Irrealism in the Work of Bruno Schulz

[posted by Alice]

Serendipity has again led me to new reading pleasures, and this time I’m also filling a long-standing gap in my education as an irrealist. Because I recently read two Coetzee novels in a row (Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year), I picked up a volume of his collected essays (Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005) when I saw it at the library the other day.  I read with interest his short succinct essay on the work of Bruno Schulz, who, Coetzee says, shared many superficial biographical details with Franz Kafka. These included being born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a Jewish family, having health problems and having father problems. Both also wrote stories in which a man turns into an insect.  I’m enjoying Coetzee’s very readable and informative essays in which he gracefully gives biographical information, plot summaries, and thoughtful literary critiques in a few short pages. I don’t, however, agree with his statement that similarities between Schulz and Kafka are superficial. I think both were irrealists, though admittedly not the same kind.

After I read Coetzee’s essay on Schulz, I picked up The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (a 2008 Penguin reprint of Schulz’ work with an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer) when I saw it at the public library. [Note to American readers: The work Coetzee discusses as Cinnamon Shops is called The Street of Crocodiles in U.S. editions of Schulz’s fiction.] Some of the chapters/stories in this work seem very much like magical realism (e.g., “The Birds,” “The Gale”), featuring mystical events which take place in a small town in Galicia. Others, including “August,” “Nimrod,” “Mr. Charles,” and even “Pan,” represent a kind of heightened, vivid realism—the world seen through the eyes of a child. And in fact Schulz himself described Street of Crocodiles as “the story of a family told in the mode not of biology or of psychology but of myth,” which is not based on shared symbols but comes from the experiences of early childhood where certain images dominate the imagination (see Coetzee, pp. 70-71). And to be honest, after reading “August,” a rather long piece that opens Street of Crocodiles, I wasn’t sure that Schulz had the philosophical and literary inclination to examine means rebelling against their ends or to set up pointers to an unknown meaning as irrealist writers do. But as soon as I began to read the chapter called “Tailors’ Dummies,” I realized Schulz was also capable of wonderfully irreal prose.

The tailor’s dummy interested many painters we consider to be irreal (or on the border between irrealism and surrealism). These include Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, who used these analogues of the human form in many of their works. In “Tailors’ Dummies” Schulz shows us the complex meanings a seamstress’ dummy has for him, and as a result we begin to see his abilities as an irrealist writer. When two young seamstresses bring their dressmaker’s dummy into the room to begin their work, Schulz describes the object as a “silent immobile lady… mistress of the situation,” who is a “silent idol… difficult to please…  [and] inexorable as only a female Moloch can be.” Then the narrator (a young child) watches as his father delivers a three-part “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies or the Second Book of Genesis” to the seamstresses. This complex, rambling lecture deals with creation and is a compact, complex meditation on what Sartre would call the relation between being in-itself and being for-itself. The child narrator disapproves of the attitudes toward the animate and inanimate world expressed in his father’s lecture. And in fact these attitudes are very odd—he feels compassion for matter forced to bear a human form, yet blithely announces that murder and sadism must be sanctioned if they are necessary to the creative process. Elsewhere he deplores the process of nailing boards together (“the martyred wood”), yet gives no thought for the trees from which the wood came. He also waxes poetic about humans becoming useful inanimate objects, such as when a lamp is made of a man’s murdered mistress, and we are unsure about whether the father’s constant references to the Demiurge lead us to the artist or to God or to something diabolical. The meaning of the seamstress’ dummy is enriched (and from a feminist point of view also diminished) by the way women are sometimes depicted in Schulz’ work. The “dominant woman” Adela, who suppresses the father’s excesses with a tickling forefinger or an insistence that he attend to her proffered foot, encased in its stocking like a serpent’s tongue, finally stops the lecture and rescues the impatient and bored seamstresses.  The tailors’ dummies point toward women and nature and all that the father wants to dominate in the course of his creative activities, yet he is easily reduced to helplessness by Adela’s tickling.

