Illustration by Carol Bienoff
. . . Once, when he was a boy, on a dim, melancholy evening, his mother entered his room and found him feeding grains of sugar to the last flies that remained after the cold autumn.
“Bruno?” she asked, “What are you doing?”
“It's so they'll have strength for the winter.”
WHEN I PUBLISHED MY FIRST NOVEL, A READER, a man who had come to Israel from Poland, called me. He said to me, “You are, of course, very much influenced by Bruno Schulz.”
I was then a well-mannered young writer and didn't want to argue. The fact is that until that moment I'd never even heard of Schulz. Yet I obediently told the caller that he was absolutely right, and I made a note to myself that I'd try, at the very first opportunity, to obtain Schulz's stories.
That same evening I found a book in the home of some friends, and borrowed it. I read the entire book without knowing anything about the writer. I read with a fervor that grew from page to page. I read with a feeling familiar to anyone who's been in love — a feeling that the words had been meant for me alone. That only I (of course) could truly understand them.
When I reached the end of the book, the afterword, I read for the first time the story of Schulz's death during the Holocaust. It's a well-known story that is perhaps not completely true. It may be but a legend that took root during the years in which the Schulz myth grew among his admirers throughout the world. But even if it is a legend, it touches a very real, profound place within us. So I will recount it:
In the Drohobyc ghetto, during the war, there was an SS officer who took advantage of Schulz's artistic talents and had him paint murals in his home. This SS officer had a rival, another German. The rival saw Schulz on the street and, to get back at his adversary, drew his pistol and shot Schulz. The rival then went to the officer and notified him: “I've killed your Jew.” “Fine,” the officer responded. “Now I'll go kill your Jew.”
I remember that I closed the book, walked out of the house and wandered for several hours as if in a fog. To put it simply, I didn't want to live. Not in a world in which things like that could happen. And that way of thinking. In a world in which there can be a language that permits such monstrosities as that sentence.
I wrote my second novel, See Under: Love, in part to avenge that death. The death in and of itself and — unquestionably — the affront of the way in which that death was described. That description is so Nazi — as if human beings can be exchanged for one another. As if they are indeed only accessories, fungible parts. I wanted to write a book that would tremble on the shelf. Whose vitality would be the equivalent of a single instant in the life of one human being. Not “life” in quotation marks, life that is nothing but debilitation over time, but life as Schulz teaches us in his writing. The inner kernel of life. Life squared. Not to make do with not murdering your fellow man, but to animate him, or her, and the passing moment, and the view that I have seen thousands of times, and the word that I have spoken thousands of times, and the woman that I have loved for so many years.
Because in Schulz, on every page, in every paragraph, life explodes. Life suddenly becomes worthy of its name, it is an immense drama that takes place simultaneously on all levels of consciousness and unconsciousness, and of illusion and of dream and of nightmare, in all its nuances, in every vessel of language and feeling and emotion.
Every line of his is an outcry against that “fortified wall that slouches over meaning,” a protest against the terror of emptiness, banality, routine, stereotypes, the tyranny of the apparent, of the concrete, of the crowd . . .
In See Under: Love I got Schulz out from under the very noses of the literary scholars and historians and spirited him off to a dock in Danzig, where he jumped in the water and joined a school of salmon.
Maybe because salmon are, for me, a journey incarnate. And there is something so Jewish about that spark that suddenly flashes in their heads and sends them swimming back to their place of birth, thousands of miles away.
And perhaps because reading Schulz's writings reinforced in me the feeling that we experience our lives most when they are running out. When we grow old, when we lose our physical abilities, when we lose family and close friends. It is then that we say to ourselves: There once was something here, but now it is lost. We understood it only when we lost it.
But when one reads Bruno Schulz, everything suddenly retreats into its roots. To the most authentic and strongest beat of life. Suddenly we want more. We know that it is possible to want more. That life is more than what fades with us. With the help of my literary “Bruno” I could almost touch the root of life itself, the primal urge to live, that which salmon trace in their journey over the ocean, and which the real Bruno Schulz wrote of in his books.
“Has the age of genius indeed come to be?” Schulz asks. Who knows? Even if it had, would we be able to recognize it, identify it, respond to the invitation contained within it? It is difficult for me to believe that we would. Just a few years after Schulz wrote those lines, a diametrically opposite and horrifying age arrived. And many, so many, responded with disheartening zeal to that invitation.
But something of that dearly desired “age of genius” comes back to life on every page that Schulz wrote. For him, almost every person is a creator, and an artist, and the life of each human being is a unique, extraordinary work of art. Lenin once said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” When we read Bruno Schulz's stories we can once again extricate the tragedy of the individual from that statistic. We suddenly realize, in the most profound way possible, that a person who kills another person brings an entire world, an awesome mythology, an infinite age of genius to an end. It can never be re-created.
BEFORE WRITING THESE LINES I WENT back and reread Schulz's works. I did this at a time when Israel, my country, is deep in war with the Palestinian people.
I will not, of course, address here the question of who is right and who is wrong. Not here. But I know that both sides are truly wretched. They are caught in a deathtrap of their natures and their histories. I feel a horrible contraction around me that a state of ongoing hostility creates. I see how all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, diminish ourselves so that we will not hurt too much, so that we will not feel too much. We both close off entire areas of our souls so that we can function, somehow, in these areas of disaster. Many of us cut out parts of our souls and our consciousnesses so as to be able to relate to the other in a stereotypical, inhuman way. Many are prepared to kill themselves, literally, only so as to be able to take the other with them to death.
When I read Schulz in these times, he reminds me what we can long for, and what a life worth living truly is. Not only the life of survival from catastrophe to catastrophe, but real life, multifaceted and multidimensional. I read him and again feel, as always, how this human being, this unique individual, this Galician Jew, who almost never left Drohobyc, created for us an entire world, a new and special dimension of reality, and how he continues, to this day, to feed us grains of sugar, so that we can get through this grim, endless winter.
Translated by Haim Watzman. David Grossman is an Israeli novelist whose most recent book, Be My Knife, was published this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He lives in Jerusalem.