Fiction of the Absurd

Nikolai Gogol . . . Franz Kafka . . . Bruno Schulz . . .
Daniil Kharms . . . Eugene Ionesco . . . Albert Camus and others

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)

Best known for the mainstream Taras Bulba (romantic epic, 1835-42), The Inspector General ("naturalist" comedy, 1836), and Dead Souls (1842) the Ukrainian Gogol (pronounced "goggle") wrote some excellent early absurdist stories including "The Nose," "The Carriage" (both 1836), and the seminal "Diary of a Madman" (1835). Another well-known story, The Overcoat (1842), considered one of Gogol's best works, also has several distinctively absurdist characteristics, including: the antinomy of outward appearance and inner reality, the related issue of questioning socially established values, and the fantastic ending.


Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

"A book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us."

Author of the famous but unfinished novels The TrialThe Castle, and Amerika; and of "Metamorphosis," "In the Penal Colony," "The Hunger Artist" and other stories and parables; also well known is "Letter to his Father."

Kafka is almost an archetype of the modern individual at odds with an impersonal bureaucracy, connived by paternalistic society into feeling guilt and insufficiency before the projected super-ego or conscience or what we feel driven to achieve. For the Surrealist Magus André Breton, "Kafka flashes the capital question of all times: Where are we going, to what are we submitted, what is the law?"



A German critical edition of The Castle in 1982 restored Kafka's original style and syntax; the English translation by Mark Harman (Schocken, 1998) is expected to replace the Willa and Edwin Muir translation of 1925, now perceived to be deficient.

Online Texts

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942)

A Polish author sadly neglected by publishers and public but whose genius has been recognized by such established authors as John Updike and Isaac Bashevis Singer. He wrote two books of stories, Sklepy cyanomonowe (1934; English translation published in the U.S. as Cinnamon Shops, in Britain as The Street of Crocodiles, 1963) and Sanatorium pod klepsydra (1937; English translation, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1978), both of which Schulz illustrated. Although Schulz is credited with the first Polish translation of Kafka's The Trial, he only attached his name to that work to ensure its publication.

Schulz's drawings are characterized by sexual idolatry bordering on sado-masochism. He made his living teaching art at a local school. His Drawings have been issued both separately and with his selected Letters, which include an exchange with Witold Gombrowicz -- whose work Schulz admired and lectured upon.

Lovers of dark literature and art are indebted to Jerzy Ficowski for his strenuous efforts to preserve the creative works of Schulz.



Schulz was murdered by the Nazi SS after talking a walk one night in 1942 and wandering into the "Aryan" section of his native town, Drohobycz. How ironic that Schulz's work embodies a kind of search for what is intrinsically noble, and the Sanskrit root-word "arya" means "noble." Pictured: Bruno Schulz, c. 1933.

Daniil Kharms (1905-1942)

A virtually unknown Russian author whose absurdist stories were long preserved only in samizdat or underground, hand-circulated manuscripts. Born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev, he invented the name "Kharms" (also "Charms") in high school. He participated in the Leningrad avant garde literary group the Oberiu, which collaborated with Malevich and the Russian Futurists in the 1920s. His writings, which include children's stories, are characterized by coincidences and acausal occurences, sudden disjunctions often of a violent nature, non sequitur endings, and stripped-down narrative that prefigured minimalism. Kharms himself was "disappeared" by the Stalin regime in 1942. His selected works are available in English along with those of Oberiu co-member Alexander Vvedensky in George Gibian's Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1971).


Eugene Ionesco (1912-1994)

Romanian writer best known for his plays "The Bald Soprano" (1950, which ushered in the Absurd Drama), "The Chairs" (1952), and the landmark "Rhinoceros" (1959), Ionesco himself preferred his short stories. The Colonel's Photograph and Other Stories (NY: Grove, 1969) is one collection. He also wrote a novel, The Hermit, and the autobiographical Fragments of a Journal (1967). The Hermit deals with a man who inherits wealth and withdraws from work and society into a comfortable life ruled by habit, indifferent to the turmoil of the world, which grows until it engulfs him as well.

Ionesco cited Apollinaire's "The Breasts of Tiresias" (1917) as one of his earliest influences, and he also greatly admired Camus.


Photo: Jerry Bauer (Cover from Fragments of a Journal, Grove Press Evergreen Edition, 1968)

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

French novelist, essayist, playwrite. Best known for the novel The Stranger (a.k.a. The Outsider) and the essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (both 1942). He is often considered a nihilist, or extreme absurdist who believes that life is senseless and useless; however, this may be an unfair characterization, and he is more safely classed as an existentialist. His rejection of revolution, even for independence, and his attacks against Lautréamont and Sade resulted in a feud with the surrealists. His unfinished final novel, Le Premier Homme (The First Man) was published in 1995. Photo courtesy Robert Daeley.


Other Authors

This page is not intended to be a complete survey of absurdist fiction, only to pay homage to a few select authors.  Along with the better-known playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd, the most notable omission here is Samuel Beckett.  Others include Jean GenetJean-Paul Sartre and André Gide.

For Raymond Roussel and other precursors of Surrealism and the theatre of the absurd, see my Surrealist Writers page.

Additional precursors of absurdist fiction include: Voltaire's (Candide), Nietzsche, Dostoyevski and the Biblical Ecclesiastes.

Related but distinct is the Nonsense movement typified by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

Examples of late 20th century absurdist fiction include Catch-22 by Joseph Keller  and the work of Julio CortázarJohn Kennedy Toole's A Conferderacy of DuncesRichard BrautiganDonald Barthelme and Walter Abish.


Also visit The Witold Gombrowicz Page

Acknowledgements Thanks to Prof. Richard L. Penner at the University of Tennessee for his class on Absurdist Fiction, which introduced me to Gombrowicz and Kharms. Thanks also to Julius Hatofsky for bringing Bruno Schulz to my attention.

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