Inside the head of Bruno Schulz, by Maxim Biller translated by Anthea Bell, Pushkin Press, 2015, 128 pp. £10

Summer before the dark by Volker Weidermann translated by Carol Brown Janeway, Pushkin Press, 2016, 176 pp. £12.99 (hardback)

The influence of the Polish writer and polymath, Bruno Schulz, shows no sign of fading. Mysterious and inherently tragic, he continues to be a per- ennial source of inspiration for today’s artists, filmmakers and writers. In some cases this verges on infatuation, as each literary panhandler jostles to stake their claim in the post-war Schulz gold rush. Novelists such as David Grossman, Philip Roth, Danilo Kiš, and Salman Rushdie have all based fictional creations on the seductively haunting biographical figure of Schulz. Now the German writer Maxim Biller has joined the reverence procession, with this curious unsettling novella which one can and for maximum effect perhaps should, read in a single sitting.

The premise is that Schulz, or ‘Bruno’ as Biller, like Grossmann in his Holocaust epic Sea under Love, refers to him, is struggling to write a letter to Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, to explain to the great writer that an unlikely shabbily-dressed, seedy-looking imposter by the same name has appeared in his home town of Drohobycz, ostensibly researching material for a new work of fiction. Schulz, the Jew, secluded in his basement which acts like a cavernous projection of his own mind, senses this uncanny stranger’s arrival as an ominous threat to his routine, a prescience of some evil to come (the reality of which we can easily guess, even if we might not imagine Schulz’s actual dreadful denouement). The reader soon sees that Schulz, stagnating and fretting in his room where ‘stale twilight still reigned’ is prey to the most extreme morbid fears, or rather ‘fear’ itself, which becomes a dominating character in its own right, a sort of giant man shaped shadow pressing in through the half open door, as in some macabre print by the Austrian artist Alfred Kubin. Fear is kept at bay intermittently but in fact is seen, at least in Biller’s estimation, to be running the whole Schulz show:

Fear settled firmly down in his belly – which indeed was its favourite place – sat there like a large, hot, grey lump, turn- ing and rustling all the time, and he took it home with him.

Taking his cue from Schulz, Biller pictures his stricken Bruno as some gangly grotesque animal come man-bird constantly crouching on the floor, cupping his ungainly ears. More often than not, Bruno starts off in a chair like a normal human being, hunched over his desk, but then slides down, ever downwards, wracked with doubts and a slough of gridlocked thoughts, unable to bear the sounds of birds pecking, tapping at the skylight, or people hammering at the door trying to penetrate his sanctum. ‘Bruno, crouching on the floor once again, this time on all fours, with his open notebook in front of him, like a dog with a beloved bone, shook himself and tried to get a word out of his throat’. Sometimes he can only produce a brief growl. I wondered as I read this if Biller had seen Henning Carlson’s rare and visionary black and white film of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1966), where in one scene the famished writer, prey to hallucinations, is reduced to imper- sonating a dog in the street, shuffling about on all fours and growling over a meaty bone. Eventually Biller’s Bruno loses the ability to stand upright and walk at all. At this point his daydreams increasingly show his imagination prophetically seizing onto images of the future Shoah:

For many years he had expected that to happen, but not now, not until much later – in a future endlessly far away, populated by gigantic wall lizards, snakes and primeval birds who ate their own tails, by armies of human beings in grey uniforms in long, straggling processions that reached to the horizon, by millions of naked men women and children, who could only move on all fours. And everywhere in that country fires large and small were burning, and anyone who could see through the smoke and flames shooting up around him prayed that he might not be forced, like those people, to his hands and knees, and be driven like them into that fire.

Meanwhile the artful ‘false Thomas Mann’, gradually ingratiates his way into the community, luring the innocent to his unsavoury designs. Here we immediately think of Hamsun’s novel Mysteries and the unsettling stranger, Johan Nagel, whose arrival undoes the rural community. Various Schulz related women flit in and out of Biller’s tale, referencing his preoc- cupation with the femme fatale, the unattainable woman and of course the feisty family maid Adela, who so memorably appears flicking her feather duster after the bird-like Father in Schulz’s marvelous vignette ‘Birds’, generously included here along with ‘Cinnamon Shops’.

