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THE STREET OF CROCODILES BY BRUNO SCHULZ

For years I didn’t see it, even though I was present as my mother plotted her strange course to lands known only to herself. In the forest of childhood, truths are obscured. I was alone, deep within that forest, interpreting gestures observed through the gaps between close-standing trees. I remember once inexpertly drawing the curtains together and she – my mad mother – strode into the room, as though she had sensed an impropriety and needed immediately to address it, her anger already dashing against the frail structure of her body. Without acknowledging my presence she tore at the curtains, almost pulling them to the ground. She shouted wild threats and lamentations into the air, her eyes vacant as she entered her own forest, chasing her madness like a cat would its tail.

My mother is an ill woman. Her brain is swollen with fantastical scenarios and characters; it is like a crowded prison, a prison she has been tasked with running but over which she does not have complete control. It is only at some remove, both in age and distance, that I have been able to recognise the power and range of her fevered imagination, her theatrical genius. We now see each other once a year, on Christmas day; and as that day approaches I am filled with both nostalgia and unease. Certainly, it is nostalgia, and a desire to mentally prepare myself for visiting my mother, that has motivated me to turn to the work of Bruno Schulz at this time, specifically The Street of Crocodiles.

The Street of Crocodiles [Sklepy cynamonowe; Cinnamon Shops] was the second of Schulz’s story collections, although it was published first, in 1934, with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass seeing the light of day in 1937. It begins with August, which, although it is arguably the most beautiful story in the book, and perhaps the most well-known and well-regarded, is, at least for me, the hardest to love, even to endure. It is a kind of Schulz party piece, Schulz cranked up to ten; it contains all the recognisable elements of his style but in such a concentrated form that it is almost overbearing, almost sickly. The best way to demonstrate what I mean by this is with a quote:

“On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun – the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids–the raw material of meals with a yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild and rustic smell.”

While there is no doubt that Schulz had a talent for imagery, for large parts of August, at least in translation, he piles metaphor upon metaphor in a way that borders on the absurd. Indeed, later, in just a couple of sentences, he writes of the tangled grasses that crackle, the garden that sleeps, the field that shouts, and the crickets that scream. It’s all a bit too much, for my taste. It is as though he is at times putting on a show, a demonstration of his abilities, rather than making choices to best serve his material. And yet there is undeniably poetry on display also, certain lines or sentences when he gets it just right, such as when he writes of having ‘dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.’

However, one might justifiably argue that the lavishness, the overabundance, was entirely the point. The title is August, the height of summer, when the world is at its most abundant, most overbearing, sickly, and, yes, maybe its most absurd. In any case, the stories that follow are executed with greater restraint. As with August, they deal with the narrator’s childhood in Poland. Yet what is more important to me personally is that many of them focus on his father’s mental instability. There is so much that is recognisable, and therefore comforting, to me in the way that Schulz documents his decline and erratic behaviour. He is a man who spends ‘whole days in bed, surrounded by bottles of medicine and boxes of pills’; a man who is, at times, ‘almost insane with anger’ while, at others, he is ‘calm and composed.’

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I cannot think of another novel or collection of stories that showcases mental illness, and what it is like to live with someone breaking down in this way, so movingly and compassionately. There are strange and distressing incidents; for example, his father is said to feel the wallpaper closing in on him, to hear ‘whispers, lisping and hissing’ coming from it; and yet it was the small details, such as when he raises his eyes from his ledger and looks around ‘helplessly, as though searching for something,’ that most got to me. Moreover, although I used the phrase ‘breaking down’ there is more a sense of transformation. Indeed, twice Schulz compares him to other creatures, once a bird and once a cockroach. The cockroach incident is, in fact, the book’s most horrifying scene, as the old man lays on the floor naked ‘in the grip of the obsession of loathing,’ his movements imitating ‘the ceremonial crawl’ of the bug. ‘From that day on,’ we are told, ‘we gave Father up for lost.’

I do not, however, want to give the impression that The Street of Crocodiles is entirely downbeat and melancholy. What is remarkable about the collection, and the rest of the author’s work, is how he so consistently transforms his material, his world, our world, into something charming, extraordinary, and heroic. There are numerous examples of this one could pick out from the text, such as when he writes about the baby birds that are like a ‘dragon brood’, or the ‘intense dreams’ of the squares of brightness, and so on. In these instances he is able to imbue the mundane with drama and magic. Yet, once again, I want to return to the father, because it is in relation to him that Schulz performs his most impressive, and difficult, conjuring trick. In Tailors’ Dummies, he describes his father’s mad obsession with birds, which he kept and bred in the house, as a ‘splendid counteroffensive of fantasy’; he calls him a defender of the ’cause of poetry’, an ‘incorrigible improviser’ and, most wonderfully of all, the ‘fencing master of imagination’, which is, I believe, the most appropriate way to sum up Bruno Schulz himself.

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I BURN PARIS BY BRUNO JASIENSKI

Her name is Laure. And the place is Paris. Her name, which she dislikes because of its ubiquity in that city, was given to her by her parents precisely for that reason: so that she would fit in. I met her in Le Piano Vache, a bar on Rue Laplace. With a typical male predatory instinct, I waited until her friend had gone to the toilet before approaching her. When I introduced myself she laughed at l’englishman ivre. Her voice was like the tinkling of small bells; when I heard it I felt as though I was being called to worship. I told her she was beautiful; she told me she was Algerian. I did not understand.

In Paris, she said, there is no solidarity. You would not love me; and I could not love you. I am not French here; not Parisian. Only to you I am. She sounded gay; I suspected that she could not sound anything but gay. They are obsessed and now I am obsessed too, and it is because we are all scared. The way she told it there was no Paris at all, only a number of independent communities or small states eyeing each other suspiciously, each convinced that the others are intent on killing them. She made it sound like a large-scale Mexican stand-off, one that would inevitably descend into bloody chaos when the strain of inaction became too much to bear.

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I took Laure out once. She was right, we were destined not to love each other; but not for the reason she had envisioned. I had to return to England, of course; and, although we stayed in touch for a while, eventually she became just another in a series of my life’s small, but still painful endings. However, what she said to me that first night still plays on my mind; it troubled me that someone could feel that way, could live feeling despised and dispossessed in the city that they ought to be able to call home. Motivated by a desire to explore, or indulge, these thoughts and feelings, I initially picked up Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris, but, for all its virtues, its light and airy tone was like eating candyfloss; it upset my stomach with its sugary sweetness.

Yet with literature, much like with music, there is, if you look long enough, or know where to look, always something out there to suit your mood; whatever your feelings, whatever your ideas, someone else will have had them before you and fixed them on paper. It was, therefore, only a matter of time before I came upon Bruno Jasieński’s I Burn Paris. First published in 1928, the novel, which was apparently met with a fair amount of controversy when it saw the light of day, ostensibly deals with an outbreak of plague in the French capital. As one would expect, the spread of the disease results in Paris being essentially quarantined by the authorities. But more interesting than this is the effect it has on the general population, not physically but psychologically.

“Left to their own devices, the police found themselves for the first time in a troublesome quandary. Suddenly stripped of the compass of the law, unable to decide which of the emergent governments should be considered lawful, and realizing the fictitiousness of any government outside the ring of the cordon, the unemployed blue people swiftly came to realize that they were less real creatures with every passing day, becoming metaphysical fiction.”

We are, of course, all aware that one day we will cease to exist, but for many of us this knowledge is stored away in one of the least accessible corners of our minds as we carry on with our mundane lives. A tragedy such as a plague epidemic, however, makes this impossible, and Jasieński’s novel includes some impressive writing about what it is like to make sustained eye contact with almost certain death. My favourite passage in this regard involves the rich American David Lingslay who is said to safeguard the ‘wretched formulation of hope, that one percent chance of salvation, somewhere deep inside him, like a nestling coddled in his bosom.’ There is, moreover, also the suggestion that some of the inhabitants of Paris consider themselves to be, in a sense, superior to the disease. The Jews, for example, believe it to be a punishment that has ‘descended upon Aryan Paris for their centuries of oppressing the Jewish nation’, and, as such, they – the Jews – will naturally be ‘spared’.

While for the Jews the catastrophe is arrogantly deemed to be a sign of favour, others actively seek to use it to their advantage. Indeed, according to the author, the plague ‘levelled social stratification,’ such that Lingslay cannot, despite the ‘gravity of his surname’, arrange to leave the city. As a consequence of this levelling, this shuffling of the cards, men like Captain Solomin, an emigre Russian, who had been working as a taxi driver prior to the outbreak, are able to gain power and prestige. Similarly, the communists view the plague, not necessarily as a punishment for certain groups, but as a convenient, welcome, event that will eradicate, or at least weaken, their enemies  – the bourgeoisie – and give them a chance to create a proletariat, communist Paris.

What ought to be clear at this point is that Jasieński’s vision, his take on humanity and its impulses and behaviour, has much in common with Laure’s. When faced with this hardship, these difficulties, the people of Paris, in both the novel and the experience of my friend, do not come together, they move even further apart. In fact, in I Burn Paris there is an organised division, i.e recognised independent city-states are created, some along racial  or national lines – Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Anglo-American, etc – and others social. Once this separation takes place, these groups indulge their prejudices or biases; the opposing city-states become other and therefore something to be feared, denigrated, ridiculed and ultimately eradicated. ‘Russians are savages’, one character thinks to himself, and one cannot but see in this the similarly absolute, and similarly misguided, belief that ‘Muslims are terrorists.’

“Your science, of which you are so proud and which we travel here to study, is not a system of tools to help man conquer nature, but rather to help Europe conquer non-Europe, to exploit weaker continents. This is why we despise your Europe and why we come here to study you so fervently. Only by mastering the achievements of your science will we be able to shed the yoke of your oppression.”

In the small number of reviews of that I have encountered there seemed to be an emphasis upon the important role of socialist politics in the book, even to the point of suggesting that it is a kind of [sometimes morally dubious] anti-capitalist manifesto. However, I find it difficult to reconcile this view with what I read. Certainly, there is discussion of socialist politics and concerns, and Pierre, who sets the story in motion, is made redundant as a result of France’s ‘lousy economic condition.’ Yet while you might argue that unemployment is responsible for the plague, that it motivates Pierre to act, Jasieński makes it clear that, to quote his own first line, things that are ‘private in nature’ are equally or more significant. For me, the first section of I Burn Paris is, at heart, about jealousy. Yes, Pierre loses his job, but he also loses Jeanette, and, for the remainder of his life, sees her, or imagines her, in the company of other men everywhere he goes.

To his credit, the author avoids lazy moralising by giving depth to, or breathing some life into, his characters. For example, the adult P’an Tsiang-kuei is a psychopathic communist, who thinks nothing of killing for the greater good [where have we heard that before?]; but we are also allowed access to his backstory, his history, as a mistreated orphan. We come to see how he became what he is, and it felt kosher to me. I believed it, and I believed in P’an. In Jasieński’s world, as in the real world, there are no absolute villains [or heroes]. People frequently do bad things, but in most cases one understands their motivations, even if one does not agree with the resulting act or behaviour. Another example of this is when a Japanese deliberately infects the man who ordered the death of his wife. Indeed, I Burn Paris is full of wonderful, often moving, minor portraits; and this is, I believe, its greatest strength. ‘You cannot feel concern for everyone,’ Jasieński writes at one point, and yet his own work goes some way to disproving this statement.

