, and then a fourth and a fifth.

When the sixth old woman tumbled out of her window, I got sick of watching them and walked over to the Mal’tseviskiy Market where, they say, a blind man had been given a knitted shawl.

I makes me think of what George Saunders said about Kharms’s work: “Kharms’s stories are truly odd, as in: at first you think they’re defective….. Bring that into a workshop! You’ll get slaughtered.”

Yes, I love how he gives up on the narrative, and it seems very relevant today – with the distraction of the internet, which might, in his day, have been gossip, rumour, or the sort of celebrity chasing that went on the newspapers.

Another thing I love is that sudden break between something that’s fairly realistic and something that really isn’t – and it’s a very fine line to cross. So you have the first old woman falling out of her window and then all of a sudden she shatters to pieces. We go from something we might see every day, to something very confusing: suddenly she becomes an object.

“Because of her excessive curiosity, one old woman, tumbled out of her window, fell and shattered to pieces”

A lot of absurdism is concerned with that dividing line between people and objects, and people and animals. You see it in Isabel Waidner’s book and in Leonora Carrington’s. Carrington is very interested in people and animals. And Waidner is particularly interested in the line between people and things.

You write from that frontier between object and people in your own work, too – especially in your new collection Worlds From the End of the World

Many of the stories are about the ways in which the systems in which we live make us into objects of use to each other or to some unknown power that might be governmental or it might be cultural.

One common trope in absurdist literature is to imagine people as objects, or bring objects to life. That’s very much a part of what Kharms was doing. He also did that via language, treating words as intermediary objects between the speaker and the thing that the speaker is referring to. A word becomes an object in itself, a material thing with a certain number of letters and a certain sound, that hovers between the intent of a speaker and the actual thing. Language is absurd in that we say the word ‘cow’ and we expect someone else to be able to conjure what that is. It’s just a three-letter word that takes up a certain amount of aural or physical space.

I keep coming back, again and again, to this idea: how much can language be applied to the external world? I’m guessing from speaking to you earlier that you must be at least trilingual and so you’ll know this from experience. As soon as you start learning another language seriously you realise where the gaps are in your own language, and where the gaps are in the new language – how these words govern what can be thought.

I’m interested in Kharms’s outlook. He founded the avant-garde collective Oberiu (Union of Real Art); he embraced Russian Futurism, and was known in his lifetime for writing for children (his adult work was only published posthumously). That sort of suggests a kind of optimism about the future to me… And yet his adult work is pretty grim and certainly very violent.

European Futurism was a violent movement and notoriously linked to Fascism. I’m interested in the violent clashes in literature. In the story about the tumbling old women, for instance, Kharms conjures a shattering but also the violence of setting one half of a sentence against another. I like another Russian writer of the same period, Viktor Shklovsky, who was involved in many of the same literary movements as Kharms, and his idea of ostranenie (estrangement), of making deliberately jolty links. I use that a lot – not because I want to copy Shklovsky, but because that is the way I see the world. I see a series of things that are difficult to bring together through language and narrative. Stories usually aim to be smooth things, but the idea of consequence and beginnings, middles and endings is something that interests me because I want to work against it.

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Absurdists writers tend to be unfriendly writers in a way – they’re rebellious. If you look at Carrington, there’s the wonderful title story, in which a hyena comes to live with the family of “The Debutante” of the title, who, as Carrington did, is about to make her ‘debut’ at a society ball and who, like Carrington, loathes the entire process. The hyena kills a maid and chews off her face so she can use it to go to the ball disguised in her place. At the ball, the hyena eats disgustingly and exudes strong animal smells, and it seems that Carrington is talking about the things that were forbidden to her as a polite society woman.

We keep coming back to Carrington (1917–2011) so let’s tackle her next. In what new directions did she take absurdism?

Carrington was aligned with surrealism because of her paintings, and because she became a writer and painter while she was living in the south of France in her early twenties with the surrealist artist Max Ernst. She had kind of a long-distance relationship with surrealism, as many of the female artists at the time did, partly because they were not invited to be involved in the construction of its manifestos, but also because they often occupied an ambiguous position as both muse and artist. The role of the muse was particularly powerful in surrealist ideology and was both enabling and limiting for women because it put them at the centre of the movement, but it also put them in a certain place. Some surrealist writing describes women as conduits of the subconscious but incapable of manipulating, and turning this into art. Carrington was very sceptical about all of this. She said, in one of her few interviews, towards the end of her life: ‘I was not a surrealist, I was just with Max.’

“I keep coming back to again and again to this idea: how much can language be applied to the external world?”

Surrealism has a direct link to psychoanalysis and to Freudian and Jungian ideas of the unconscious, whereas Carrington’s work also contains social critique – so I quite confidently place her as an absurdist writer.

And, beyond the hyena, there’s a lot of dancing about on the line between humans and (other) animals.

