Words went scuttling past like beetles…



From The New Stateman:

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.”

“A protest against reality: the life and afterlife of Bruno Schulz”, Chris Power, The New Statesman