Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Maxim Biller: Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz

I have written before about writer's writers. Bruno Schulz is a prime example of a writer's writer. He led a sad life and then had a spectacularly cruel death, shot in the street by a Nazi, allegedly quid pro quo for the killing of another Jew doing slave labour. He left behind little material but what we do have is remarkable and fascinating. There are rumours of lost work, dispatched in letters and possibly mouldering in attics in the former Austro-Hungarian province of West Galicia. His name is not very difficult to pronounce. What more can one ask? Certainly he's been written about by all manner of American and Israeli novelists. Then of course there is Schulz's contemporary Thomas Mann, a writer's writer with a huge body of work and an even huger reputation.

In his novella Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz, Maxim Biller puts the two of them together and one of them comes off badly. Last night the book was launched with a rather pompous event, more Thomas Mann-style than Bruno Schulz, with two publishers and the writer on stage at the fancy-schmancy Deutsches Theater. I had been putting off writing about the book because I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but I knew I liked it a lot. Now I like it even more.

The plot is based around a factual incident: the Polish author Schulz wrote a short story in German, called "Heimkehr", which we know about from letters but which is lost. He could write in German because his family lived in Vienna for a while before returning home to their small town of Drohobycz. He sent the story to Thomas Mann. Nobody knows if it even arrived or what Mann thought of it, as it isn't mentioned in his diaries. Biller takes this as his starting point.

So we find Schulz in typical desperate novelist mode, writing his letter to Thomas Mann in his cellar study in November 1938. His remaining family is as crazy as the family in Schulz's Cinnamon Shops* and he's working as an art teacher and hating every minute of it, relieved only by visits to the red light district and the thought of being punished by a young lady teacher who adores his work rather too much. It's not pastiche, not at all; Biller's language is not nearly as florid as Schulz's prose. But there are a good few pointers thrown in almost as jokes: Bruno Schulz's pupils turning into birds and shitting all over his study, a Pierrot stuffed with sawdust as a sex toy, and lots and lots of Drohobycz. Biller told us he'd read Doreen Daume's new translation of Sklepy cynamonowe and had trouble with it until he came to the title story*, which he loved. And you can tell, because he's written an affectionate portrait of a very odd fellow and was obviously very interested in his frank attitude to sexuality and masochism.

And then there's the letter. The letter is the most surreal thing about the book. In it, Maxim Biller has Bruno Schulz invent a story, warning the eminent writer in his Swiss exile about someone posing as Thomas Mann in Drohobycz and getting up to all sorts of shenanigans with the local Jews. It begins harmlessly enough but soon escalates into a violent orgy, and finally the fake Thomas Mann turns into an out-and-out Nazi. There are dark hints and deliberate anachronisms, Holocaust symbolism in the wrong time and place. Biller wrote his thesis on antisemitism in Mann's early work and has never let him off the hook since (and indeed, why should he?). He's said he wants to destroy him and he hates the Germans for revering him above all others, despite his dubious attitude towards Judaism and Jews. There's plenty of literature on the subject, including a long and detailed Wikipedia article in German. So while Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz is friendly towards one writer's writer, at its heart it's actually a cutting take-down of another.

Because imagine what he's doing here - it's something fiction can do outstandingly well. Biller has given us a picture of an imaginary Thomas Mann, a double of Thomas Mann, who is actually a sadistic fascist. He hasn't said at any point that the real Thomas Mann was a sadistic fascist, but it's like one of those photos you can't un-see. Here we have a fictional version of the Germans' favourite writer as a ridiculously evil individual. It's quite astonishing. Ultimately, it leads us to two real-life questions: what if Thomas Mann had helped Bruno Schulz to get out of Poland before the Nazis invaded? And why didn't he? I think that may be one of the things the author was most interested in here.

Reading the novella, it's impossible not to side with the underdog Schulz. But Biller talked yesterday about his treatment after his death, the prudish reception of his work. He was rediscovered in the 1960s and translated into German, English and other languages, but his explicit illustrations accompanying the original Polish publication of his interlinking stories weren't reproduced. Five of Schulz's drawings of submissive men and dominant women are included in Biller's book, however.

I found this interesting because it was not an uncommon phenomenon for translations to "clean up" things considered smutty, from sanitized versions of Shakespeare and 1001 Nights to more recent publications, well into the twentieth century. I wondered whether that was one reason why Sklepy cynamonowe was recently re-translated into German. And then I noticed that Biller refers to one of Schulz's characters throughout his own book as Adele, whereas English translations and – I checked – the Polish original call her Adela. It seems that the first German translator domesticated the willful maid so hard he even gave her a German name – not something the character would have put up with, I suspect, had she stepped out of the pages. But then I read, in Adam Thirlwell's Miss Herbert, that Bruno Schulz and/or his fiancée Józefina Szelínska translated Kafka's Der Process into Polish (taking us straight back to Dorothea Tieck, who didn't get credit for her prudish Shakespeare translations either). Thirlwell writes:
In his Polish version of The Trial, Schulz transformed Joseph K** into a Polish counterpart, a double: Joseph became Jurek K. So that the Polish reader could not receive the consolation of the foreign.
And I thought that although Biller had read Doreen Daume's new translation, in which Adela gets her real name back, it was rather fitting that Biller's doubly fictionalized Adela is also her old translated double, Adele.

Im Kopf von Bruno Schulz is a slippery piece of writing in the very best way. As critics have remarked, of course, it takes place primarily in Maxim Biller's head rather than Bruno Schulz's. But that seems to be an interesting place to be.

*In English, interestingly, the title of the story collection was changed to The Street of Crocodiles, highlighting a rather racy piece. I don't know whether this suggests Anglophone readers and publishers are less prudish than their German equivalents or just because Cinnamon Shops sounds even odder than the book already is.

**Joseph K is in itself a more gently domesticated version of Kafka's Josef K. Which goes to show how firmly these domesticated names cling on inside our heads.


Helen MacCormac said...

I want to read this right away!

Caroline said...

Maxim Biller is on my piles and this sounds even better than some of the others I have.
I wasn't aware of Bruno Schulz's life story. How very tragic.
An excellent post, Katy.

kjd said...

I'm glad to have got you both hooked.

Anonymous said...

There is a risky, certainly less than respectful with the departed trend regarding those who can't defend themselves--publishers certainly love it. Take a famous name and exploit... There is no evidence Schulz went to brothels etc, see Muse & Messiah: The Imagination, Life & Legacy of Bruno Schulz. What has a novel got to do with a living person anyway?! It reaches its nadir with Feur who thinks Schulz Austrian rather than Polish. And didn't Mann, with Hermann Hesse, constantly criticise the Nazis or are there more than one Mann? He did believe plagiarism legitimate, and may have ransacked Schulz's story for his Dr. Faustus.