Carrington liked to think through totems: in her later life in Mexico she became interested in Mayan mythic figures, but she began with her nursery rocking horse, which appears in a number of her early paintings and self-portraits. She identifies with the figure of the horse throughout her stories.

Her stories aren’t as short as Kharms’s but they are short. Why is brevity so suited to absurdism?

It might be to do with the idea of fragmented-ness, that violence and clashing within the absurdist style which, can be difficult to sustain at longer lengths (though Finnegans Wake gives the lie to that of course). Ben Marcus’s Age of Wire and String (1995), which is, I guess, a novel, is set out in little sections, too. That constant sense of self-fragmentation and narrative deconstruction can be taxing, for the reader as well as the writer.

Let’s talk about that one, then, because the catalogue-like, bit-y structure is a governing principle in The Age of Wire and String.

It makes me think of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) – they both have structure, with sections and subsections – they are catalogues, but of what? – and, again, they examine the absurdity of systems.

One thing I’m very interested in, and am using increasingly in my own work, is the structures and language we use to impart knowledge to each other. Wikipedia fascinates me because it’s completely amateur so there’s absolutely no reason why its writers should imitate regular encyclopaedia entries, but mostly they do.

Age of Wire and String creates systems of knowledge that push themselves towards absurdity. And because Marcus has often used structure without content that we can easily identify – although it has emotional resonances (he uses a lot of family vocabulary) – he’s creating a gap to enable a leap of imagination between the text and the reader… not an invitation to make some kind of direct sense of it, but to make it work in some way for us.

A quick glance at reader reviews online shows people getting quite angry with, or frustrated by, precisely that. The main criticism seems to be that the reader has to do “all the heavy lifting” (to quote one reader); another is that it makes the reader feel stupid.

That’s interesting. I didn’t find it easy to read myself but I didn’t feel angry by being made to feel I had to work things out – I suppose that’s because I enjoy that kind of thing. And I could see from very early on that the book wasn’t going to provide me with a ‘satisfactory’ explanation.

Marcus’s book seems to be an experiment across or through language, and every sentence is itself some kind of attempt to wrestle with the materiality of words. I think about writing like I think about music: no one says ‘Can you condense that piece of music or explain it in a shorter piece? The experience of listening to music is not considered as something that necessarily has a subtext that is more important that the text.

There’s this wonderful movie called Barcelona, directed by Whit Stillman. It’s very funny, and it’s about two American expats who are trying to settle in Spain and there are cultural tensions and they’re trying to get laid and all sorts of things are happening. One of them works in advertising – he’s a writer and he reads a lot – and his cousin – the other guy – is in the navy. One day the advertising guy’s cousin is asking him about reading books – he’s curious and doesn’t really know much – and he says ‘I’m always hearing about this thing called the subtext and it’s, like, what’s the thing that’s above the subtext?’ And the writer just says ‘Well, I think it’s called the text.’

“Being a writer is a very untrustworthy position – you are trusted, in that readers put themselves in your hands, but also distrusted, because they think you’re holding something back”

There’s this feeling in reading that the writer is fooling you somehow, and that the point of reading the book is to find the thing that they are not saying instead of the things that they are saying. But writing can be, and should be, also evaluated at the level of the sounds it makes and the patterns that can be experienced in reading it. Being a writer is a very untrustworthy position – you are trusted, in that readers put themselves in your hands, but also distrusted, because they think you’re holding something back.

Irony has a lot to answer for – I’m thinking in part of Paul Fussell’s theory that irony became the common currency in the aftermath of the First World War, around the same time that absurdism was starting out. Is there a connection?

I suppose absurdism’s habit of placing terrible human events into rather silly scenarios is a form of irony. But absurdism doesn’t tend to participate in the reticence that we associate with irony. Absurdism is completely out there – it’s about clashing and bright colours and over-the-top metaphors.

To go back to your comments about music a moment ago, could you give a sense of the tone of Marcus’s book – something to give a sense of what to expect.

Well, on the back it says “comic and disturbing” and I think I’d go with that. It has this nice modulation between cold and heated language, which is exhilarating. Its power lies in its combination of these things.

Let’s move on to Flann O’Brien and your next book, The Third Policeman. Again, it’s a pretty difficult one to give a summary of – it’s so full of unexpected turns, not to mention the one-legged strangers, untethered souls, doppelgängers, and bicycle fetishes… – so perhaps you could discuss the role of the bizarre police barracks at the book’s centre.

There are two police barracks in the book. The first one doesn’t seem to be implausible as a physical situation. But the second one, which comes in later, is built between an interior and an exterior shell of a house. Beyond this, the landscape of the book isn’t particularly absurd – it’s somehow very conventional, and the countryside is described as beautiful, and pleasant. It’s when you get down to the details that things become disturbing – like the policeman who the protagonist meets in the first barracks who is assembling a series of boxes, each one smaller than the next until he gets to ones that are so small he can only work on them with microscopic tools under a magnifying glass.

The narrator finds these boxes particularly disturbing.