Coetzee quotes Schulz on Kafka: “[Kafka’s] attitude to reality is radically ironic, treacherous, profoundly ill-intentioned—the relationship of a prestidigitator to his raw material. He only simulates the attention to detail, the seriousness, and the elaborate precision of this reality in order to compromise it all the more thoroughly.” (p. 75) Coetzee says that Schulz is speaking only about himself and his own writing, and that this description doesn’t apply to Kafka’s work at all. Yet to my way of thinking this quotation could be applied to both Kafka’s work and (at least in the case of writings like “Tailors’ Dummies”) to Schulz’ own.

Coetzee’s Slow Man: an irreal element in a realist work

[posted by Greg]

An additional, and interesting, aspect regarding Coetzee’s Slow Man was his use of Elizabeth Costello as a kind of writer-of-the-work-in-the-work. Not that this particular device is, in and of itself, particularly original; Rod Serling, for example, used it in an episode of The Twilight Zone, “A World of His Own”, written by Richard Matheson, in which the protagonist, a writer, creates real life versions of characters by dictating a description of the character into a (magic) tape recorder. When he destroys the tape, the character disappears from his life and the story. But this use of the device — where the writer-in-the-work is a kind of alchemist who can turn base ideas of people into real people — is quite different from Coetzee’s. In Slow Man, the writer-in-the-work’s role is far more ambiguous than Matheson’s straightforward fantasy and, indeed, takes on an irreal quality in that we aren’t certain what the physical nature of Elizabeth Costello’s presence is. Is she supposed to be the writer of the novel that we’re reading? Or is she a character herself, in the form of a writer researching characters for a novel she is writing? Or maybe she is, given her odd ability to know things about the protagonist, Paul Rayment, that nobody but he could possibly know, a figment of his imagination? This last possibility is easily rejected, as she interacts with other characters in the work and is even known by them as a famous writer. The first possibility seems the most reasonable when Elizabeth Costello makes her first appearance in the novel, since she quotes the novel’s beginning word for word as proof of her knowledge of what’s going on in his life: who else, after all, could do this but the writer of the work itself? But this conclusion is later challenged by Paul Rayment ‘s frequent independence from Elizabeth Costello and ultimate rejection of her. In addition, he pointedly asks her later in the work whether she isn’t doing just that, researching characters for a novel and, indeed, she suggests that possibility some number of times herself. But if she were simply researching characters for a novel, as so often seems to be the case as the novel unfolds, it doesn’t explain why she has such intimate knowledge of the characters’ lives (nor, of course, how she can quote from the beginning of the work). Of course, it might then be argued that this is simply a commentary by Coetzee on the fact that characters often wind up going in different directions than the author originally intended for them; this argument would, however, make much more sense if the novel was more generally symbolic as opposed to realist in nature and had as its primary theme, let’s say, the problems of trying to make people in your own or somebody else’s image. Instead the novel is a pretty straightforward character study of an independent, self-sufficient man going through a major life crisis that has been brought on by a serious injury and incapacitation.

Of course, Slow Man’s straightforwardness in this regard also precludes us from considering it to be metafiction — that most modern form of the “writer-of-the-work-in-the-work” — as well as preventing it from being, in any general sense, irreal. But the ambiguous and unresolved nature of Elizabeth Costello as a writer-in-the-work does introduce an effective irreal element into the novel, in that it undermines the physics that we take as a given in a realist novel. Indeed, such a standardized, realist physics is presented to us for the first half of the novel (until the Elizabeth Costello character is introduced); and this modest undermining of the realist paradigm succeeds in making this character-study of a novel less (as science-fiction readers have been known to call mainstream realist fiction) “mundane.”

Reading, Serendipity, and a Little Synchronicity

[posted by Alice]

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the paper in which Eric Adler asked: Is our culture killing serendipity? He defined serendipity as “an unplanned happenstance that leads to a piece of good luck, or news or insight,” and he gave as an example looking for a book by Steinbeck in the library and as a result finding a book by Sendak that “opens your eyes.” He said that technology and the hectic pace of life make serendipitous finds less and less likely. He also said that technology (such as the recommender software at Amazon) pushes people down preordained paths and makes it likely that they will read only what reinforces their own thoughts.

