“Schulz was incomparably gifted as an explorer of his own inner life.”
– J M Coetzee
The year is 1938. In the dull light of a basement apartment in the town of Drohobycz a man is anxiously penning a letter to his literary hero Thomas Mann. He works at a desk that is too low for him. When he is disturbed and distressed by the sound of birds pecking at the high windows he slips down onto the floor and continues working there until the falling autumn light forces him back up to the desk. On the walls of his room hang drawings he has made – fantastic dark sketches of domineering women and desperate men.
The man is famed Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz. As he composes his missive to Dr Mann, German author Maxim Biller is conducting a guided tour to the interior thoughts, fantasies and fears – make that Fear with a capital F – that he imagines fueling Schulz’s surreal and creative imagination. The resulting novella, Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz serves as a delightfully inventive introduction to an original and influential writer.
“Ever since he could remember Bruno – for that was the name of the man with the face like a paper kite – had awoken every morning with Fear in his heart. Fear and he had breakfast together in Lisowski’s tearoom, Fear accompanied him to the High School and looked over his shoulder as the boys put their unsuccessful sketches of animals down in front of him, as well as plaster models, covered with black fingerprints, of their sweet little heads.”
Biller paints a portrait of a deeply anxious man… a character that would be at home in one of Schulz’s own stories. When he meet him he is unsuccessfully struggling with a novel. He lives with his sister and her two sons. She still believes her dead husband will return. His students whom he thinks of as “bird-brained” literally appear to him as birds, at his window and in his room. He has a conflicted affection for a sado-masochistic sports and philosophy teacher whom he describes as beautiful despite her hairy monkey face and filthy matted hair. But more critically, he carries an impending sense of doom as it increasingly seems inevitable that Germany will be moving toward Poland. It is with that in mind that he is writing to Thomas Mann.
A most curious and twisted fellow claiming to be the great writer has turned up in this small town, charming the residents with enticing stories and grotesque gatherings. The fictional Bruno is anxious to alert Dr Mann to the existence of this impostor whom he suspects is actually a Nazi spy, and to beseech him to consider offering a poor Polish writer critical assistance. With an opportunity to publish in a prestigious journal or an introduction to an important publisher, the timid Bruno believes he might find the courage to leave Poland. He has even written a story in German to include with his appeal.
Combining biographical facts with a wildly fantastic vision that echoes Schulz’s own dark, dreamlike work, Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is a lateral approach to the writer’s restless creative energy. A brief biography and two of Schulz’s own short stories, “Birds” and “Cinnamon Shops” follow the primary text, making this short book which clocks in at under 100 pages, an irresistible invitation to explore more of the work of this important Polish writer. Unfortunately a number of stories and the unfinished novel he was at work on in this tale were lost after his death so what remains is limited. However, Schulz himself has resurfaced and been has been re-invented and re-discovered as a writer and artist time and time again in novels by Cynthia Ozick, David Grossman and Philip Roth among others, as well in plays and film. (See the essay “The Strange Afterlife of Bruno Schulz” by Jaimy Gordon for an excellent overview.)
Bruno Schulz was a Polish-Jewish writer born in 1892 in Drohobycz, a town historically part of the kingdom of Poland, now part of the Ukraine. During his lifetime he published two collections of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. He was known to be at work on a novel, The Messiah, which has not survived. He worked as an artist and an art teacher for many years. When the Germans moved into Poland during the Second World War, his artwork granted him temporary protection under the auspices of an admiring Gestapo officer in exchange for the painting a mural in the officer’s home. On November 19, 1942, walking home with a loaf of bread, he was shot in the back of the head by another Gestapo officer, a rival of his protector. He was 50 years-old.
Published by Pushkin Press (April, 2015 in the UK/October 2015 in North America), Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is translated from the German by Anthea Bell. The stories “Birds” and “Cinnamon Shops” from The Street of Crocodiles, were translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska and originally published 1963.