Great books that can't be said to exist

Great books that can't be said to existRussias Lost Literature book

When I was younger and had mental energy to burn, I developed a passion for Russian literature.  What can I say?  The sight of a page littered with four-syllable names calmed me.  I started with The Brothers Karamazov in college and went on to anything else I could lay hands on, almost at random, which is how I discovered a book in the library of Vanier College in Montreal called Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd. The book, translated and edited by George Gibian, is mainly made up of very short, bizarre stories by a Soviet-era writer called Daniil Kharms.

Here is a typical example:

A Sonnet

An amazing thing happened to me: I suddenly forgot which came first, 7 or 8.

I went to my neighbors and asked them what they thought about that.

I was really amazed when they told me that they too couldn't remember the counting sequence.  They remembered 1,2,3,4,5 and 6, but they forgot what came after that.

We all went into the grocery store at the corner of Znamensky and Basseynaya streets and asked the cashier.  The cashier smiled sadly, took a tiny little hammer out of her mouth, and slightly twitching her nose, said, "I think 7 comes after 8 in those cases when 8 comes after 7."

We thanked the cashier and ran joyfully out of the store. But then, thinking over the cashier's words, we again fell silent, because her words turned out to make no sense.

What were we to do?  We went into the summer park and counted trees.  But after we reached 6, we stopped and argued.  Some thought 7 came next, and others that 8 came next.

We argued for a long time, but fortunately a little boy fell off a park bench and broke both jaws.  This distracted us from our argument.

Then we all went home.

(Russia's Lost Literature of the Absurd, George Gibian, translator and editor, The Norton Library, New York, 1974)

I went mad for this guy.  The bizarre events narrated with such shrugging calm. That perfect 'fortunately'.  And of course there was the fact that nobody else I knew had ever heard of him - it gave me a sense of ownership.

The piece I always forced friends to read was this:

A Fable

Daniil KharmsA certain short man said, "I'd do anything if only I could be just a little taller."

He had hardly finished saying this when he saw a witch standing in front of him.

"What do you want?" the witch asked him.

The short man stood there, and he was so frightened, he couldn't say anything.

"Well?" said the witch.

The short man stood there and said nothing. The witch disappeared.

At that point the short man started crying and biting his nails.  First he bit all the nails on his fingers and then those on his toes.

Reader, think hard about this fable and you will feel pretty strange.

Pretty strange! Fantastic! This was the line I'd always quote whenever I was trying to explain why I liked Kharms so much.  And even people who thought I was touched in the head had to concede that 'pretty strange' made the grade.

Years later I found a more complete collection of Kharms in another library.  I turned to A Fable, giggly with anticipation for that last line.  And then it came:

'Reader, consider this story carefully, and you will be overcome by a feeling of strangeness.'


In the introduction to this new one, I recall the translator of the book assuring his readers that this version was the most faithful and precise available. (Translators tend to boast like rappers, I've noticed.) But how could it be possible? Was 'pretty strange' the creation of George Gibian (the first translator) and not Daniil Kharms? Did this story actually exist anywhere in the form that I'd imagined? To find out, I'd have to spend years learning Russian, building my vocabulary to native-speaking proficiency. Maybe I'd have to go and live there. I wasn't sure if 'pretty strange' was worth it.

Spending a lot of time with works in translation does tend to bring on these first-world problems. In one sense, it can be a gift. If you love a book in The Brothers Karamazov-237411133-largeanother language, you've got a dozen or more director's cuts to choose from, and the book will be slightly different every time.  It also means you'll be wary of getting attached to a nice turn of phrase. Suppose it doesn't really exist?  In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky's term for people denying themselves happiness out of perversity is 'heartbreak' in one edition, and the more soap opera-ish 'heartache' in another. In the translation I bought a few days ago, it's 'strain'. Strain? Jeez. Sounds like a bowel complaint. Which one is right? All of them? None? And how am I supposed to decide if Vladmir Nabokov was completely out to lunch when he claimed that 'Over the Brandy', the title of a chapter in Brothers, was best translated as 'A Nice Little Chat Over Brandy-kins'? It will be a mystery forever.

That, and my declining willingness to take on doorstop books, was part of why I left the Russians alone for a while.  I could read every translation in the world, but I still wouldn't be sure which was the real book, or if any of them were.

Not that this is anything I'm losing sleep over these days.  In fact it's just possible that this whole tale was an excuse to (semi-legally) print some of those Daniil Kharms stories.  And here's another one.  Take it away, Daniil!  And George! 

Blue Notebook No. 10

There was once a red-haired man who had no eyes and no ears.  He also had no hair, so he was called red-haired only in a manner of speaking.

He wasn't able to talk, because he didn't have a mouth. He had no nose, either.

He didn't have any arms or legs.  He also didn't have a stomach, and he didn't have a back, and he didn't have a spine, and he also didn't have any other insides.  He didn't have anything.  So it's hard to understand whom we're talking about.

So we'd better not talk about him anymore.

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