Through Biller’s Bruno we witness a delirium somewhat reminiscent of Kubin’s fantasy novel The Other Side (1908) which recounts the fall of the ‘dream kingdom’ of Perle, a symbol for western civilization, which influenced a host of writers including one Franz Kafka. In that novel there was also a sinister American figure whose arrival, like Hamsun’s Nagel causes upheaval and a breakdown in the natural order, and here Biller, perhaps with a nod to Kubin, includes ‘The mysterious Mr Katanauskas, an American . . . with half his face covered by a sparkling metal mask’.

While Bruno sweats and writhes in angst amongst his prints, fussing and fidgeting over his ludicrously formal letter to the real Mann, the increas- ingly brazen doppelgänger occupies a bathroom at the wonderfully named ‘Swaying pyramid hotel’, ripping out the fitments so as to make space for his growing number of visitors and followers. This character, now morphing into some sort of monstrous cult leader, offers unlikely sanctuary as the Nazi threat looms, engendering a kind of communal proto sado-masochistic scene amongst the now willingly naked townspeople, shrouded in the smoke of incoherence which forever drifts over this weird tale. Like unrelated images in a fever nightmare, the naked figures move toward the false Thomas Mann, Biller brilliantly imagining them ‘Like a brood of turtles slowly awakening and making their way from the beach into the water . . .’ As delusion infects the community, Bruno works away at his letter, intermittently conversing with a pair of doves, one grey, one white, which have bizarrely taken on the voices of known local characters. When he leaves his home to finally post the letter he appears to have morphed into an actual half man half animal, a kind of drawn out rekindling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

In fact Biller’s intriguing and unclassifiable novella is really a repository of re-calibrated, realigned literary and historic references, an impressionistic collage of dream and derangement in literature. The writing is piquant and inspired in places, and one can see Biller is enjoying himself, pushing the chessmen of facts into likely positions to win over the fiction. Increasingly Biller appears like a puppet master whose strange creations begin to direct his hand, rather than the other way round. But anyone looking for a straightforward reassuring ‘story’ in the traditional sense, might as well look elsewhere. This is a literary experiment on a small scale, a miniaturist puzzle, taking elements from the biography of Bruno Schulz and melding them through a kind of psychological alchemy, to form new speech around the legend, speech which we may understand better, if we dare to make the imaginative leap. It was courageous on the part of Pushkin to make this explicitly unconventional and at times mesmerizing work available to the English language reader.

Volker Weidermann’s non-fiction novel Summer before the Dark received a lot of attention on its publication, immediately seized on as a suitable item for the BBC Radio 3 ‘Free Thinking’ programme, as something fit- ting to discuss on National Holocaust Day and as Radio 4’s prestigious ‘Book of the Week’. Reviews have been lavish in their praise for what the promotional blurb describes as ‘A dazzling portrait of Zweig and Roth and a community of intellectual exiles, during the extraordinary summer of 1936’. Weidermann, a cultural editor of a leading German newspaper, appears to have the pedigree to tackle such a subject, having studied German literature and language in Heidelberg and Berlin. To articulate this historic summer of 1936 was a canny move by Weidermann, to capture in print a largely Jewish exile gathering at Ostend, the preeminent resort on the Belgian coast, reposing in the lull before the storm. Those who know something of Roth and Zweig and their complex relationship, and the European movements of both in these mid term years of exile, may also know the almost iconic photograph of the two Jewish authors captured on an Ostend café terrace in July 1936, side by side at a sun flooded table littered with glasses. But for many coming to Weidermann’s book, this photograph will be a novelty and knowing this, Weidermann has quite naturally given his own interpretation of it and the image appears at the close of the tale.

The photograph then shows an uncomfortable, almost grumpy Roth, squinting at the photographer in full sun, and we see clearly why Weidermann dubs him ‘the enemy of sunshine’. Roth looks like a resigned gambler waiting for another disastrous hand at the gaming table, his head sweating in the heat, a curl of hair slicked down on his pate, the tightly bound snazzy bow tie at his collar seeming to be the only thing keeping his head from dropping onto the table from world weariness. He appears a man of small stature in late middle age, and we imagine a pot belly grazing the table edge. Leaning in from his right is an altogether different figure, taller, darker haired, younger looking, with a bolder more virile presence. Zweig looks fondly at Roth as if awaiting a response to the act of the snap- shot. Weidermann confirms that Stefan Zweig loved Joseph Roth, the perennially nostalgic man who treasured the decaying Hapsburg Empire, the brilliant feuilleton writer for the Frankfurter Zeitung, the man Zweig always claimed was a greater writer than himself. But in direct contradiction to the camera’s insistence, Roth was Zweig’s junior by thirteen years, and was just forty-two when the photograph was taken. The two are captured in a late moment of their relationship, positioned by circumstance, rooted to a sunny terrace amidst the chinking of glasses, and who would not, given the dark romanticism that tends to cloak this image, want to build a novel around it, or rather a fictional interpretation or response.

