The Hill of Evil Counsel
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass
Comment peut-on être Persan? La réponse est une question nouvelle: Comment peut-on être ce que l’on est?
—Paul Valéry Préface aux Lettres Persanes
Being in a generic way English or American has one big advantage: the self does not have the need to identify and project its image through nationality. As a rule the concepts of Americanness or Englishness have widened into a nullity that imposes little conscious obligation. One must find some other way of being oneself. On quitting the island my own grandfather thankfully dropped the task of being Irish. He did not seek to become English, but he entered the vague space where Englishness was hypothetically present, and there he remained. He did not even bother to practice that flip talent of dual nationality described by Elizabeth Bowen as being Irish when it suits and English when it does not.
In spite of the current fashion for “roots,” this tendency to evade definitiveness rather than to project it is still widespread, fortunately for the human race. The results for literature are of special interest, for the novel can stylize either approach. Nationality defines itself in art, inevitably somewhat in the manner of a pastoral. A Palestinian novel may be wholly Palestinian: Estonian literature consciously embodies the idea of Estonian experience. Nationalism chooses ideality; if it prefers the reverse, affronted clients may visit their displeasure on the head of the artist. Reproached for writing about Jewish thieves and prostitutes Isaac Bashevis Singer is said to have remarked: “So they want me to write about Spanish thieves and prostitutes? I write about the ones I know.” Class, more conscious today than ever, and allying itself to the identities of color and sex, in fiction often closely imitates the nationalist tone. The author from Huddersfield of “good working-class stock” imposes the image on his novel and its client, like the novelist who wants to tell us “what it means to be a woman.”
And in a sense Amos Oz has no alternative in his novels but to tell us what it means to be an Israeli. The Hill of Evil Counsel is a trio of interlinked narratives set in Jerusalem at the time just before the founding of the Israeli state. The third story—“Longing”—is told in the form of letters from a bacteriologist to a woman doctor friend in New York. His friends and colleagues, with whom he works on plans for a clean municipal water supply and the elimination of malaria, are an Englishman (with an Irish name) in nominal charge, and Dr. Mahdi, who also runs a private practice in Jerusalem. Dr. Nussbaum, the letter writer, has contracted a mortal disease; he knows war is coming, the supreme test at hand, but he will not be there to see it, and his friend the Arab doctor will administer morphine to ease his last hours.
Oz is a writer of great humanity and sensitivity. He conveys with a kind of light exactitude the atmosphere of the time, the physical feel of the town, and above all the consciousness of his narrator correspondent, and his reluctance to lose the Europeanness which is all he has, and the modes of understanding that go with it. He hates the flourishing ugliness, the concrete squalor of the new quarters in Jerusalem. It is not Dr. Nussbaum but O’Leary, the British medical officer, who is in love with the charged antiquity of the land. O’Leary says he has served in southern Persia, where you get just the same landscape, the same barren hills and miserable scrub, but who wants to come right across the world to live there? So effectively skillful and tactful is the composition that its symbolic overtones are only present in a complex mixture of excitement and disquiet, just as the title itself—“Longing”—suggests an ironic query the more potent for being uninsistent.
Dr. Nussbaum’s father owns a factory in Austria. One day he receives in the mail a piece of expensive notepaper, with no letterhead and the single word Jude written neatly in the center. From whatever motives of malice and compassion his Aryan girl secretary tries politely to reassure him by saying, in effect: it’s true. Oz’s power of getting his complex theme into art is such that without any prompting from him we passionately hate the girl for her apparently solicitous accuracy: by drawing attention to the truth at such a moment she seems to be committing, as it were, the sin against the Holy Ghost. The ironies at work in the narrative, probing intimate places of identity and nationality, emphasize the Zionist compulsion to wear an equally uncompromising label of quite a different kind, a compulsion to move from the spaciousness of accepted identity into the provincial narrowness of self-conscious nationality. There is an oblique reference to Golda Meir’s reproof by Dr. Musa Alami in the days of the mandate. He cited King Solomon’s verdict that the true mother was the one who did not want to see the child chopped up; and that the Jews should remember this parable instead of seeking to enforce by partition a single-identity nation state.
In each of the three narratives a boy is present who is loosely identified with the author himself at that age, and his vision of things—solipsistic, romantic, historically innocent—exercises an effect of liberation, in itself slightly ironic, on the claustrophobic dedication of the scene; even though the child himself is of course dedicated, he hardly knows to what. One of the admirable things about Oz’s novels is the humor in them, a humor which formulates itself in having taken, and accepted, the narrow measure of the Israeli scene. Unlike much ethnic writing his does not seek to masquerade as Weltliteratur. It is Jewish literature acquiescing amusedly in its new militantly provincial status. The symbolic needs humor to keep it sweet, and Oz is a master of the kind of ludicrousness deployed so effectively in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, where Bellow shows us a rebarbative young Israeli slugging a black pickpocket under the mistaken impression that his gentle Uncle Sammler has ordered this act of violence.
