A protest against reality: the life and afterlife of Bruno Schulz

David Grossman, Roberto Bolaño, Danilo Kiš, Salman Rushdie, Cynthia Ozick, China Miéville, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth and Nicole Krauss... This is not a fantasy Hay Festival line-up but a roster of authors who have used either the fiction or the life of Bruno Schulz in their books. Now the German Maxim Biller has joined them and the title of his novella Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz (published alongside two of Schulz’s own stories) will provoke a response from anyone familiar with Schulz’s uniquely striking work: how do you presume to get inside a head that generated such profoundly strange ideas?

These were ideas as strange as years that, “like a sixth, smallest toe, grow a 13th freak month”; houses that spontaneously seal up unvisited bedrooms and passageways; a boy’s father transforming into a crab and his uncle into a length of tubing (“Can there be anything sadder than a human being changed into the rubber tube of an enema?”). Schulz’s fiction is a protest against reality, an extended attempt to return to “the age of genius”, which is partly his own childhood and partly something “on a level above chronology”: a mythic age. Yet, for all its fanciful metamorphoses, Schulz’s work, as V S Pritchett pointed out, has “not a touch of whimsy in it”. It is as often seedy as it is mystical and if it catalogues a series of escapes from reality into the exciting realm of myth, the fantasies we enter are usually an uneasy mixture of amazement and threat. Sooner or later, reality always returns to foreclose on every too-ambitious dream.

Biller’s novella, like Schulz’s work, operates on multiple levels. We join Bruno sitting in a dank basement in the provincial Polish town of Drohobycz, on a November day in 1938, writing a letter to Thomas Mann. He experiences hallucinations, including the transformation of boys tapping on the basement window into birds (of the many animals in Schulz’s fiction, birds are primary). Bruno is also writing an account of a recent arrival to Drohobycz who claims to be Thomas Mann; Biller thus embeds a literary impersonation within a literary impersonation. This strand appears to be a fiction that Bruno is creating, not least because the impostor interacts with his dead brother-in-law Jankel Hoffman, who killed himself in 1910 (although Biller, for unexplained reasons, moves his suicide to 1928).

Like the real Schulz, Biller’s version teaches art at a secondary school in Drohobycz. “Fate tied Bruno Schulz for his entire life to Drohobycz,” wrote his biographer Jerzy Ficowski. Biller’s Bruno is so acquainted with “Fear” that it appears as a proper noun and the real Schulz was also a nervous and self-effacing man: “Appearing too scared to dare exist, he was rejected by life and slouched along its peripheries,” Witold Gombrowicz, Schulz’s contemporary in the Polish avant-garde, later recalled. While Schulz made attempts to escape Drohobycz – to Lviv, Vienna and Warsaw – some form of lassitude, likely derived from fear, always defeated him.

If Drohobycz was Schulz’s prison, however, it was also the staging ground for his transformation of reality. All of the stories in his two collections, Cinnamon Shops (1934, published in English as The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937, although portions of it pre-date his debut), both translated by Celina Wieniewska, take place there. Despite the enthusiastic reception that the books enjoyed, he remained in Drohobycz, unmarried, frustrated and unhappy, struggling to support his mother, his widowed and mentally disturbed sister and her depressive son. And it is there that he died in November 1942, shot in the street during a so-called wild action against the Jewish population. The story goes that he was the “house Jew”, or slave, of the Gestapo Hauptscharführer Felix Landau, ordered to paint fairy-tale scenes on the walls of the Nazi’s child’s nursery. When Landau killed another officer’s Jewish dentist, Schulz was murdered in reply. “You killed my Jew – I killed yours,” his murderer told Landau. (It should be noted that David Grossman, who made a slightly altered version of this story the centrepiece of his 1986 novel See Under: Love, now suspects that the story is false and that Schulz’s murder was random.)

Alongside Schulz’s extraordinary fiction and his horrendous death, there remains one more element of his legend: the lost work, comprising four stories, prints and drawings and the manuscript of his novel, The Messiah, which he had been writing intermittently since 1934. Schulz supposedly deposited these papers with non-Jewish friends a few months before he was killed. From the late 1980s, reports started to reach Ficowski about the manuscript; someone even claimed to have spotted it in a KGB archive. He was unable, however, to discover more before his death in 2006. Biller gives it glancing mention but does not attempt to imaginatively reconstruct its contents, as both Grossman (in See Under: Love) and Cynthia Ozick (in The Messiah of Stockholm) have done.

While these fictions knowingly play on the unknowability of the real Messiah, it is notable that commentators including Jonathan Safran Foer feel moved to describe the lost book as Schulz’s “masterpiece”, despite the evidence for this claim being extremely thin. Two stories from Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, “The Age of Genius” and “The Book”, were originally published (in 1934 and 1935) as excerpts from the novel and Grossman quotes someone who claims to have seen the manuscript’s first page: “Morning rises above a town. A certain light. Towers. That was all he saw.” (This description, incidentally, could almost be the opening of Schulz’s story “The Street of Crocodiles”.) In reality, Schulz had experienced difficulty writing anything new since the mid-1930s. He certainly had ambitions for The Messiah to be his most important work (as all artists hope their next work will be their best) but for now his masterpiece remains The Street of Crocodiles.

Biller has a reputation for challenging Germany’s attitude to its Nazi past, so it is unsurprising that his version of Schulz’s life should foreground the Holocaust. But when Schulz, this frightened man who scratches away in a basement, beset by taps at the window and knocks on the door, has a vision of gas hissing from shower nozzles and “armies of human beings in grey uniforms” burning “men, women and children who could move only on all fours”, we find ourselves in the head of a writer with knowledge after the fact. Currents of despondency and catastrophe run through Schulz’s surviving work but there is barely an after-echo of the First World War in it, let alone a pre-echo of the second. The decision to give Bruno foreknowledge feels like a cheap effect.

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