I’m sure that the method I use to choose what to read is serendipitous. Whenever I want to read something new, I go to a library or a bookstore or a thrift store and look around. Something will usually suggest itself, so I choose to read it next. If I don’t like it, I put it down unfinished. If I like it, I read it straight through and then look for something else. The last time I was looking for something to read I found J.M. Coetzee’s Slow Man at a community college library. And when I finished it, I noticed that Greg had brought Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium home from another community college library, so I picked it up and began to read. I found similarities and parallels between the two works, something that can’t entirely be accounted for by serendipity.

The Auster book reminded me of a Beckett play at first. It opens with an old man sitting on a bed, alone, in a place he doesn’t recognize. The setting, with its labeled objects and bewildering offerings, reminded me of one of Beckett’s later mime plays (Act Without Words); and the man reminds me a little of Krapp (there is in fact a tape recorder). This man, Mr. Blank, seems on the verge of incontinence and frailty, and he is undergoing some kind of medical treatment. People enter and leave the room. Mr. Blank can remember only parts of his relationships with them. He alternates between interacting with them and reading bits of manuscripts left for him on the desk in the room. I was not surprised (though you should stop reading this paragraph if you want to read Travels and experience the mild surprise offered by its plot) to learn that Mr. Blank is actually an author and that the other characters in Travels are from works written by Mr. Blank (though in fact some are from Auster’s own works, such as Fanshawe who appears in The Locked Room). We are told that the characters are now writing the author, and though some of them love him and others want to kill him, this is being done to give him a chance to attain the kind of immortality he has given to them. Though my brief description makes it all sound a bit glib, Travels is not simply a metafictional exercise, but is often a real story as well a commentary on writing. In the sense that the characters are presented as means revolting against their ends, and because the meanings toward which this short work points are not entirely clear, there is something irreal about the novel, which I found satisfying.

Another thing I found satisfying was the way that themes from the Auster book reflected one of the main themes in Coetzee’s Slow Man, which I had read during the previous week. Published in 2005, one year before Travels, Slow Man at first seems to have little in common with Auster’s book. In the beginning it’s a realistic story about an older man, Paul Rayment, who has an accident that leads to an amputation, depression, impaired mobility, and a grateful and somewhat impractical love for his nurse Marijana. But then Elizabeth Costello makes her entrance. She is a character from a couple of previous Coetzee books, notably the eponymous Elizabeth Costello, and she seems to know more about Paul Rayment’s life than she could possibly know in reality. This isn’t really a mystery because she is presented as an author in search of a character, and less than a page after her appearance she bustles with her notebooks and reads out the first couple of sentences of Slow Man, the novel. We are left with no doubt that Elizabeth Costello wants to write about Paul Rayment, but he doesn’t seem willing to cooperate in living the plots she has in mind for him. Though she does impinge on his life in many ways — she comes to stay with him and is reluctant to leave, and at one point he is so troubled by the knowledge she has of his thoughts and life, he asks her if she is real, and when she says she is as real as he is, he asks, “Am I alive or am I dead?” Of course he is in fact a character, shown sometimes as fully developed and realistic and sometimes as a means rebelling against the author’s intentional ends. Elizabeth Costello’s presence, woven through what is otherwise a rather quiet character study, gives the work a subtle irreal quality. Because Coetzee has had Elizabeth Costello muse about realism and fiction in previous novels, I wasn’t surprised to find this theme in his work, but as an irrealist I appreciated it.

If we see Alice in Wonderland as a world made from words, in these two novels, as if by extension, we experience the word made flesh (in the form of characters who inhabit their author’s world or are pursued by their author in their own fictional landscape). In both novels this idea is explored with sometimes irreal and sometimes challenging results. Thursday Next would probably be appalled (see Jasper Fforde’s wonderful humorous novels about a world in which fiction and reality interpenetrate)!