Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller

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Translated by Anthea Bell

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Polish-Jewish author and artist Bruno Schulz lived a short and strange life, culminating in a tragic and pointless death at the hands of a Nazi in 1942. During his lifetime, he’d published a number of stories (usually collected under the title The Street of Crocodiles) and maintained himself by teaching art in his home town of Drohobycz. The place itself was one of those European locations which suffered from the constant border changes taking place in the early to middle part of the 20th century; the town’s been Polish, Austrian, occupied by Nazi Germany and is nowadays Ukrainian.

Schulz was highly regarded during his lifetime, receiving the Polish Academy of Literature’s Golden Laurel award. And yet, under the Nazis he was forced to live in the town’s ghetto and was shot by a Gestapo officer whilst walking home with a loaf of bread. Lost during the war were many of his stories and an unfinished novel, The Messiah, and so all readers were left with were the short pieces, often collected in one volume.

However, Schulz has continued to be read and loved over the years, and his slightly disturbing, sometimes erotic artwork also has quite a following. Now, writer Maxim Biller has imagined himself literally inside the head of Bruno Schulz and written an intoxicating little novella about the author’s state of mind. Expertly translated by Anthea Bell, the tale has been published by the ever-excellent Pushkin Press.

It is Poland, 1938. Bruno Schulz is living in a Drohobycz which is in a state of flux; aware of the changes going on in Europe around them, unsettled by rumours of violence, the townspeople have been apparently taken in by an imposter claiming to be the great German author Thomas Mann. Shocked by the appearance of the fake Mann, Schulz is composing a letter to the real one, warning him about the imposter’s behaviour.

You would think that would be straightforward enough, but alas no. The mind of Bruno Schulz is a strange thing, and as he writes his letter he is bothered by his art students from the school, who appear to resemble birds… The sofa he lies on walks from room to room; there is a surreal encounter with the fake Mann where all the dignitaries meeting and greeting him are naked; Bruno is tormented by Fear and has conversations with it. And through all of this hallucinogenic wonder, there are fearful visions of the future.

And then there is the sports mistress Helena Jakubowicz, pursuing Bruno with strange instruments from even stranger shops, but still believing in his talent as a writer:

And what about the lovely, gloomy Helena Jakubowicz? She, poor woman, believing too much in the enlightening power of literature and ideas, suffers from particularly severe depression, the result, as one tells oneself, of extreme literary ambition accompanied by only average talent. I do not know what it is that she likes about my stories. She takes them, she has told me a couple of times, as you might take an aspirin, or, no, an antidote to the poison of hopelessness within herself. And having to wait so long for my new book often makes her even sadder…

Biller has taken on an incredibly daring task here, by attempting to recreate the state of mind of a beloved writer, but to my mind he’s certainly produced a remarkably persuasive novella. His dazzling use of imagery, incorporating many of the people and places that will be familiar to readers of Schulz’s work, creates a narrative that’s heady and hypnotic, and completely convincing.

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz also contains two of Schulz’s short works – Birds and Cinammon Shops. The former relates a story of Schulz’s father during his period of keeping an ark full of birds in his loft; and the latter is a wonderful piece about the young Bruno becoming lost in the town after dark, which takes on nightmare qualities when seen out of its normal context. Including these stories is an excellent idea, because it gives the reader who’s yet to encounter Schulz an idea of what his work is like and the chance to compare it with Biller’s clever interpretation. And for the reader who’s already familiar with Schulz, the juxtaposition of these tales with Biller’s novella reinforces the skill with which that latter has woven the strands of Schulz’s life and fiction into this story

When I first read the work of Bruno Schulz I was quite spellbound by his imagery, the surreal quality of the narrative and the pure strangeness of his stories; and reading Biller’s excellent novella, Schulz was really brought alive for me. As a tribute to another writer, the novella can’t be faulted; and as a work of art in its own right, it’s a remarkable achievement. Maxim Biller really has taken me inside the head of Bruno Schulz.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is not entirely comfortable around birds.

Maxim Biller, Inside The Head of Bruno Schulz (Pushkin Press: London, 2015). 97817822710000, 90pp, paperback.

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