Yes, O’Brien is very good at this combination of the familiar and the horrifying.

The narrator an interesting figure: we don’t know his name but we know he was orphaned at a young age, and this takes an especially dark turn when he is sentenced to death (in short: being nameless puts you in a tricky legal situation). It seems relevant given that Flann O’Brien wasn’t the author’s real name – it was Brian O’Nolan, and he had various other selves, too. An elaborate self-fragmentation, I guess…

Like Daniil Kharms, O’Nolan had many pseudonyms. He wrote in Irish too, and he had pseudonyms in both languages, perhaps expressing a cultural discomfort. He said he thought it was ridiculous for an author to write everything under one name.

So, the (absurd) system at stake here is the legal system?

It’s only one of them… O’Brien’s writing has all sort of targets. One of my favourites (to go back to encyclopaedias etc) is his creation of the philosopher de Selby, a character who never appears directly in the text, only in the anti-hero’s obsession with his works, and the heavily footnoted battles between de Selby’s critics and biographers. Sadly the Wikipedia page on de Selby gives away that he’s a fictional creation.

We get a combination of the familiar and the quite frankly bizarre in your final book, Gaudy Bauble (2017) by Isabel Waidner. I must admit, I hadn’t heard of this one, so could you start by introducing us to the author?

Isabel Waidner is a debut writer published by a very small press in Manchester. I discovered her and Dostoyevsky Wannabe, which specialises in beautifully designed avant-garde literature, at the same time. What I was immediately struck by was her joyful linguistic playfulness. It seems a radical act.

“Absurdism is completely out there – it’s about clashing and bright colours and over-the-top metaphors”

Waidner and I talk – mostly on Twitter – and she tweeted to me once that avant-garde literature will come from women and writers of colour and queer writers. We were talking about the difficulty of radical writing and conservatism of form: radical standpoints don’t always produce the stylistically or structurally innovative writing that would seem the logical extension of such standpoint .

But Waidner’s language is a joyful assault on sense, that she doesn’t try too hard to explain in any way, and she throws in the odd brand name or place name – like Brixton – and we hold on to it for some kind of anchorage. And then she puts in a lot of words that are just made up – there are whole sentences that just switch back, and she uses real things to refer to not-real things, and not-real things to refer to real things… And she builds up this whole posited world of a “Socialist Britain”, where [the TV channel] Channel 4’s entire remit is to produce increasingly diverse programmes. It’s a very funny, affectionate and satirical take on the very idea of diversity politics.

The protagonist Belà Gotterbarm writes “awkwardgarde fiction, potentially trailblazing.” Sexual politics come to the fore: there’s a “faggoty social”, a foray into the etymology of the word “dyke”, an eight-part TV series called Querbird, and mention of “a camp coup… A butch putsch… An attack on generic things”. Is this the peculiarly modern inflection of Waidner’s offering?

It’s very funny and full of terrible puns, and then you realise that some bits do mean something specific and that she’s stealth-building a kind of taxonomy of queer cultural history. But on another level her writing is about words interacting with words and about language being as important in driving the narrative as character and physical setting.

I love the first line: “A formidable micro-horse sprang across a Formica table top. Ah, it’s Tulep. Tulep sprang across grassgreen Formica, grazing, apparently.” (Tulep turns out, slightly more prosaically, to be a budgerigar…. Albeit a “hoofed budgerigar”.)

I love the exclamatory nature of the writing, and that’s something that’s more specifically to do with her than with absurdism as a whole. Her writing behaves like speech – it has this kind of momentum, with lots of exclamation marks and very little redundancy – there’s no time for ‘he said, she said’. And we are expected, as readers, to keep up. What I like in all of the books I have chosen is the exhilarating reading experience. It’s a wonderful way to read.

All of these books have clearly had a foot in the politics of their time and place – if anyone were in doubt as to where the politics of the last book lay, the blurb spells it out: “Gaudy Bauble stages what happens when the disenfranchised are calling the shots. Riff-raff are running the show and they are making a difference.” I suppose it’s the “…and they are making a difference” part that interests me; we’ve had systems of life and labour, of law, of sex and gender – where do you think absurdist writers might direct their efforts next?

It’s something I’m always thinking about – as all writers are, really – not just about absurdist literature but about literature in general: what can writing do, especially in this increasingly sharp political climate? To go back to Viktor Shlovsky, he wrote an essay in 1954 about writing and propaganda. He said that, happily, it is difficult to use writing as propaganda because it’s like trying to use a samovar to hammer in nails.

“It’s nice to think that writing is too slippery to easily be used for propaganda, but this means it’s also difficult to use for more laudable political aims”

It’s nice to think that writing is too slippery to easily be used for propaganda, but this means it’s also difficult to use for more laudable political aims. Absurdist writing, with its mix of violent joy, can express and stir up discontent, but its delight in the structure of language and the materiality of words, means it is impossible to harness in the service of anything in particular.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

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