THE POLISH COMPLEX BY TADEUSZ KONWICKI

Dear aliens,

It is Christmas day, and I write this while at my parents’ house. A few moments ago, I was sitting by the window, which I had opened in an effort to tempt a Bengal kitten into joining the forces of evil, when above me I saw a bright light, and I thought of you. Or should I say, I thought of you in the hope that you would think of me. Which means that I, and this is typical of our species, acknowledged your potential existence only in so much as I would like you to acknowledge my actual existence. In short, I wondered what you would make of me, of us, down here. Normally, I write these reviews for my fellow human beings, and it is often the case that I will start with an anecdote, one that relates to me and my life or past life; and I think that more often than not I give the impression of being haunted by the experiences I relive. Which is not really the case. I am simply trying to understand myself.

When I was a kid I did not identify myself as working class, or northern, or even English. I was, I thought, a child of the world, not of one small part of it. I considered myself wonderfully cosmopolitan. And then I moved away from the north, away from a true working class environment, first to university and then into various jobs, and I realised that I am absolutely, terminally all those things that I thought I was not. Let me provide you with an example. While I was at college I won an award for something I wrote, a little piece, and the award was to be presented to me by some semi-famous poet. But I didn’t go. And the reason I didn’t go, although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, is because people like me don’t pick up awards, they don’t go schmoozing and smiling at award ceremonies.

And the thing is, no one really understands that, unless they too are one of my kind; they don’t see how it would have been impossible to go. How silly! I hear that a lot. You are being silly. Usually, it is my girlfriends who say this to me, lovely lighthearted, upper middle-class women. They cannot comprehend why I find it uncomfortable to sit around a table for family meals, either. Or why if someone buys me something, or pays for something for me, I can barely speak for shame. My being is as alien to them as it probably is to you, my intergalactic peeping toms.

I’ve written before that one of the joys of reading literature is that it makes the world seem simultaneously smaller and larger. This is another reason why I share my experiences, in order to be part of this phenomena. Anyway, I recently read The Polish Complex by Tadeusz Konwicki, and I was again so pleasantly surprised that I was able to find myself in a book that, one would think, would have nothing to do with me, for it is ostensibly about Poland and being Polish. Yes, the action takes place on Christmas Eve, in line at a jewellery store, and, sure, there are many people who can relate to an experience like that. But that isn’t what I am referring to. What I found surprising, and engaging, about The Polish Complex is what the narrator, who is essentially Konwicki [the narrator is called Tadeusz Konwicki and shares many biographical details with the author], says about the way that he is perceived.

Konwicki states that he always attempted to steer himself towards universalities in his work, that he would actively avoid criticising other nations. And, yet, despite this approach, this literary liberalism, he found that he was always described as a Polish writer, as, in fact, the most Polish of Polish writers. He found, like I have done, that he cannot escape who he is, that it infects everything he does, even when he believes himself to be turning away from it and opening his arms to humanity-at-large. Moreover, it is telling that he, as I am also doing here, is writing for aliens, for you. He claims that this is because he is bored with ‘communication with my fellow men’, and that might be true, but what is at the heart of this boredom is that he considers himself to be, or others consider him to be, incomprehensible to them. They – readers, critics, etc. – cannot understand him unless they have had his experiences, unless, specifically, they are Polish. Indeed, Konwicki shares an anecdote too, about being in New York and meeting there a ‘sickly old man with heartbreaking eyes’, a Polish man, who was unable to die at home in Long Island, because he was ‘constantly thinking of his distant Poland’ and the war in which the author also participated.

“I no longer strive to be understood. I no longer depend on your approval, your sympathy. Now I write only because I must. I do not believe that anyone will read what I write and understand it as fully as I did while struggling with the resistant, constricted, ephemeral words. I write because some strange sense of duty impels me to this paper, which in ten years will turn to dust. I write because in my subconscious there stirs a spark of hope that there is something, that something endures somewhere, that, in my last instant, Great Meaning will take notice of me and save me from a universe without meaning.”

So, The Polish Complex is about identity and communication, about the essential, regrettable differences between people, between nations. Yes, most countries have their own language, which makes communication problematic, but for Konwicki it goes deeper than that, it is about the difficulty of communicating ‘in the sphere of experience and the consciousness that comes from experience.’ In this way, writing the book for aliens is a kind of grim joke. If the majority of his fellow men and women don’t or can’t understand Konwicki, then of course you, my goggle-eyed, grey-skinned friends, sure won’t be able to. Indeed, it is amusing, and ironic, that almost every review of The Polish Complex that I have read has stated how alienating parts of it are, how these parts won’t mean anything to a potential reader unless they are Polish themselves or are a scholar or expert on Polish history. Yet, it is necessary to point out that the author is lamenting all this, this distance between us; he wants to be part of a brotherhood of man, so to speak, he wants us to commune with each other, to be able to relate to each other appropriately and fully.

In terms of communication it is, of course, significant that Konwicki is a writer. I am sure that people write for many reasons, quite often for money it seems, but certainly when I think about the act of writing what it suggests to me is a desire to communicate, to reach out to people. Therefore, the existence of the book, and the time and effort put into writing it, is almost another joke, one Konwicki played upon himself, i.e. he is attempting to speak, via his novel, with a world that he knows, in the main, finds him incomprehensible. Throughout The Polish Complex the narrator references his work, or other characters do, and on each occasion these comments are critical. His writing, he is told by Kojran, is ‘more poison than passion.’ It is bitter, defeatist, sad, sarcastic. Kojran also asks why Konwicki doesn’t write something to give the Polish people strength, rather than make them sadder than they already are. Kojran is an interesting character because he is, in a sense, Konwicki’s conscience, in fact, most of the characters play this role in the text. Their function is to allow the author to explore his feelings, and what he thinks are the public’s feelings, about his books. Of course, you might label this rather self-indulgent or egotistical, but it is clear to me that Konwicki took his responsibility, as someone for whom the rest of the world might view as representative of Poles-in-general, seriously.

