Thoughts on writing about Witness by Robert Rient for Minor Literature[s]

For all its sins, Twitter is still a terrific way to connect with readers, writers, translators and small publishers and, in the process, hear about books you might otherwise miss. Witness by Polish writer and psychologist, Robert Rient, is a case in point. I came to know of it by way of the translator, Frank Garrett, and was immediately intrigued by this story of a man who grew up gay and Jehovah’s Witness in Catholic Poland. I ordered the book and, as soon as it arrived, I had a quick look and immediately knew it was the type of book for which I would want to pitch a critical review.

I am intrigued by original approaches to memoir writing, that is, rrient-witnessintentional writing about ones’ own experience. In Witness, the story is carried by Luke, the writer’s younger self—the boy and young man torn between his faith community and his sexuality—and Robert, the grown man who marks his break with his past and his rebirth as a whole person, true to himself, by taking a new name and identity. Woven through these two narratives is a fascinating look inside the Jehovah’s Witness church. As someone with a dual identity history, albeit different in nature, I found a lot to admire in the telling of this story, as well as in Robert’s honesty and the powerful transformation he chooses to make to mark his move forward into a new authentic life.

My review is now live at Minor Literature[s]. Thank you to Tomoé Hill for entertaining my contribution.

Thoughts on writing about Dreams and Stones by Magdalena Tulli

I am very pleased to have my first review published at The Quarterly Conversation. Dreams and Stones by Polish writer, Magdalena Tulli, is a poetic meditation on the city as an organic entity, essentially an urban cosmology. I read it through twice before writing my review and in my second encounter its nonlinear, cyclical quality was even more apparent. Thinking about it now, two months later, its fantastic, mythic qualities still have a strong hold on my imagination. But there is more that haunts me when I think about this book.

dreamsstones

I had been aiming to submit this review in mid-July, my first reading was in late June, but before I could put pen to paper, so to speak, my father had a stroke and car accident and my mother became ill and died. As one might imagine, I struggled to write, let alone read. During times like this words fail us. But, as my father’s death neared I returned to this short book, for distraction, comfort and, above all, to know that I could still write. The ability to sit down and pull together a critical review was an important turning point. In times of immediate crisis and grief when family members find themselves trudging back and forth to the hospital, the advice is to try to return to some measure of routine. The answer, for me, was to write.

Dreams and Stones is translated by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago Books. My review can be found here. Be sure to have a look at the rest of Issue 45 while you’re there.

Thanks to Scott Esposito for everything.

Probing the fantastic imagination: Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller

“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.

bruno_schulz_paintingThe 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.

inside headA 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.)

SchulzBruno 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.

Ode to the soul of the world: Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk

“God sees. Time escapes. Death pursues. Eternity waits.”

Welcome to Primeval, a mythical village that exists, if it exists, somewhere in Poland at the very heart of the universe. Watched over by a somewhat irresolute God and His angels, the people of Primeval and the surrounding communities live out lives filled with love and loss, joy and pain, birth and death. In her unusual and affecting novel Primeval and Other Times, Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk introduces a world endowed with a cosmology that skews conventional Christian wisdom, placing God on the sidelines of His creation. In this world view, matter and spirit are tightly bound at all levels of existence and imagination is a vital force driving life forward.

“Imagining is essentially creative; it is a bridge reconciling mater and spirit. Especially when it is done intensely and often. Then the image turns into a drop of matter, and joins the currents of life. Sometimes along the way something in it gets distorted and changes. Therefore, if they are strong enough, all human desires come true – but not always entirely as expected.”

This is not, as you might suspect, a conventional novel. Three generations of the Niebieski/Boski family form the backbone of the story but there is no overriding or direct narrative. Rather it dips in and out of the “Times” of a collection of archetypical characters, places, even objects; sweeping the reader along on a stream of vignettes plaited together to build a chronicle of the experiences of the residents of Primeval through the twentieth century, from the advent of the First World War to the rise of Solidarity. We meet Genowefa Niebieski, the wife of Mikał, the miller, who has been called up to join the Tsar’s forces. While he is away at war she gives birth to a daughter, Misia, and years later, a second child Izydor, a son born with hydrocephalus. Misia will, in time, marry Paweł Boski, a man of ambition who eventually rises to the role of Health Inspector under the Communist Party. Together they will have four children. Some secondary characters recur throughout, like Cornspike, a fallen woman who has retreated to a ramshackle old house where she lives, close to nature, with her daughter, Ruta, and the eccentric Squire Popielski. Other characters pass through, especially during WWII when the greater forces of the outside world penetrate the borders of Primeval bringing terror and destruction with them.

2015-08-29 18.47.59With the magical tone of a fairytale for adults, the world of Primeval is brought to life with a keen sensibility for botanical detail and the cyclical flow of months, seasons and years as they pass. It is a rural community. However, the close bond to nature defines not only village life, but the world beyond its borders where modernity increasingly stands in its opposition. At one point, as Misia, reflects on the mutability of the blossoms on her fruit trees, the orchard itself becomes an analogy for the broader patterns of human existence. There are apple-tree years and pear-tree years. In the former conditions are harsh but the brief blossoms intense and the animals that do survive are strong and aggressive.

“Apple-tree summers give birth to new ideas. People tread new paths. They fell forests and plant young trees. They build weirs on rivers and buy land. They dig the foundations for new houses. They think about journeys. Men betray their women, and women their men. Children suddenly become adult and leave to lead their own lives. People cannot sleep. They drink too much. They take important decisions and start doing whatever they have not done until now. New ideologies arise. Governments change. Stock markets are unstable, and from one day to the next you can become a millionaire or lose everything. Revolutions break out that change regimes. People daydream, and confuse their dreams with what they regard as reality.”

By contrast, nothing happens in a pear-tree year. Plants lay down deeper roots, animals and people grow stronger. Larger litters and healthier babies are born.

“People think about building houses, or even entire cities. They draw plans and measure the ground, but they do not get down to work. The banks show enormous profits, and the warehouses of large factories are full of products. Governments grow stronger. People daydream, and finally notice that each of their dreams is coming true – even once it is already too late.”

It is very difficult to describe the experience of reading this book. Ordered with Women in Translation month in mind, it arrived from the wonderful Prague based Twisted Spoon Press when I was in the hospital recovering from cardiac arrest. Once I could hold my thoughts together long enough to entertain the idea that I needed some books to read, Primeval and Other Times was one of two books that I asked my son to bring. In the opening passage, “The Time of Primeval”, the geographical boundaries of the village are laid out along with the risks and dangers personified by the features marking each direction and the Archangel assigned to guard the borders. I panicked, imagining that I would need to sketch out a map to keep all these relevant facts in mind. All month I have looked at this gorgeously bound volume sitting on my stack of books until I felt I was ready. My concerns, as it turns out, were for naught.

This is a captivating tale, rich with ideas and emotion. The constantly fluctuating threads of the tale are not disruptive. Rather they work smoothly together and allow the story to progress over such a vast time span with ease and forge an unforgiving and unforgettable vision of the world that is poignant, heartbreaking and gorgeous.

witmonth15Olga Tokarczuk is an award winning, highly respected Polish author. Born in 1962 and trained as a psychotherapist it was little surprise to find out that she frequently cites Carl Jung as a significant influence on her work. Primeval and Other Times was first published in Polish in 1996. This translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2010.