In many ways Weidermann’s book is successful in achieving this response. He is at pains to make embarkation relatively trouble free for his readers. The prose is punchy, brisk, shorn of any drapes of ponderous description. The reader can quickly settle in and soak up the story, as we meet the vitally drawn characters one by one, the coterie of exiles who wash up in Ostend for the season and hang on there, monitoring European events, trying to find inspiration to write, or finish off proofs, or dally in the diversion of an affair, and all this as the Olympics play out in Berlin and the remaining free world is duped yet again by Hitler. Weidermann gives a vivid account of this posse of the unwanted, ‘refugees in vacationland’, who descend to the bistro terrace every afternoon to at least look into the mirror and see a different face.

Weidermann chooses to open with an account of Zweig’s earlier experience in Ostend, at the outset of the First World War, focusing on his apparent failure to comprehend the gravity of events through late July and early August 1914. Weidermann gives the impression of a man suddenly holed below the waterline by his romantic ideal of a multi-cultural Belgium ‘crossroads of Europe’ abruptly thrown into disarray, his passionate affiliations to the poet Emile Verhaeren now compromised by closed borders and the spread of rancorous literary assaults under nationalist banners.

This version of Zweig as initially blasé, then frenziedly following the great event, thrilled by the idea of German armies advancing mechanically across the continent, and ‘laughing’ at the pale faces of his Belgian friends is permeated by the novelistic. In reality things were, as ever, more nu- anced. It is true that Zweig like countless others fell under the initial sway of national solidarity and the sense of a great unique event not to be missed. How many German poets, writers and artists eagerly set off to war in 1914 with a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in their knapsacks, eager to access another sensory dimension after years of sloth? But what Weidermann does not say is that Zweig’s laughter at the signs of war was actually honestly recalled by Zweig himself, in his Errinerungen an Emile Verhaeren (Memories of Emile Verhaeren) (1927). The following lines in Weidermann’s book necessarily leave a poor impression of Zweig, making him appear pompous, arrogant and ridiculous:

Stefan Zweig laughed. He laughed over the pathetic troops of Belgian soldiers on the promenade. Laughed over a little dog that was dragging a machine gun along behind it. Laughed over the entire holy solemnity of his friends.

But in his Verhaeren piece, Zweig is rather simply highlighting his own folly – because of his belief in the fabled ‘golden age of security’, the idea of world war at first seemed absurd to him, something fantastic, and the sudden mobilization of the Belgian army a semi-comical overreaction. Here is what Zweig actually writes:

The joy of the world simply melted away during those terrible July days. At the end of the month, we were still sitting in a café, reunited in the confidence of the old fraternity. We heard the sound of a drum. Soldiers were passing: Belgium was mobilizing. It seemed totally insane to me that Belgium, the most peaceful country in Europe, was busy arming herself and I even laughed at the machine guns hauled by teams of dogs, at the little troop of soldiers of such solemn demeanour who passed by. But my Belgian friends were not laughing. They were worried. “We’re not certain, but they say that the Germans are about to break through.” I could only laugh. It seemed inconceivable that the Germans with their benign faces, languishing in their thousands just over there, would choose to enter Belgium by force of arms. I reassured them with a sincere conviction, “you can hang me from that lamppost, if Germany ever invades Belgium”.

I include this passage in my own translation, not to be pedantic, but to illustrate how fictional recreations of real events, though never meant be taken literally, still have the ability to colour a reader’s view.

As the melancholic story proceeds, Weidermann follows the fortunes of Roth and Zweig in their summer bolt hole. They constitute the main lines while the branch lines of their fellow writers weave their way through the surrounding landscape of fears, fantasies, quarrels, intrigues, envies and camaraderie. The most significant of the branch-liners is Irmgard Keun, a German author and now to be Roth’s lover by the sea. Much of what Weidermann writes has been sourced from Keun’s memoirs as told to her biographer David Bronsen. Keun is the required live wire in this book, ‘her talk is lively, original, vivid’, so you tend to want to follow her for- tunes as much as Zweig and Roth. Weidermann portrays her thus after her arrival early in the season. ‘She often sits on one of the bistro terraces overlooking the promenade in defiance of the weather, with a white head- scarf and a brightly coloured coat. In front of her a little heap of cooked shrimp, a teapot, a newspaper and blank sheets of paper . . .’ Later novelist Herman Kesten, eternal wanderer Egon Kisch and the rest cluster round to hear her news from Germany. But she deals them the worst, ‘A Germany in which grocers and sergeants’ widows were executing Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas . . . a Germany with crude chants and threatening harangues on the radio, full of the prolonged artificial ecstasies of massed marches, Party rallies, Heil Hitlers, and festivals. A Germany filled with intoxicated petits bourgeois. Intoxicated because they had been given power’.