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[A queue in Poland, a common sight in the shortage economy in the 1970s and 1980s]

The Polish coat of arms features a white eagle on a red background. Apparently, this is because the founder of the country saw a white eagle’s nest and decided to settle in that place. However, the eagle is or has become also representative of freedom, and certainly this, the notion of freedom, plays an important role in the book and, in fact, in the history of Poland. First of all, when Konwicki states that he no longer wishes to be understood he is appealing to just that, the freedom to do as he likes and not worry about other people’s reactions; to be creative one has to feel free. More importantly, Poland was for a long time under the control of Russia. There were, during this period, attempts to gain independence, including The January Uprising of 1863, to which Konwicki devotes around forty pages of The Polish Complex. After WW2 Poland was forced to join the Eastern Bloc, to become a kind of Soviet satellite state, under the control of Joseph Stalin. It wasn’t until 1989, years after this book was published, that Soviet control over Poland ceased. Therefore, it is no surprise that, as previously mentioned, Konwicki gives over so many pages of his book to The January Uprising, because the fight, or the desire, for freedom or independence is, of course, part of the Polish identity, or was in 1977 at least. It is also no surprise that he takes frequent, and not so subtle, digs at the Russians, or the Russian presence in Poland, most notably when, instead of jewellery, it is samovars that are delivered to the store. Indeed, one lucky person wins a trip to Russia with his purchase.

As with many novels written by earth men of a certain generation, the worst aspect of The Polish Complex is the ludicrous sex scene that takes place between the narrator and a much younger [they are always much younger!] woman. I don’t know how you would feel about it, my space pals, but I had a hard time getting on board with the inter-generational nookie. It just seemed incongruous, or out of place, in a novel so impassioned and intelligent. I do not want an author to be making my chest beat with sardonic rants about national identity one moment, and then waffling on about nipples the next. This is not to say, however, that this scene cannot be justified. One must bear in mind that Konwicki the narrator is old, very ill, and eager to die, and that he has admitted to feeling a kind of sentimentality for his homeland and for his youth. So, this young woman is, in a sense, a kind of memory, a living memory, is a last taste of his own youth or of the purest joys that life can throw up. Moreover, as noted, the action takes place on Christmas Eve, a time of miracles [Konwicki openly declares that he is looking for a miracle], and, taking that into account, one might even doubt whether the liaison is meant to have actually taken place; or, if it did, then the author is at least acknowledging that it is a unlikely, miraculous event.

And…well, that’s it. Oh sure, I could write more, it is always possible to write more, but I feel as though it is unnecessary. I am done. I hope this has been instructional, or entertaining, my bulb-headed amigos. Certainly, I feel better. Because, that’s the thing, even if someone doesn’t understand you, it is still good to get things off your chest, to at least try to make sense of yourself and to at least try to make a connection, no matter how tenuous or doomed to failure it is.

Yours sincerely,

[P]

P.s.

Merry Christmas. Or Alienmas. Or whatever.

THE MANUSCRIPT FOUND IN SARAGOSSA BY JAN POTOCKI

I tend to introduce these reviews with a story or anecdote inspired by the text in question, something, in most cases, from my own past or present life. So as I came to write about Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa I was understandably perturbed when I realised that group sex [specifically threesomes] is so central to the novel’s plot. As much as I want to engage and entertain the reader, to build a relationship with the reader, I don’t much fancy going there. Even a self-obsessed blabbermouth has his limits.

In which case, what else should I focus on? Well, The Manuscript could be said to be a Gothic novel, with ghosts featuring heavily, and I did once, as a child, apparently claim to have seen one sitting on the end of my bed, but that was likely the overactive imagination of a troubled little boy. I could, instead, write something about the author, and how it is said that he killed himself with a silver bullet, fashioned from the handle of a sugar bowl, which is certainly a suitably macabre anecdote. But, in the end, I have come to see that none of that is necessary, because what is most telling, most relevant, relative to this novel, is precisely my desire to share stories, my love of inventing, dramatising and embellishing, my need, you might say, to rummage around in my memories and work the details of my life into short narratives.

“Thought assists memory in enabling it to order the material it has assembled. So that in a systematically ordered memory every idea is individually followed by all conclusions it entails.”

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa begins with a brief passage about how the book was, well, found in Saragossa by an unnamed French military man, who is later captured by the Spanish. Once under arrest he requests that he be able to keep the manuscript, which, as it is written in Spanish, he can only fully understand when it is translated and read to him by a Spanish captain. Therefore, before even entering the main body of the work, one has got a taste of how tricksy and shifting and tangled, how difficult to pin down, the book is: it is, to reiterate, the story of a manuscript written in Spanish…discovered by a Frenchman…translated out loud by a Spaniard…then written down in French. And yet it was actually authored by a Polish Count […although this too is subject to debate].

The following 600 pages are then given over to a mind-bending number of stories, stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories, etc., that take place mostly in Spain, France and Italy. There is, however, also a strong framing narrative, involving a young Wolloon Guard, Alphonse Von Worden, and his peregrinations through the possibly haunted Sierra Moreno and beyond, in the company of, amongst others, cabbalists, sexy lesbian Muslim sisters [who may be succubi], gypsies, bandits, and hanged men. For me, it is this that sets The Manuscript Found in Saragossa apart from other well-known books of this sort. The Arabian Nights and The Decameron, for example, are wonderful, but the framing narrative in each is just that: it is a thin [i.e. underdeveloped], less-than-engaging device that merely serves to tie the more entertaining tales together. Yet with Potocki’s work the frame is probably the most enjoyable [or certainly the most intriguing] aspect of the novel, and I was always eager to get back to it, even though the other stories, with the exception of The Wandering Jew’s, were also able to effortlessly hold my attention.

