Readings selected by Paul De Jong, cellist and former member of the awe-inspiring, recently disbanded duo, The Books. 

Daniil Kharms - Incidences 

This is one of the few volumes in English written by Kharms. Along with Maiakowski, Vvedenski and Kazakow, Kharms was at the forefront of modernist writers around the time of the communist revolution in Russia in 1917.  Radical, idealistic, experimental, absurd, many of these writers quickly fell victim to the rigidity of the regime and either took their own life in despair and disappointment, died in the Gulag, or ended up dancing to big brother’s tune. Tightly controlled and under constant watch, Kharms ended up as an editor of children’s magazines and writing children’s stories, which are worthwhile enough to read to your children. He died under ‘mysterious circumstances.’ But before all that, he already had written a bizarre opus of absurdist vignettes , each one more perplexing in its depth and originality than the next one. Here humor truly proves to be the backdoor to the profound.

August Strindberg - Getting Married

Strindberg no doubt drew liberally from his own extensive experience when writing this collection of short stories. Here we witness the romance and idealism of early marriage methodically deteriorate and end in utter misery in every which way. Great expectations and deep disappointment, spendthrift and bankruptcy, sexism, overbearing egos, atrophied principles, control issues and co-dependence - this is a fictive encyclopedia of human failure and a good read to boot. Don’t let it keep you from trying! I am happily married myself. Again.

The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm

Beware, these are not the Household Tales! They do NOT live happily ever after! Some of the Household Tales may end somewhat badly, but the majority still would safely make the ‘G’ rating. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were indefatigable researchers who recorded several collections of German folk tales and legends during the 19th century. Most of these tales had been existing in the Germanic oral tradition for many centuries and were written down for the very first time in the age of enlightenment. In modern versions of the Household Tales the sharp (and ever so human) edges of the stories are often dulled, and morals have been attached where there were none intended. The German Legends present folk tales in their raw and unencumbered form: the supernatural and mystical  intertwine with the complexities of human character in a very inspiring way.

David Mamet - Make-Believe Town

This is the first volume of essays by playwright and director Mamet that I read. Shortly after I moved to the United States (about twenty years ago) I watched his Glengarry Glen Ross and was befuddled by its dialogues; there was such an overwhelming amount of  understatement that I was lost for about 90% of the movie.  I subsequently read Mamet’s screenplay and was left in even greater bewilderment. It took me about a decade to grow into the American idiom deep enough to come to understand, appreciate and admire Mamet’s characteristic writing. I was amazed at how close the spirit of his essays stands to his work for stage and screen, containing not the merest trace of contrivance. This volume is a selection of professional, personal and political reflections and memoirs; they stand out through what I would call a ‘practical philosophy’. No matter what decade they were written in, every one retains an immediacy of insight that can be readily applied to the present day. They exhibit the particular independence of mind that identifies a true American original, if, as a relative outsider, I may call it that.

Max Jacob - Selected Poems 

Not much of Max Jacob’s opus has been published in English or in any other language than its original French. I know of two small American editions, one translated by William Kulik and published in Oberlin in the 1990’s. Jacob, poet and painter, was one of the main group of Cubist painters and writers in Paris during the 1910’s and ‘20’s. His friends included Picasso, Modigliani, Apolliniare and Braque. Jacob’s prose poems marry the mystical and absurd, the symbolic and surreal. His texts always give me the strange sensation of reading something that appears to have been written a few millennia back with a 20th century fountain pen. Jacob never made much of anything from his writings or paintings, and remained equally poor after turning Christian, having had a vision of Christ on the wall of his room in 1909. He entered a monastery which did not keep the Nazis from seeking him out because of his Jewish origin. He died in a concentration camp in 1944.

Charles Simic - The World Doesn’t End

Yugoslavian-American writer Charles Simic seems to me a true representative of the living and breathing heritage of the particular craft of prose poetry. Simic’s prose poetry (like the vignettes of Kharms, the work of Jacob, and of their early predecessor Giacomo Leopardi) often has an appearance of being almost accidental, like a found object, a hint of something much larger and vaguely imaginable, inviting an archeological quest of one’s mind. What is very fulfilling to me as a reader is that if these seemingly fragmentary components are bundled wisely, the resulting collection tends to be far greater than the sum of its parts.