Uneasy lies the head: a self-portrait by Bruno Schulz from The Booke of Idolatry (1920-22).
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A protest against reality: the life and afterlife of Bruno Schulz

He influenced writers from Salman Rushdie to Danilo Kiš - now a new novel by Maxim Biller takes us deep into the legend of the Polish-Jewish novelist.

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz
Maxim Biller
Pushkin Press, 90pp, £10

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.

Biller is only the latest of many to map his path across Schulz’s uncanny landscapes. “Schulz is my God,” the Serbian writer Danilo Kiš reportedly told John Updike, and his 1965 novel, Garden, Ashes, owes an obvious debt. Schulz provides the epigraph and high concept for China Miéville’s The City and the City, in which two cities are overlaid in the same physical space. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie transports The Street of Crocodiles to Andalusia; in The Prague Orgy, Philip Roth gives a Czech writer Schulz’s death. In the final chapter of Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star, the narrator, distracted by his stakeout of a fascist killer, struggles with Schulz’s complete works: “The words went scuttling past like beetles, busy at incomprehensible tasks.”

This line not only evokes the propensity in Schulz’s work for everything, from tailor’s dummies to ink on a page, to have agency (in a lovely moment in Biller’s book, Schulz pats a sofa like a horse and it carries him into the next room) but also captures the difficulty of reading him with anything less than absolute attention: his prose is so dense with intense imagery and arresting similes that it can take an unexpectedly long time to consume the briefest stories. His deeply involving fictions are less narrative experiences than sensory. Schulz bears superficial comparison with Kafka but has a truer affinity with Proust.

Schulz might not have foreseen the Holocaust but he did, in a sense, foresee the parade of borrowing, transforming and revisiting that would attach to his work. In his essay “The Mythicisation of Reality”, he described the ideas that all stories “come from forgotten, fragmented tales” and that “not one scrap of an idea of ours does not originate in myth, isn’t transformed, mutilated, denatured mythology”. Literature, in other words, is a vast process of recycling and what emerges from one writer’s pen will eventually reappear, in some form, from another’s keyboard.

Momik, the narrator of See Under: Love invents a beautiful metaphor that recasts this relationship as a dialogue. When he was writing about Schulz, it was “as though I could hear him rapping out answers from the opposite side of the page; as though we were two miners tunnelling from opposite sides of a mountain”. 

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist