Back to German Literature Month, and this time it’s a modern German novella inspired by the life of Bruno Schultz: Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz by Maxim Biller. Bruno Schultz, a polish writer, critic, teacher and illustrator was murdered in 1942 in the Drohobycz Ghetto. He had been commissioned by Nazi officer Felix Landau to paint a mural and in exchange Landau promised protection. Schultz was shot, according to many sources, by another Nazi officer, Karl Günther in revenge for Landau killing Günther’s “personal Jew,” a dentist. So yet again another brilliant talent wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. In spite of the fact that very little of his work survived (his final novel The Messiah is lost,) there’s a mythic quality to Bruno Schultz. Just check out the Wikipedia page to see how authors have integrated Schultz into their fiction. Biller’s novella is an imagined glimpse into Schultz’s life.
The book begins with Schultz frantically writing a letter to Thomas Mann:
“My highly esteemed, greatly respected, dear Herr Thomas Mann” wrote a small, thin, serious man slowly and carefully in his notebook, on a surprisingly warm autumn day in November 1938–
The letter, subject to multiple edits, is intended to warn Thomas Mann, currently in Switzerland, about an imposter who’s arrived in Drohobycz. In the letter Schultz admits to Mann that “I cannot say with complete certainty that he is not you, but the stories he tells alone-not to mention his shabby clothes and his strong body odor-arouse my suspicions.” Right away there’s a sense of the absurd, of playfulness, but behind this there’s also a frantic plea and a fearful, neurotic quality to the letter writer. The imposter Thomas Mann is making a spectacle of himself at a local restaurant, seizing food in his hands and stuffing it into his mouth. The imposter Thomas Mann is a sinister demonic character who plans to write a novella in which Jews are murdered by Christians:
“Well my friends, ” said the false stranger to us when he had finished, and was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, “how do you like this story? How would you reply to the question of guilt that I am about to ask? I would say: if the Hebrews had never come to Drohobycz, that pointless and utterly destructive pogram would never have taken place, would it?” Then he beat a short but vigorous drum roll on the manager’s head with the palms of both hands.
In his letter, Schultz bemoans the fact he must teach “drawing to my beloved but totally untalented boys” at a high school, and it’s at this high school that Schultz is terrorized by a sturdy sports mistress, Helena, “small and athletic and with a hairy face like a clever female bonobo chimpanzee,” who aggressively harasses him about his next novel.
Bruno had really been hoping that no one in school would notice his absence particularly not pretty Helena, whose thick, blonde and often badly combed hair unfortunately gave off the pungent smell of an animal cage, a mixture of urine and damp hay that had been left lying around. Yesterday she had shut him up, for almost a whole hour’s lesson and without any light on, in the little room containing broken gymnastics equipment next to the sports hall. He didn’t know why, but probably because he had trembled even more than usual during their last conversation in a break period, and couldn’t be soothed even by the pressure of her short, but sharp and unfiled fingernails. So what? She shouldn’t have asked him to let her see at least a few pages of his novel, and he had been cold as well, in spite of the summery days that came like a gift in mid-November, and in spite of the fact that he was wearing his heavy jacket. When she finally let him out he was feeling much better, or so he told her at least, for fear of making her even angrier, and she promised to shut him up again sometime soon. Maybe, she added, she’d come into the little room with him herself for a while if he liked. She could go to one of the chaotic shops beyond the market place that opened only late in the evening for a few hours, sometimes not even that, and buy things she’d been wanting to try out with him for a long time he could guess what she meant! No, he had replied, he’d rather she didn’t, although he immediately felt very safe and well at the thought of those things–black leather Venetian Columbine masks stuffed with sawdust; penis-sized Pierrot made of willow rods, and Easter whips interwoven with thin steel chains; silver nipple clamps, and Japanese shunga candles (their dripping wax left no blisters on the skin).
Schultz lives with his sister, Hania, who’s in denial that her husband committed suicide by slitting his own throat ten years earlier. While Schultz writes in the basement, Hania, a Cassandra-like figure, tells him gossip about a man who “looked remarkably” like Bruno visiting a brothel and there he “examined the half-naked girls like a horse dealer, drank a lot of wine, and told dirty jokes.”
Maxim Biller’s Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz, in its blurring of reality and fantasy, mirrors Schultz’s own work, so it’s cleverly executed. Biller’s story itself blends fact with fiction, and it is a bit frustrating not to be able to peel the two apart, yet this dilemma is partially bolstered by Schultz’s life itself; even the story of Schultz’s death is subject to some debate. What of the fictional imposter Schultz who manhandles women at a brothel? Is he real or imagined by Schultz’s sister? Is the imposter Thomas Mann just a figment of the fictional Bruno Schultz’s imagination? We cannot tell the ‘real’ or the imagined apart on so many levels in this novella.
Evidently Schultz did admire Thomas Mann and gave him the manuscript of his novella The Homecoming (1937), a work that is referred to in this story. The Homecoming is lost, and taking that loss into consideration, the letter Schultz writes in the book acquires a much deeper poignancy, and again a mythical quality. While Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz shows Schultz reaching, frantically, desperately, to the outside world represented by Thomas Mann, tragically while Mann did acquire Schultz’s sole work written in German, it is now lost. And that gives a sinister, surreal significance to the whole idea that a Thomas Mann imposter has taken up residence in Drohobycz, popping up a year after Schultz finished The Homecoming. Biller’s novella is set in 1938, and the Germans had yet to arrive in Drohobycz. The “alleged” demonic Thomas Mann appears to be a harbinger of the Nazis:
“You must write your novel. What is it to be called? The Messiah, am I right? To work, get down to work, and when you have finished those bandits will come from Berlin to your little town and burn you along with your wonderful manuscript. Too bad–it’s your own fault!’ He laughed, “terrific, what a subject! But who will write a novel about it where you are dead, Jew Schultz?”
This is another gorgeous little book from Pushkin Press, and it includes two stories from Bruno Schultz: Birds and Cinnamon Shops (translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska.) Reading these stories and looking at Schultz’s art add a great deal to Biller’s novella.
The murals Schultz created for Landau were discovered in 2001. Here’s a link for those interested.
Review copy/own a copy.
Translated by Anthea Bell