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When a book (and a book review) is also a fan letter

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'Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz' by Maxim Biller (Pushkin Press)
'Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz' by Maxim Biller (Pushkin Press)

Some of us are in the Bruno Schulz business. As devotees, we pine for the discovery of his manuscripts that were lost in the wartime. We follow websites dedicated to his writing and illustrations. Sometimes we even daydream of visiting Drohobycz, the Galician hometown, now in the Ukraine, where Schulz lived and wrote.

Then there are the writers who build their own fictional worlds around Schulz’s life and writing: David Grossman; Jonathan Safran Foer; Nicole Krauss; Cynthia Ozick. Are they up to the task, or is their undertaking a bit like James Joyce’s son trying to write a novel about Dublin? Upon reading their efforts one turns back to Schulz himself – his two slim volumes called Cinnamon Shops (1934) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937) – to breathe a sigh of relief upon returning to the Real Thing.

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New to the company of Schulzian devotees is the Prague-born, Berlin-based Maxim Biller. Biller’s Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is a unique addition to the catalogue of books by Schulz devotees. Published by the Pushkin Press in London, it is a lovely thing to hold in your hand, a tiny, beautifully made book that points back to the independent handmade books of the Bloomsbury era.

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz contains three things: Biller’s long short story, a surreal portrait of Schulz at work in a basement room, circa 1938; and two pieces from Schulz’s Cinnamon Shops, including the masterpiece that bears the book’s title and is a kind of blueprint for his fictional oeuvre. These are in the original 1960s translation from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska.

For newcomers to Schulz this is an attractive offering. A bit of the master supplemented and introduced by one of his recent devotees.

What does Biller make of Schulz? Certainly, something strange. In this case, the devotee comes to the master via another devotee. Biller’s Schulz seems to be partly inspired by the American animation team the Brothers Quay. Their film based on Schulz’s Cinnamon Shops is a grotesquerie of faltering puppets, collapsing machinery, and cabinets of curiousity full of hairballs and skittering insects.

Biller places his reader “inside the head of Bruno Schulz” in a Drohobycz basement, where Schulz writes under a “dirty skylight” that offers a voyeuristic view of “shoes and legs . . . umbrella tips and skirt hems of passersby up above in Florianska Street.” Here we meet Schulz the fetishist, who is more evident in the author’s cliché verre etchings, where he presents, again and again, the image of men worshipping women.

Biller’s Schulz writes a letter to the German novelist Thomas Mann. Schulz in fact did this, in an effort to gain Mann’s support for his German-language story The Homecoming.

The narrative twist in Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz is the appearance in Drohobycz of an impostor, a German who impersonates Mann, lords over the town’s Poles and Jews, while cutting a secret deal with a Gestapo informant who seeks “a written list of all the Jews in town . . . their addresses and a brief assessment of their physical strength and financial circumstances.”

In 1938 Drohobycz was in the last throes of an oil boom, and it appears, from Schulz’s letters, that he was warned by a friend about the overtures of a German spy who was making grandiose promises about German language publication of his work.

Based on this anecdote Biller creates an extended set piece in which a bathroom in a Hapsburg era hotel is transformed into a torture chamber, which is evocative, not so much of wartime experience as of previous artistic attempts to explore the German penchant for domination. These include Lina Wertmüller’s 1975 movie Seven Beauties and Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers.

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The more devoted one gets to Schulz, the tougher the detective work, the more aware one becomes of contemporary artists pushing his oeuvre in new directions. Biller’s story confirms the talismanic qualities of Schulz’s work and life, and his ongoing capability to motivate others to create strange new things.

Drohobycz, in the heart of still-troubled Ukraine, beckons to the Schulzian devotee. One finds oneself up, late at night, furtively checking ticket prices to Lviv, and wondering about the reliability of hotel offerings on Florianska Street.


Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.