Keun splits off from the group with the beleaguered Roth, nursing the ‘enormously vulnerable, even oversensitive’ author of The Radetzky March through his hangovers and vomiting attacks, writer’s block and simmering despair. She admires his defiant wallowing in the old Austrian monarchy, is touched as he desperately tries to reconstruct this lost empire as his home, his native soil, but also as ‘the home of all thought and all feeling’. Keun believes she sees deeper into Roth than the others and is jealous of the urbane Zweig’s hold on Roth. She does not want her Roth to be dependent on this ‘fine man, as smooth as velvet, dripping with good will and love of his fellow men’. She feels a growing enmity towards Zweig. He is in her opinion the cinema-goer’s image of a writer. ‘Worldly, elegant, well groomed and a touch of gentle melancholy in his eyes’. As for Roth, Weidermann comes up trumps with a passage on the writer seen through Keun’s possessive gaze:

Everything that came near him – people, things, ideas – he recognized in all their most hidden inadequacies, and he detected the cold that can freeze even the warmest living breath. So he searched out worlds that were completely foreign to him, and that he hoped would remain warmer and less recognizable. But no matter how successful his eternally creative fantasies, they were always undone by his furious intelligence. He would have blessed the devil and hailed him as God if he had helped him to believe.

Suddenly in mid-July the Spanish Civil war bulldozes its way into the group’s conversation and there is a ratcheting up of tension and a realization that this will be a microcosm of the coming greater war, with the leading ideological players already lining up. Arthur Koestler is champing at the bit to go and fight. Roth broods, non-committal. As ever Zweig is trying to get down to proper work, to lose himself in literary industry, holing up in yet another rented house he shares with his secretary and lover Lotte Altman, who will join him in death some five years later in Brazil. For now, Zweig is refreshed and re-invigorated by the Ostend bistro terrace and bathing routine, departing the resort with a freshened up conscience, since he has done right by Roth and helped put him in better shape to face the autumn. Roth is even taking regular swims! But ideologies and tribes are everything in this epoch and the man who does not join a party or group is lost, an outcast. In a letter to arch pacifist Romain Rolland which Weiderman quotes from, Zweig calls into the desert for ‘fanatical anti-fanaticism’, but even Rolland is now a Communist sympathizer. Lacking a crutch, Zweig turns again to books, sustaining himself on examples of men in different ages faced with ideological fanaticism, whether Erasmus in these years or later in Brazil, his eleventh hour passion for Montaigne.

Weidermann’s Ostend book closes with a potted account of the various miserable deaths allotted to his cast in the years to follow, interwoven with a bleak assessment of his own visit to the apartment-block desecrated Ostend of today: ‘Concrete benches stand around everywhere, but no one sits on them. It’s November 2012, the sky is gray, the place is empty of people’. Perhaps it might have been more interesting as a leave taking to set this postscript during the summer and compare July 2012 with July 1936? Like Zweig in the book, Weidermann makes the obligatory pilgrimage to the eccentric mask-filled Ensor’s House, which along with the time warp Hotel du Parc, is among the last scattered crumbs of the old Ostend.

Summer before the Dark compellingly shows this doomed group at one of their last watering holes, re-imagining their conversations and repartee, their anxieties, loves and loathings. It summons the ghosts and they respond to our curiosity in a way that seems believable. Like the hull of a foundering ship their kind undergoes massive external pressures, with rivets set to burst under the midsummer sun (Roth), or rudderless, drift on undaunted to another potential sanctuary (Zweig). And yes of course the book provides an ideal springboard for those wishing to explore further the works and interconnecting relationships of these exiled Jewish writers, both the leading stars and the lesser known supporting cast. But do not imagine after reading this book and others like it – such as The Last Days of Stefan Zweig by Laurent Seksik – that this is exactly how it was, for such accounts, however persuasive, are in the end one man’s assimilation, speculation and judgment and despite intentions to the contrary, the most cunning mistakes will still creep in.

By Will Stone

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