The Israeli novelist David Grossman has written a moving essay in the current New Yorker about Bruno Schulz, a writer, graphic artist, and literary critic whose work is unknown to me. Schulz was born just before the turn of the century in 1892 and spent his entire life in what is now Poland. A Nazi German officer killed him in 1942
Once he started writing, Grossman says he knew he would one day have to write about the Shoah. Schulz’s work opened the door for him and in the same way how to live after the Shoah. In his essay Grossman conveys the enormous respect and joy he has in reading Schulz’s work, a sentiment that makes it especially affecting to me.
Is there a writer whose work you greatly admire, a writer you enjoy reading regardless of what he or she writes about, a writer whose next work you can’t wait to be published? Bruno Schulz was just such a writer for David Grossman. About Schulz’s work he says,
“Sometimes there are such moments of grace: you open a book by an author you don’t know, and suddenly you feel yourself passing through a magnetic field that sends you in a new direction, setting off eddies that you’d barely sensed before and could not name. I read Schulz’s stories and felt the gush of life.”
Later Grossman expands on what Schulz means to him. “Reading his works made me realize that, in our day-to-day routines, we feel our lives most when they are running out: as we age, as we lose our physical abilities, our health, and, of course, family members and friends who are important to us. Then we pause for a moment, sink into ourselves, and feel: here was something, and now it is gone. It will not return. And it may be that we understand it, truly and deeply, only when it is lost. But when we read Schulz, page-by-page, we sense the words returning to their source, to the strongest and most authentic pulse of the life within them. Suddenly we want more. Suddenly we know that it is possible to want more, that life is greater than what grows dim with us and steadily fades away.”
Grossman finds solace in Schulz’s affirmation of the power of imagination and a total lack of cynicism that is so widely heard today. Schultz seems to give him the strength to carry on with his own work and pull him out of periods of despair. He concludes his essay with this tribute,
“In recent years, I’ve been going back more or less once a year, to the stories of Bruno Schulz. For me it’s a sort of annual tune-up, a strengthening of the antibodies against the temptations of apathy and withdrawal. Every time I open his books, I am amazed anew to discover how this writer, a single human being who rarely left his home town created for us an entire world, an alternate dimension of reality, and how he continues even now, so many years after his death, to fed us grains of sugar—and crumbs of bread—so that we may somehow make it through the cold, endless winter.”
What better expression on the power of the pen and the enormous pleasure it can provide! Of course, Grossman’s essay prompts me to put an end to my ignorance of Schulz’s work.
I’ve been mulling over those writers whose works mean that much to me. In the beginning it was always Hemingway. But I’ve read his novels and stories so often they have lost some of their original impact. And now I greatly look forward to Philip Roth’s next book; two are scheduled for this year. But I am not sure they give rise to the kind of feeling Grossman has for Schulz’s work. I am looking forward to the next translation of a Pascal Mercier work of fiction. His novel, Night Train to Lisbon, was the finest book I’ve read in years. But then you never know what writer or what novel will get you “through the cold endless winter.” That is why you always keep reading.