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[One of Zoto’s brothers, from the film version of the novel]

One would expect with this kind of novel that there wouldn’t be a great deal of character depth or development, but that isn’t necessarily the case here. I certainly wouldn’t call any of the main characters complex, but Potocki does provide backstories, and explanations or justifications as to their personalities or behaviour. For example, in one of the stories we are told how Alphonse’s father was an expert on duelling, and duelling etiquette, and how he impressed upon his son the importance of honour and fearlessness; indeed, he once wanted the young boy thrashed when he admitted that he would be frightened if ever in the presence of ghosts. Therefore, one understands, in retrospect, why Alphonse refused to turn back even when warned twice about travelling through the Sierra Moreno, and why he appears to take all the strange goings-on in his stride. Furthermore, throughout the framing narrative Alphonse’s honour is put to the test. After giving the two Muslim sisters his word that he would not think ill of them, no matter what he was told or experienced, he is frequently asked to denounce them, but steadfastly refuses, and is, in fact, generally suspicious of anyone who wants him to doubt them.

I briefly mentioned Alphonse’s father in the preceding paragraph, and it is worth noting that the relationship between parents and children, specifically fathers and their children, plays a key role in most of the stories. Potocki’s fathers tend to be demanding of their offspring and/or subject to some peculiar preoccupation themselves. Take Valasquez, the geometrician, whose father insists that he avoid geometry and mathematics, and learn how to dance instead; or the cabbalist Rebecca, whose father, also a cabbalist, devotes his life to the art, and later insists that his daughter marry two demi-Gods. What the author shows in this instance, and in many other stories, is how one’s parents influence the direction of one’s life and help to mould the person that you become. Rebecca feels pressurised into pursuing cabbala, which does not interest her as much as her father and brother, and considers it an impediment to her living her life as she would like, taking a mortal husband and having children of her own.

Eventually Rebecca gives up cabbala, and one sees in this another of the novel’s motifs, which is that of things or people changing in some way or becoming something else. The most obvious, and repeated, example of this is the two hanged men, who we are initially informed are Zoto’s brothers [and therefore bandits], but who are later revealed to be shepherds, executed by the authorities in place of the brothers. Throughout, many of the characters have some experience of the two men, which invariably involves them coming down from the gallows and taking another form – such as the two Muslim sisters, Emina and Zubaida – and attempting to, or succeeding in, seducing them. Moreover, there is some debate as to whether the men are ghosts or vampires, or even whether they are, in fact, supernatural at all.

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[Emina and Zubaida, and Alphonse]

As a reviewer you want to identify, and discuss, the author’s aims, his ideas; you want to be able to say what the point is of all that you have read. But one of the features of The Manuscript is that it doesn’t appear to have any overriding, unifying theme[s]. Take the stuff about change, you might say that it is intended to highlight how things are not always what they seem, to warn you that you should not judge too rashly; or perhaps you could see it all as a comment on how life is full of twists and turns, how it is rarely ever stable and consistent. Yet I don’t really buy any of that, which is to say that, yes, life is not always consistent, but I don’t think the author was too concerned with communicating that idea to his audience. I think, as hinted at in my introduction, that the book is simply a very fine example of [a love of] the art of story telling; it is the product of someone revelling in it and having fun, rather than that of a man wanting to instruct or teach or philosophise. And sometimes that is just what you need: mindless fun, that doesn’t overtax your brain or play on your emotions.

COSMOS BY WITOLD GOMBROWICZ

Some time ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about women, specifically the art of figuring out which ones are interested in you, and he was saying that he never felt confident that he was reading the signs right; and that this lack of confidence, in a sense, paralysed him, so that he rarely approached them. He wanted to know how I managed it. How was it that I was always so sure? Well, I let him in on a little secret: stop worrying about signs, as you’ll only confuse yourself. A glance, a nod, a smile…did she wink?…something in her eye….scratch her nose…which means…did she sigh?…a touch…on the arm…it’s a kind of madness, all this. You can never be certain. Getting a telephone number, like a belief in God, requires a leap of faith. Oh, of course, she can say no…maybe she will say no, it’s entirely possible, but no is an answer, it is concrete, it is not a nod, a glance, a little something in the eye, perhaps. And, please, take the no as a no, don’t try and read the no, for God’s sake.

There is, with us, by which I mean human beings, an obsession, a mania, for signs, for interpretation, for creating narratives out of next to nothing. A girlfriend of mine once said to me, after the break-up, that I had, at a certain point in the relationship, given her a look of disgust, and that in that moment she had known that we were doomed. Doomed! Disgust! My face nearly always looks like that. What can you do? The truth is that I had never felt disgusted by her, of course not, but, ah, the look! And what about science? Holy science! Religion too! It’s all part of the same thing, the same madness: this need to explain, to decipher, to crack codes, to solve, to impose order and form on the world…like reading tealeaves or looking for Jesus on a taco.

“The world was indeed a kind of screen and did not manifest itself other than by passing me on and on—I was just the bouncing ball that objects played with!”

I’ve been a fan of the work of acclaimed Polish author Witold Gombrowicz for some time, having read and enjoyed his amusing philosophical novels Pornografia and Ferdydurke more than once. I had, however, never got around to having a go at Cosmos. It’s too impenetrable, too zany, too dated, was the impression I had been given from the small number of reviews I had encountered. Zany and impenetrable had been my thing at one stage, but I had drifted away from that in recent years, as I rested my feet in the clear and warm waters of nineteenth century literature. And maybe that break has done me good, because I came to Cosmos reenergised, fired up for exactly this kind of book. Zany! Impenetrable!

Cosmos is, on the surface, a detective story. Two students, one of whom is the narrator, are looking for a place to stay when they happen upon a bird that has been hung from a piece of wire. Out of this macabre and surreal discovery a mystery develops. First of all, the men ask themselves, ‘who hung the bird and why?’ It’s not the sort of thing you come across every day, of course. After taking lodgings with the Wojtyses family the men start to notice other unusual things [or potential clues!] – an arrow on the ceiling, a stick, a tree that appears to have been moved – which they believe to be linked, to each other and to the bird. As the narrative progresses they become more and more convinced that there is a meaning or rationale behind it all, a puzzle to be put together and solved, a bigger picture. Is someone playing a game with them? Or trying to tell them something? Or…

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[Hung Bird by Leonard Baskin]

Ah, and so we come full circle, the snake swallows its tail! All because of the ‘or.’ We must deal with that ‘or.’ Of course, someone could be messing around, or sending a message, with the bird, the stick, the tree, but what is far more likely is that Witold and Fuks [the two detectives] are simply seeing something in these random objects that isn’t actually there, or is there only because they have, in a sense, put it there themselves [‘the arrow’, the author suggests, could be merely a scratch that resembles an arrow]. They are imbuing these things with meaning, pumping significance into them; they are imposing order and form upon the world, which is, as noted, something that we, by which I mean human beings, do all the time and can, moreover, be done in relation to absolutely anything; this is, for example, how superstitions are created. As I was reading the book I was also put in mind of modern art, something like Kippenberger’s Wittgenstein, say, which is a shelving unit painted grey. An ordinary shelving unit! And yet people, including the artist himself of course, see something in that shelving unit, some kind of message or comment, some significance; they, yes, pump that grey shelving unit full of significance.

Now that we have come this far, the next question is ‘why?’ Why do we do this? You might argue that we impose meaning on the world because otherwise it would be too overwhelming, too chaotic, too frightening. The world is bigger than us, more powerful; and therefore we need to try and bring it to heel. What is interesting about Cosmos, however, is that Gombrowicz takes the opposing position, which is that an ordered world is overwhelming, that what is terrifying is relentless meaning. He likens this to a swarm. In all of his work he [or his narrator] is fixated on individual body parts – the mugs and pupas in Ferdydurke, for example – and I couldn’t ever quite grasp what he was getting at until I read this novel. It now strikes me that what Gombrowicz was doing was destroying form, destroying human order by breaking people down, pulling them apart. In Cosmos, Witold obsessively focusses on Lena’s hands and lips, and one can’t help but imagine these parts floating, disembodied, in space.

“Not surprisingly, because too much attention to one object leads to distraction, this one object conceals everything else, and when we focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are eluding us.”

I have only read Cosmos once, and so I would not suggest that I understand it completely or that this review has nailed all its themes and ideas. Indeed, I could have burdened you with many more paragraphs, as there are a number of other subjects I would like to explore – coincidence, threads and logical connections, madness and obsession, and  so on – but this review is long enough already, and there are still a couple of points I must briefly touch upon before I finish. First of all, Cosmos has been likened to the work of Samuel Beckett, and I can see why someone would make that comparison, but it is, for me, more like Beckett’s novels drunkenly carousing with Thomas Bernhard’s. I think Gombrowicz was a masterful writer, and stylist, but I will say that he is perhaps an acquired taste [and even I wasn’t keen on some of the Leon babble and nonsense]. Secondly, and most importantly of all, this is a serious contender for the funniest book I have ever read. The Lime Works, by the aforementioned Bernhard, would run it close, and I was greatly amused by both Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Walser’s The Robber, but Cosmos had me cackling so loud and so frequently my cat is now suffering from PTSD. In fact, the Berg-Bemberg conversation between Witold and Leon [you have to read it, I can’t possibly do it justice here] brought me almost to the point of hysteria. Which, I feel, is something that the author would have approved of.

THE TRAIN WAS ON TIME BY HEINRICH BOLL

I have spent much of my life, from around ten or eleven years old, looking for the answer, for something that would provide relief and allow me to, not exactly reconcile myself with The Fear, but at least be able to cope with those times when it sits on my chest and holds me down and pummels me in the face. Which is most days really. For years my relationship with The Fear – which for other people may mean a number of things but which for me is a fear of dying – has involved extreme panic attacks. During these attacks, which I would describe as being motivated by The Genuine Belief That One Day I Will Definitely Die, I will howl inhumanly, and tear at my hair, literally grab great chunks of hair and pull at them like an overzealous, inexperienced fisherman yanks at his rod when he sees his float disappear under the surface of the pond’s water. And I will scream, actually scream into the palms of my hands, and writhe and kick and squirm. When The Fear really takes hold, when I truly believe that at some point I am going to cease to exist – because it is a different thing to say it or know it than it is to truly believe it – it is like my head, my body, my Self, is going to suffer a kind of irrevocable breakdown, a Twin Towers-like collapse, and the writhing, the screaming, the kicking, etc, is a sort of existential battle for survival, is my Self trading blows with The Fear. If anyone was ever to see me in this state, which they wouldn’t of course because The Fear is a canny bastard who will only ever step to a guy when he is at his most alone and vulnerable, they’d think, understandably, that I was possessed.

All of which should go some way to explaining why Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was on Time, which is, on the most basic level, the story of a young man who is absolutely certain that the train he is on is taking him to his death, has been an uncomfortable, and yet at times strangely comforting, reading experience for me. The novel is set in 1943, and features a German infantryman, Andreas, who is bound for the Eastern front [specifically Poland]. In these circumstances, having a premonition of one’s death is not exactly a flight of fancy. Indeed, Andreas had already come close to the ultimate departure once before, in Amiens, France. Unfortunately for him, the situation, for the Germans, has significantly worsened since then, so that losing the war seems likely. One must bear in mind that one’s chances of survival when on the winning side are, at best, in the balance, but when on the losing side? Well…

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[German soldiers during WW2, waiting to board a train]

To be a soldier during wartime is to be in an extraordinary predicament, because, regardless of how that war is justified, whether it be in the name of freedom or democracy or whatever, for the people who are actively involved in it, it is literally a fight for life, a battle to stay alive; it is a state of affairs whereby death isn’t simply keeping an eye on you, it is aggressively stalking your heels. To spend weeks, months, years in such a situation must be horribly taxing. Therefore, it is no surprise that soldiers are often mentally damaged by the experience; and there is certainly evidence of that where Andreas is concerned. He is obsessively focussed on certain incidents, replaying them in his mind; he worries that he isn’t praying enough, and when he does pray it is often for the Jews; he frequently wants to cry but cannot; and, as already noted, he is convinced that his death is coming, yet not at some unspecified point in time, but on a specific day, in a specific place.

“He could no longer say, no longer even think: “I don’t want to die.” As often as he tried to form the sentence he thought: I’m going to die…soon.”

For me, Böll handles all this with great sensitivity, intelligence and skill. On the surface, the book is written in the third person, but large parts of it are actually given over to Andreas’ internal monologues. In the beginning, he is terribly afraid, he panics…it is an animal reaction, a feeling that goes beyond reason. He is tormented by the word ‘soon.’  Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. “What a terrible word,” he thinks to himself. When is soon? Soon is uncertain, it is imprecise, it is a black hole, a nothing. Like death itself. And so, almost in order to comfort himself, to be able to get a handle on death, to make it concrete, to give himself something to hold onto, he convinces himself that his death will take place on a Sunday, between Lvov and Cernauti. He makes the uncertain certain. There is something, I think, in the unknown, in nothingness, that we simply cannot bear, because, I guess, we cannot comprehend it. I have been spending time with terminally ill people recently, and there is, in my limited experience, a kind of calmness that descends when death stops being this thing that might grab you unawares, and instead comes to sit beside you.

Once death is certain, and no longer soon, Andreas’ panic subsides somewhat [which is not, by the way, the same as saying that he becomes entirely reconciled to the fate that he believes is his] and he becomes wistful and melancholy, thinking about the places he has been unable to visit, about how he will never again see the girl who serves him coffee. In this way, The Train Was on Time, as with all worthwhile literature, is universal, because we all experience the transitory nature of existence, even if we do not always link that experience to death. Whenever I am on a train I will spend some time looking out of the window, and I am always struck by a painful feeling, an understanding that I will never again see what I am seeing, that even if I take the same train, at the same time, travelling the same route, the sights will not be exactly the same. No single second of your life can ever be repeated; to all intents and purposes, you die thousands of times a day.

“That’s something no one would ever be able to understand, why I don’t take the next train back to her… why don’t I? No one would ever be able to understand that. But I’m scared of that innocence… and I love her very much, and I’m going to die, and all she’ll ever get from me now will be an official letter saying: Fallen for Greater Germany…”

For a novel so preoccupied with death it is not surprising that there is a sense of wanting to escape running through it. In addition to Andreas, there are two other major characters, Willi and a blonde officer. The three men come together when Andreas is asked if he wants to play a game of cards. Of course, for the young infantryman the game, and the company, is not about avoiding boredom, as it might be for us, but about keeping busy, taking his mind off things, off, specifically, the fact that he is likely hurtling towards his final resting place. However, death itself is also a kind of escape, or it could be viewed in that way, especially if one’s life is intolerable. In the case of Willi and the blonde officer, they could be said to be running towards war, towards death, rather than away from it, as one struggles with the break up of his marriage and the other with having once been sexually abused. In fact, Willi drinks large quantities of alcohol, which, of course, also provides an escape from reality, albeit only in the short-term.

In conclusion, I seem to recall the translator and critic Michael Hofmann once writing disparagingly of Heinrich Böll, and I seldom see his work [Böll’s] in lists of great German novels. On this basis, he probably qualifies as underrated. I do not think he ever hit the heights of someone like, say, Thomas Mann or the Austrian Robert Musil, but I have yet to be disappointed with any of his books. However, I ought to point out that, in the early stages, the transitions between third person narrative and the internal monologue are a little clunky to say the least, and that I wasn’t won over by the opening scene in which Andreas speaks to a clergyman on the platform about his desire to avoid death, but these are minor quibbles overall. The Train Was on Time, which was Böll’s first published work, written when in his early thirties, is fascinating, and often beautiful and moving.

SOLARIS BY STANISLAW LEM

When I was a kid my dad was obsessed with the idea of UFO’s and alien contact. He made me and my brother watch endless episodes of trashy American documentaries about sightings and abductions. In fact, I sat through so many of these that I started to have nightmares about bug-eyed extra terrestrial beings entering my room at night. I guess that for my dad – who did not have a partner, whose children were emotionally, if not physically, estranged from him, and whose job was not exactly stimulating – the promise of other planets and other species, of being whisked away from his humdrum life, must have been pretty appealing. While I too wanted to somehow escape the situation I found myself in, the prospect of other worlds or beings never fired my imagination. I found it difficult enough to get my head around the behaviour and motivations of humans, I had enough problems understanding my own world, that the possibility of engaging meaningfully with aliens struck me as, to all intents and purposes, impossible.

For this same reason, I have never been particularly drawn to Sci-Fi. The writers and books I most enjoy are ones that I believe contain insights about human nature, that help me come to terms with who I am and how my world works. This is, I guess, where Stanislaw Lem comes in. First of all, Lem himself was not particularly enamoured of the genre, he thought the majority of it too reliant upon the adventure story formula. My introduction to the Pole’s work was His Master’s Voice, and, on the basis of that novel, I could see why he considered himself as a kind of outlier in the Science Fiction community. The plot is almost non-existent, and entirely plausible; there are no weird creatures, no space travel. More than anything, His Master’s Voice is a speculative, philosophical novel of ideas that says more about us than it does about what is potentially out there. And so is this one.

Having said that, Solaris provides more conventional, less cerebral enjoyment than His Master’s Voice, and is therefore more approachable. Lem may have been critical of Science Fiction’s use of the adventure story formula, but the dynamics of Solaris’ plot are borrowed from the equally formulaic horror/thriller genre. Doctor Kris Kelvin arrives on the space station that has been studying the planet Solaris, and which is meant to be manned by three other people. However, Kelvin finds that one of them is blind drunk and clearly spooked, one has locked himself in his laboratory, and the other is dead. Of course, he is suspicious and senses that something is wrong. Not only is Snow visibly shaken, but he has blood on his hands; alarming noises are coming from Sartorius’ lab; and Kelvin himself feels as though he is being watched. As the narrative progresses things get even stranger: there are, it is revealed, other people on board and it is not clear how they got there or whether they are friendly.

