It’s unusual for three first-rate contemporary Jewish writers (Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and David Grossman) to pay homage in their fiction to a somewhat obscure literary figure. But in Ozick’s novella "The Messiah of Stockholm," Grossman’s novel "See Under: Love," and Roth’s story "The Prague Orgy," the gossamer figure of Bruno Schulz, the extraordinary Polish Jewish writer killed by the Nazis, predominates. These writers all attempt to reconstruct what happened to Schulz’s lost manuscript, "The Messiah," after Schulz was murdered in the streets of Drohobycz in 1942, or imagine him escaping his fate and living an alternate life. But in the end, "The Messiah" appears only fleetingly, and we are left with an aching hole where Schulz once stood.
Jerzy Ficowski’s important new "Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz: A Biographical Portrait" (Norton), the first English-language introduction to the writer on the 60th anniversary of his death, helps fill in some of the blanks of his life. But the biographical and literary mysteries that remain only deepen Schulz’s status as an elusive, contradictory symbol of European Jewish authenticity vis-a-vis American Jewish life.
A high school art teacher by profession, Schulz was regarded as one of the most important voices of inter-war Poland. Since then, his reputation has steadily increased, and he is now discussed in the same breath as those other seminal European modernists, Kafka and Babel. Surreal and fable-like on the one hand, and deeply precise on the other, Schulz’s stories in his two collections ("The Street of Crocodiles" and "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass") in English recreate a world of vague Jewish customs, biblical and pagan allusions, missing months and cardboard cities that (even before the Holocaust) suggested the end of a civilization.
What is most striking about the Roth and Ozick books about Schulz is the disorientation of self and history that Schulz’s life, death and lost work evoke. In "The Messiah of Stockholm," Ozick’s protagonist Lars is an orphan living in Sweden, and believes himself to be the son of Schulz. Lars sees his father’s eye floating in the heaven like a god, and the eventual loss of this connection to his father’s creative consciousness is an irredeemable blow to his personality. His identity is fully contingent on his relationship to his dead father.
In "The Prague Orgy," Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is visited by a Czech emigre purporting to be the son of a Schulz-like figure. Zuckerman visits Prague to find the lost manuscript of this man’s father, which he finds but promptly loses. Zuckerman realizes he has given himself an impulsive, dangerous assignment, and that he traded places with his Czech colleague in order to "shed my narrative" as an American Jewish writer. Yet Zuckerman can no more become the European Jewish novelist than the lost Czech manuscript (representing the unlived possibilities of European Jewry) can make its way to New York. And so Zuckerman flies back to the New World, in physical comfort and safety, but with the feeling of terrible disappointment. In his later novel, "Operation Shylock," Roth takes this one step further, suggesting satirically that Jews should become "Diasporists," leaving Israel and returning to Europe, the only place where real Jewish life can exist.
Although I don’t know of any major Generation X (or late baby boomer) writers who have taken on Schulz as a theme, for many of them European Jewish life still seems the basis for Jewish identity. Despite the affluence and freedom (or perhaps because of it) they seem to suggest that American Jewish culture doesn’t seem quite real without some connection to the Old Country. And so many of our writers gravitate back to Europe looking for "history," or "continuity." Just in the past couple of years we have had Jonathan Safran Foer’s escape to the Ukraine in "Everything is Illuminated," Gary Shteyngart’s adventures in Prague in "The Russian Debutante’s Handbook," Binnie Kirshenbaum’s looking for love in Munich in "Hester Among the Ruins," Gwen Edelman’s train ride through Europe in "War Story," Nathan Englander’s Russian prison in his seminal story "The Twenty-Seventh Man" in his collection "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," and on and on.
Of course the irony with Schulz is that, despite the "authentic" Jewish experience of living in a ghetto and being consumed by the Holocaust, he himself was a refugee from the Jewish community, writing in Polish, living in a Jewish ghetto but knowing fairly little about specific rituals or texts. His work is suffused with the sense that his world, that reality itself, was "paper thin," and that behind it was the actual universe waiting to be discovered. Schulz had likely hoped that "The Messiah" would save him from his own sense of alienation. American Jewish writers (by contemplating Schulz and European Jews like him) are doing the same.