Oz accepts the obligation to tell us what it means to be an Israeli: Bruno Schulz, by contrast, nurtured in his extraordinary imagination a swarm of phantom identities and nationalities. Yet there was nothing cosmopolitan about him; his genius fed in solitude on specific local and ethnic sources. Born in 1892 at Drogobych in southeastern Poland, Schulz scarcely ever left his home town. He studied as an architect and draftsman, but could get no better job in the new national Poland than teaching drawing in the local high school. His adult life was a hermit’s, uneventful and enclosed; his few friends and colleagues knew nothing of what he was doing; but he had correspondents to whom he confided his ideas about art, and in 1930 his letters to one of these—Deborah Vogel, a poet and doctor of philosophy in Lvov—began to assume the character of fantasy.
It was a private world, created for one person; not, it appears, as a love offering, for Schulz’s feelings toward his correspondent do not seem to have been especially tender. Yet there seems no doubt that Schulz would not have written at all had he been writing, as most aspirants do, for an unknown public. He returns literally to the primal myth behind the literary convention of “Dear Reader,” and as the poet Jerzy Ficowski observed, no other such masterpiece can have originated “in so curious and at the same time so natural a manner.”
His correspondent encouraged Schulz to assemble his book, and with the help of an eminent Polish woman novelist it was published at last in 1934, with the title Cinnamon Shops. It had an immediate critical success and was honored by the Polish Academy of Letters. Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass followed in 1937. His success made no difference to Schulz’s life style. He continued to work at the school in Drogobych. The Germans occupied Poland, and in 1942 he was shot down in the street in one of the systematic drives which the SS mounted from time to time against the local population. He was thought to have been working at the time on a novel to be called The Messiah, but no manuscript survived him.
From a historical point of view Schulz’s two books can be said to shine like an afterglow from the days of the good Kaiser Franz Josef, who presided over what was arguably the only moderately happy and civilized multiracial empire in the history of Europe. Kafka, one of its subjects, was devoted to it; it originally included Schulz’s home town of Drogobych. The Austrian Rilke was Schulz’s favorite poet. Schultz occasionally reminds one of Stifter; and he was clearly well acquainted with both Kafka and Freud though there is some uncertainty about when he first read Kafka’s work; possibly he did so between the composition of his two books, at a time when he began to do a translation of The Trial.
Schulz, however, is the kind of writer whose originality is in no way compromised by even such obvious influences. In fact it seems to me probable that his constructions undertake to deflect and transform the kinds of reality inhabited or explored by previous models, a phenomenon familiar in the history of fiction. Thus Sterne in Tristram Shandy made his comment both on Locke’s system of ideas and Fielding’s style of fiction; thus Dostoevsky attacked both Chernyshevsky’s novel and the theory of utilitarianism in Notes from the Underground. The hero of Schulz’s fabulous world is, unexpectedly, not the son but the father, a figure represented as a symbol of imprisoned consciousness itself, and of the escapes and enfranchisements it can devise. The father in Schulz is in somewhat the same position as the son in Kafka, most specifically the son in The Metamorphosis. But all Freud’s schematization of the family, the Oedipus complex and the instincts determined by it, are blown away in the invigorating gale of Schulz’s creative fantasy.
In one episode of Cinnamon Shops (translated by Penguin books as The Street of Crocodiles) it is a real gale, in so far as anything is real in Schulz’s world. In his description it takes on a breathtaking paralyzing force which blows out stoves and fills houses with their smoke, and makes the townspeople afraid to go out for fear of being blown into nonexistence. The narrator’s father is marooned away from home in his dry-goods store. Belabored by his wife’s anxieties, two relatives volunteer to try to get through and bring him home. They put on enormous coats, force the door open against the wind’s pressure as if it were the hatch of a submarine. Hours pass and when they suddenly reappear everyone realizes that they have made no attempt to find the father but have been cowering against the wall outside the door, waiting for time to go by. But by now nobody cares. The focus has altered; Aunt Perasia has come “to call.” Stimulated by this tiny, vivacious, active personality, household affairs resume their normal course. But her energies, in domestic parallel with the gale outside, assume a more and more frenetic violence. She seems to shrink in size, seizes two splinters of wood from the kindling and uses them as stilts to mount the dresser; is finally oxidized by her own activity into a black petal of ash.
Such things are normal occurrences in Schulz’s world, reminding us more of Dickens than of Proust or Kafka, with whom his manner is often compared. But there is nothing macabre in these displays; they give us a happy and wholly free view of “home”—a child’s view, which does not seek for explanations or go in for post-mortems. It sounds, from what we know, as if Schulz’s father was pretty much like that of the narrator in his books, but the way in which he is, as it were, blessed by matter—an affectionate apotheosis—also seems to be making a tacit challenge to a writer who uses the grotesque for very different purposes.
“Father’s Last Escape,” the concluding part of Sanatorium, makes the reference to Kafka quite explicit. His business liquidated and all his functions and authorities taken over by wife or relatives, Father seems at the end of his tether. Even the handsome Polish servant maid Adela, who used to pretend to tickle him with her broom, and make him rush about in silent contortions of mirth, has gone and been replaced by Genya, “anemic, pale, and boneless,…and so absent-minded that she sometimes made a white sauce from old letters and invoices.” Father’s only resource is to turn himself first into wallpaper or clothing (“The fur coat breathed. The panic of small animals sewn together and biting into one another passed through it in helpless currents…”) and then into a big crablike insect who—unlike Kafka’s passive victim—runs nimbly about the house, obstinately and indefatigably looking for something.
He seemed to consider carefully the objects he encountered in his path, stopping and feeling them with his antennae, then embracing them with his pincers, as if to test them and make their acquaintance…. Sometimes he disappeared for days on end…. With mixed feelings of shame and repugnance, we concealed by day our secret fear that he might visit us in bed during the night. But this never occurred, although in the daytime he would wander all over the furniture. He particularly liked to stay in the spaces between the wardrobes and the wall.
Uncle Charles has to be restrained from stepping on Father, and afterward smiles wryly to himself while Father, not realizing the danger he had been in, studies and palpates some small spots on the floor.
His wife can catch the creature in her handkerchief sometimes but cannot hold him. One day however she must have managed it because Father appears at lunch.
When Father was brought in on a dish, we came to our senses and understood fully what had happened. He lay large and swollen from the boiling, pale gray and jellified…. Only Uncle Charles lifted his fork toward the dish, but at once he put it down uncertainly, looking at us askance. Mother ordered it to be taken to the sitting room. It stood there afterward on a table covered with a velvet cloth.
His mother’s behavior appalls the narrator.
“How could you have done it?”…Mother cried, wrung her hands, and could find no answer. Had she thought that Father would be better off? Had she seen in the act the only solution to a hopeless situation, or did she do it out of inconceivable thoughtlessness and frivolity?…
But my father’s earthly wanderings were not at an end…. Why didn’t he give up, why didn’t he admit that he was beaten when there was every reason to do so and when even Fate could go no further in utterly confounding him? After several weeks of immobility in the sitting room, he somehow rallied and seemed to be slowly recovering. One morning, we found the plate empty. One leg lay on the edge of the dish, in some congealed tomato sauce and aspic that bore the traces of his escape. Although boiled and shedding his legs on the way, with his remaining strength he had dragged himself somewhere to begin a homeless wandering, and we never saw him again.
So the book ends, a farewell as epic as in Homer or James Joyce. The father has become the son, has been served at a communion, laid in the tomb of the drawing room, next to the family photographs and a musical cigarette box; has risen again and ascended, or at least vanished.
The palimpsest of myth, both sophisticated and marvelously elemental, is liberated from any specific religious or psychological significance, controlled only by the lyric precision and sobriety of Schulz’s art. Such meticulous flights into fancy sometimes remind one of Conrad’s explorations of sequence and event in The Secret Sharer and The Secret Agent. Something in the nature of Polish may provide the same background medium; for the final escape and liberation of Schulz—immanent in the private letters out of which his family world of fantasy began to be constructed—is his escape into the Polish language itself. One might have expected him to write in German—he was wholly familiar with it, but it was the language of Kafka—or in Yiddish. Instead he achieves a dazzling metamorphosis into a language that he uses with the same kind of virtuosity with which Conrad and Mandelstam employed English and Russian prose. His style has been admired by all Polish authors, and much of its quality has been incarnated in the superb translation of his two books by Celina Wieniewska.
Schulz’s death was somehow characteristic, like one of the abrupt phenomena that appall or transfigure the urban landscapes and interiors of his tales. In his art a kind of potential always seems more important than achievement, in the same way that his imagination makes not only persons but matter itself seem tensed into transition, gravid with new and exciting possibilities of metamorphosis. In practice it seems likely that Schulz achieved exactly what he could do, as Kafka had done in his stories, and that the meditation of a larger work in a more declarative mode contained the presumption of its own unattainability, like Kafka’s Castle.
Already in Sanatorium there are signs of Schulz losing the simplicity of his original communication and beginning to give a performance on his new literary identity instead of evading what Valéry called “the absurdity of all particular existence.” (His books have no real titles: they are labeled arbitrarily from among their own constituents.) When the dog Nimrod, often met with in his pages, learns first to bark, the sound too rapidly becomes no more than itself. “Nimrod kept on barking, but the tone of it had changed imperceptibly, had become a parody of what it had been—an attempt to express the incredible wonder of that capital enterprise, life.”
In a no doubt deliberate contrast with the Angst of Kafka’s, the joy of Schulz’s world depends on the way its art seizes the possibilities that preempt realization, or—like the Father—continue to defy it against all the odds. The pleasure it bestows is admirably uncontemporary, though it gives no sense of belonging to the past. It shows what is lost by our narrowing compulsion to define ourselves sexually, socially, or nationally—to “find out who we are”; and how we may lose the sort of imagination Schulz possessed, together with the world of which it could make such divine sense.