“Successive bursts of static came through the headphones, against a background of deep, low-pitched murmuring, which seemed to me the very voice of the planet itself.”

While all this is lots of fun, and genuinely tense and unnerving at times, especially if you haven’t seen either of the two film adaptations, if it was all Solaris had to offer it’s unlikely that I would rate the book so highly. In order to begin to explain why I do I would, first of all, point to a quote from the text, which is ‘“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” This, for me, sums up the philosophical, emotional heart of the novel. The ‘ocean’ is the alien life-form [if it is indeed alive; it certainly displays behaviour consistent with ‘being alive’ and appears to exhibit some kind of intelligence] that resides upon Solaris. As with His Master’s Voice, Lem is interested in what ‘alien’ actually means. The ocean is absolutely non-human, and is, therefore, not accessible to us, can never be accessible to us, because we can only attempt to understand it by using human concepts, ideas, reasoning etc.

The focus here is not on the ‘personality’ or capabilities of the ocean, but on our own limitations and arrogance. At one point in the book Lem writes that we, the human race, are not actually interested in the genuinely alien, but simply want to extend the boundaries of the human world. In other words, confronted with something that we do not understand, that we can never understand, we want to explain, to interpret it in human terms; in essence, we strive to find all things human. I found all this blistering stuff, and it is something I see around me every day. Not with aliens, of course, but with animals, cars, mountains, and so on. Consider how what most pleases or charms us about our pets are the moments when we can see ourselves in them, when they do something that we see as being recognisably human.

“We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.”

For a book that is on the surface concerned with our relationship [or non-relationship] with the alien, Solaris somehow manages to be extraordinarily moving. That is all down to Rheya. I must admit that she broke my heart. There are a number of ways to interpret her role in the novel, just as there is more than one Rheya. First of all, there is the original Rheya, the young woman who Kelvin was married to, who took her own life years before he came to be on a space station on Solaris, and whose death he feels responsible for. Therefore, the counterfeit Rheya, Rheya2, the one who turns up at the space station, could be said to be a physical manifestation of Kelvin’s grief or guilt. In this way, Rheya2 is a kind of tormentor; it is not a blessing for Kelvin to be confronted with a facsimile of the woman he feels as though he failed and treated badly, a woman who looks so much like her but isn’t her. No, it is a form of torture.

It is also possible to interpret Rheya’s appearances in the text outside of any alien context. Throughout my reading I kept returning to that key line, ‘“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” We know that Kelvin and Rheya had a tumultuous relationship on earth, one that ended with an argument and the woman committing suicide. With Rheya2, Kelvin re-enacts this relationship. If you forget that she is non-human for a moment, the interactions between the couple are indistinguishable from the interactions of any couple going through a rough time, a couple that isn’t communicating well, who keep things from each other, who snap at and goad each other out of exasperation, who love and need each other but cannot, despite their best intentions, always show each other the patience and affection that they ought to. In this way, Solaris is a classic marriage-in-crisis narrative; it is a novel about the intense hardships of love.

Finally, and most heartrending of all, there is the issue of personal identity. Rheya2 is, in the beginning, ignorant of what she is; she believes herself to be Rheya, a human woman in love with a human man named Kris Kelvin. She is, therefore, not a malevolent entity, not consciously anyway. As the narrative progresses, she senses that something is wrong; she doesn’t need to eat or sleep, she cannot be physically hurt, she remembers very little of her life before Solaris, and she cannot bear [i.e. it causes her intense physical pain] to be away from Kelvin for longer than a minute or so. Eventually, her true situation, the true nature of her being, dawns on her, and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I had a lump in my throat the size of a football.

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[A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of the book]

There is something about this set-up, about a being who believes herself to be human, who feels human, who has a human consciousness, and human emotions, suddenly realising that she has been created by an alien presence, for reasons that are not clear, that really got to me. Her confusion, her anxiety, her struggle, her bravery and nobility [yes, I am aware of how ridiculous this sounds, but I’m in earnest here] in coming to terms with herself all but ruined me. And here’s the rub, who or what exactly is she? Isn’t she Rheya? She is not the same as the original Rheya, that is true, but what does that prove? There is a woman in front of Kelvin, whose heart beats, who breathes, who calls herself Rheya, so who, or what, else can she be? There is a point in the text, when Kelvin says that he no longer sees Rheya and Rheya2 as the same person, that he accepts and loves Rheya2 as herself. The nature of personal identity is thorny; just what is it that makes you, you? Your memories, your appearance, your personality? Rheya2 ticks all these boxes. Solaris makes you ask, is Rheya2 a facsimile or is she a distinct person? Is she a person at all? If not, why not?

I could go into all this in more detail, but I’ll quit while some readers are still with me. Before concluding, I want to quickly deal with the translation. I have read Solaris twice, once, and first, in the most recent [and only] rendering directly from Polish. For this reread, I read the version that is widely available, which is a translation from a French translation from the Polish. I loved the book in both versions. Moreover, despite Lem’s claim that the Polish-French-English translation is inadequate, and taking into consideration my own concerns about authenticity and accurate translations, I thought it was smooth and not at all inferior to the version translated directly from the original. I would have to read both versions simultaneously, or at least close together, to be able to compare them in detail, but I do think, taking into account its negative reputation, that the Polish-French-English version ought to be defended. I criticise translations a lot, and no doubt some people think I am too picky, but I am genuinely happy that the version of Solaris that most people will come across is an excellent read, because, whether you like Sci-Fi or not, you should read Solaris. It is as engaging, thrilling, intelligent and beautiful as any novel you will ever encounter.