Saturday, 17 October 2015

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller

Bruno Schulz has foreseen catastrophe and is almost paralysed by fear. His last chance of survival is to leave the home town to which, despite being in his late forties, he clings as if to a comforting blanket. So he retreats into his cellar (and sometimes hides under his desk) to write a letter to Thomas Mann: appealing to the literary giant to help him find a foreign publisher, in order that the reasons to leave Drohobych will finally outweigh the reasons to stay. 

Evoking Bulgakov and Singer, Biller takes us on an astounding, burlesque journey into Schulz's world, which vacillates between shining dreams and unbearable nightmares - a world which, like Schulz's own stories, prophesies the apocalyptic events to come.

Goodreads description

This is a novella about a Polish author who was hugely influential on magic realism and writers of magic realism, despite Schulz' small body of  work - The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Magic realist authors Cynthia Ozick, David Grossman, Nicole Krauss, and Milan Kundera have all acknowledged his influence and some (Ozick and Grossman) have even referenced Schulz in their writing. Now German writer Maxim Biller can be added to that list. 

In Biller's short novella Schulz is writing to Thomas Mann about a man who is pretending to be Mann. It is unclear to me whether the impostor is real or a figment of Schulz's fevered imagination. The novella is perhaps more surreal than magic realist with a nightmarish and scabrous quality. The sofa Schulz sits on walks out of a room when he pats it. Schulz's students (he was an art teacher in reality and in this novella) appear as talking birds. 

Biller mixes fact and fiction in this insight into the writer's mind. The novella is set in 1938 in the small Polish town of Drohobych. He gives the Jewish Schulz a prescient fear of the holocaust to come. The false Thomas Mann holds court to members of the Jewish community in a bathroom the size of a large school hall. The room has no fixtures, just showers. Everyone is naked and smoke pours out of the shower heads. The imposter is seen giving a German dressed in a black leather coat a list  of Jewish names. "Dr Franck and I... are in no doubt, Dr Mann, of what is going on here: we are being spied on."  Schulz was to die, shot casually by a Gestapo officer, as he walked home to the ghetto with a loaf of bread. 

The novella comes with two of Schulz's own short stories: Birds and Cinnamon Shops. And it is possible to see from these how Biller has incorporated themes in Schulz's works into Inside the Head. It is also possible to see that skilful though Biller is, he is not as gifted as his novella's subject. 

I have to confess that I have yet to read Schulz's other works, although they have been on my to-read list for many years. In fact I first came across Schulz's work in the Quay Brothers' animated interpretation of The Street of Crocodiles in 1986, which I share with you below. Like Biller's novella it is a work of dark surrealism. 

I received this novel free from the publisher, the excellent Pushkin Press, in return for a fair review.

No comments: