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Visions and Revisions

The Messiah of Stockholm

by Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, 144 pp., $15.95

Foe

by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 157 pp., $15.95

In The Messiah of Stockholm we have, for once, a truly intriguing mystery, quietly (and at times not so quietly) sounding those overtones or undertones of allegory or fable, of universality, without which no mystery will detain us for long.

At the beginning of The Magic Mountain young Hans Castorp was described as a “still unwritten page.” Cynthia Ozick’s character, Lars Andemening, although forty-two years old, is a conspicuously unfinished page, looking for an author to complete him; an “arrested soul” is how he sees himself. More specifically—believing himself to be an orphan of Polish origin adopted by a Swedish family—he is looking for his father, whom he has designated as Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish author of two books of “peculiar tales” published in English translation as Cinnamon Shops (in the US, The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. We hear that in one of these stories of “losses, metamorphoses, degradations” the father turns into a crab and the mother boils it and serves it up to the family. Schulz lived in the Galician town of Drohobycz, and was gunned down there by the SS on November 19, 1942.

Lars, who is most at home under his quilt, makes a thin living as the Monday book reviewer of the Morgontörn, not a good day for books, and not a very good newspaper. According to his fellow reviewers, Lars’s trouble is Central Europe: he is “a Monday Faust,” or “prince of the indecipherable,” obsessed with people with names like Broch, Kiš, Musil, Canetti, Kundera, Schulz, inscrutable authors who hold little appeal for the healthy readers of the Wednesday and Friday culture pages. In return, though he cannot admire their intellectual tastes or literary principles, or lack of them, he loves in his colleagues “their maimed scribblers’ odor, pale and dimly prurient, a fuminess skimmed from the Morgontörn’s omnipresent staleness.”

Lars’s confederate and rival in the search for Schulz and Schulziana is Heidi Eklund, an aging German of dubious antecedents who once lived in the vicinity of a death camp. Now a bookseller, she contrives by uncertain means to procure rare Polish books for him, among them Schulz’s translation of The Trial. (Lars isn’t too pleased with this; he doesn’t care to see his putative father “in the role of the dummy on Franz Kafka’s lap.”) Her husband—for a long time Lars believes she has invented him since he is always away on business—turns out to be a skilled forger of passports; he gets people “in” and “out,” and likewise books and manuscripts. Heidi has also procured a Polish teacher for Lars, a refugee professor from Cracow, maybe a princess, maybe a Radziwill.

Lars, as the author states or understates, is “untouched by the comic muse.” The editor of the Morgontörn tells him that readers are complaining: “Your reviews are practically theology.” Theological is a harsher epithet even than existential or Faustian or surreal or Central European. All the same there is a lot of comedy here—as in fact there is a lot of everything except (unusually) sex, all packed into an unusually modest number of pages. The humor derives mostly, or most obviously, from the newspaper and from Lars’s colleagues, vigorous Viking giants compared with the etiolated Lars, blasé philistines, “literary creatures who served, sidestepped, and sometimes sold out the Muses.” Collectively they are a stewpot, and part of a larger stewpot, for “all over the world the great ladle was stirring, stirring. The poets, dreamers, thinkers, hacks. The ambitious and the meditative. The opportunists and the provocateurs. The cabalists and the seducers.”

Lars’s father shunned the stewpot; he lived in an obscure town, not in Warsaw or Paris, he never won the Nobel Prize though he would have done had he lived. And Lars will follow his example. “If you’ve never heard of it, leave it to Lars,” says one of his colleagues. “Or if it’s dead,” another mocks. “If it never existed.” “If you wish it never existed.” Badinage of this sort, jocular, not exactly kindly, but not altogether wide of the mark, helps us to swallow occasional overwrought or overheated passages, in particular Lars’s agonizings and his recurring vision of an alabaster egg—or a globe—or no, an eye, his own, but not his own, his father’s murdered eye. When, as he feels, a “greased beak” carries him to high places, it is just as well that people touched rather heavily by the comic muse do their best to bring him down to earth. It is through such juxtapositions that Cynthia Ozick brings off effects comparable to those of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who can persuade the reader to believe the incredible. In The Messiah of Stockholm, where there is nothing that is quite incredible, the reader is released from irritable reaching after reasons and meanings. Only in the cold light of day are mysteries recognized as what they are. The physicality of the prose plays a part here:

There was a bitter wind now, lording it over the black of one o’clock. The blackness went on throwing the snow into Lars’s face, and he packed his scarf over his nose and mouth—how warm his breath was in the little cave this made! He hurried past the Stock Exchange and the Academy—not a lit bulb anywhere, or even the daub of a watchman’s flashlight. Succession of whitening roofs: how easy to see into the thickest dark through a lens of snow. The spiraling flakes stuttered around him like Morse code…. The few cars with their sleepless headlights slipped by like slow cats. Stockholm, an orderly city, has its underlife, its hidden wakeful. Whoever owns a secret in Stockholm turns and turns in the night emptiness, but not in sleep.

Under the screen of revolving flakes the steeples had the look of whirling Merlin hats.

If it never existed, leave it to Lars. Did The Messiah, Bruno Schulz’s third and last and hence greatest book, ever exist? If it did, it must surely be dead now, must have perished somewhere in Drohobycz. However, the Eklunds find—or fabricate—a daughter of Bruno Schulz, and the daughter possesses the original manuscript of The Messiah. It came to her circuitously, but in a way circumstantially accounted for and hence feasible. Yet not feasible in Lars’s eyes. He wants the book to exist, but not to have survived, to be there in front of him, thanks to someone who would be his sister, but can’t possibly be since he was an only child. He is not prepared to share his father, not for anything, not even (it might seem) for The Messiah. We begin to see more point in Heidi’s earlier remark: “Why don’t you pick Kafka to be the son of?”

It is considered unseemly for reviewers to give away the ending of a fiction reckoned to be mysterious and thus spoil the reader’s enjoyment. Yet I wouldn’t wish to suggest that the present book is no more than a whodunit. So here goes.

Toward the end Cynthia Ozick falters, because there is nothing else she can do. She certainly cannot win. By now the reader positively wants The Messiah, and wants it to be a great work. And here, seemingly, it is, in an authentically battered but still readable manuscript. A new name is about to be added to the roll call of European giants; the work must be in the same class as Kafka, or at least rank with Gombrowicz. Cynthia Ozick will have to establish The Messiah’s credentials more firmly, and present it to us in the Polish original and then in English translation. Which is rather a tall order. Her way out of the problem is anticlimactic and commonplace.

That there is a problem is her own fault; if The Messiah of Stockholm were less engaging, we wouldn’t care about the fate of The Messiah. As it is, we must console ourselves with the thought that the manuscript was a fake (wasn’t it?). Or else, judging by Lars’s reactions on hurtling through it—“a waterless tract,” “desert-dry all through,” although about (if “about” anything) creation and redemption—and by the fact (albeit one mightn’t hold this against it) that afterward he forgot practically all of it, we may incline to dismiss it as one of those great crazed works which are more certainly crazed than great.

In any case, the true mystery is that of Lars Andemening. Emerging from the holocaust (with a small h), he turns into a respectable reviewer (or an ordinary one), even taking on detective stories and autobiographies of film stars. He has “given up existential dread” and “those indecipherables that steam up from the stomach-hole of Central Europe.” His colleagues see him as bruised and overthrown and humbled, and, after making merry, they embrace him as a comrade. He actually gets letters from readers; the editor asks him to write for Sunday and Tuesday as well as Monday; he acquires a word processor; his pay goes up. No doubt to be a haunted man is a distinction, but we are bound to feel some relief when such a person sinks at last into relative normality. The deflation was intimated halfway through the novel, when Lars called out in the office, “The Messiah’s turned up! Here! In Stockholm!” and a colleague explained to the others: “It’s Lars Andemening. I think he’s announcing the Second Coming.”

Yet Lars is still haunted, if decreasingly, by a smell of burning, and by the vision of a man in a long black coat hurrying along with a manuscript under his arm. Since the mystery of Lars remains unresolved, the most vulgar of reviewers cannot give it away.

There is always a respectable way for kindhearted reviewers—kind, primarily perhaps, toward themselves—to spare themselves the trouble of trying to make out what a novel is about. They can describe it as philosophical, allegorical, metaphysical, parabolic. The chances are they will never be proved wrong. That, too, would take time and trouble.

In Part I of Foe an Englishwoman, Susan Barton, is writing to and for a Mr. Foe, a professional writer better known to us as Daniel Defoe, although Foe was indeed his family name. Her subject is the year she spent, as a castaway, on a desert island in the company of two longtime residents, Robinson Cruso and his black servant, Friday. Returning from Brazil, where she had been seeking her abducted daughter, Susan was cast adrift by the mutinous crew of a merchantman, together with the dead captain.

Susan is an assiduous busybody. She has hardly wrung the sea water out of her clothes before she is searching for Cruso’s nonexistent journal and making long speeches about the desirability of setting down his adventures before it is too late. Suppose, she tells him, that one day they are saved:

Would you not regret it that you could not bring back with you some record of your years of shipwreck, so that what you have passed through shall not die from memory? And if we are never saved, but perish one by one, as may happen, would you not wish for a memorial to be left behind, so that the next voyagers to make landfall here, whoever they may be, may read and learn about us, and perhaps shed a tear?…. What memories do you even now preserve of the fatal storm, the prayers of your companions, your terror when the waves engulfed you, your gratitude as you were cast up on the shore, your first stumbling explorations, your fear of savage beasts….?

Surely paper and ink can be procured, she urges, sounding rather like a publisher or literary agent driving on some reluctant or blocked author.

The wonder is that Cruso doesn’t beat this persistent and uninvited female over the head with his wooden spade. His memories are confused and contradictory; Susan thinks he is unable to distinguish between truth and fantasy, though the fact is that neither interests him. The only memorial he cares for consists of the twelve levels of terracing he has built on a hillside banked with stone walls; they will be left for some future arrival to cultivate since, unlike Defoe’s Crusoe, he has no seed at all to sow. Susan spends one night in his bed, but there too the seed fails to germinate. Cruso is a hidebound conservative; he wants no change—“Which is easier: to learn to see in the dark, or to kill a whale and seethe it down for the sake of a candle?”—and rejects her suggestion that Friday should dive down to the wreck and look for tools. “We have no need of tools.” He certainly feels no need to be rescued.

It will be best if Cruso never gets back to civilization, Susan reflects, since he has nothing better to tell than how many stones he moved from one spot to another in the course of fifteen years. No lions, no serpents, no strange fruits, no perils, no pirates, and (short possibly of Friday) not even any cannibals. “Cruso rescued will be a deep disappointment to the world.” Nevertheless the three of them are taken on board a passing ship, the moribund Cruso by force. (Obligingly he dies before they reach port in Bristol.) The ship’s master exhorts Susan to set down her story in writing and offer it to the booksellers: she must be the first English female castaway of all time! She fears she lacks the necessary art, but Captain Smith assures her that the booksellers will hire some hack to set the story to rights, and “put in a dash of colour too, here and there.” Art is legitimate, but, Susan says, “I will not have any lies told.”

Part II is set in London, where Susan negotiates with Mr. Foe, one who has heard many strange confessions and is reputed “a very secret man.” She announces herself, brisk as ever, as “a figure of fortune,” the good fortune anyone in Foe’s profession is always hoping for, and she is given an advance of three guineas. Foe’s task is to tell the truth about the three castaways, but he must also please readers. We can see how difficult this will be since the truth, as known to Susan, lacks excitement. “Alas,” says Susan, looking at things from a different angle, “will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?” Foe disappears, in flight from the bailiffs. Or—the thought may cross our minds as it crossed Susan’s—from this persistent, bossy, and exigent female.

Where the book is for once touched by the comic muse, Susan tries to find out how Friday lost his tongue by drawing a picture of Cruso grasping a black man’s tongue in one hand and holding a knife in the other. It then occurs to her that Friday may see in the drawing a beneficent father pushing a piece of fish into his child’s mouth. Now she would send him, manumitted, back to Africa except that no ship’s captain can be trusted not to sell him into slavery again. She asks herself why, though she is a reasonably handsome woman, neither Cruso nor Friday desired her. There was little desire in either of them for anything. And “without desire how is it possible to make a story?”

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, on the other hand, is animated by at least one strong desire, the desire to conquer his environment, to get the better of nature (while keeping on the right side of God). His narrative is packed with projects and material objects. He is a tool-using animal: the day after the wreck, he swims out to the ship, knocks together a raft, and brings back a carpenter’s chest (“which was indeed a very useful Prize to me”), fowling pieces and pistols, powder and shot, two saws, an ax, and a hammer. Later he makes a lamp from animal fat and a wick of oakum, and takes great joy in shaping an earthen pot that will bear the fire. He is an empire builder: “King and Lord of all this Country indefeasibly.” So circumstantial and detailed is his narrative that it has the appearance of—and has often been thought to be—a factual history. By comparison J.M. Coetzee’s revision cannot but seem a static and anemic affair, despite the elegance of the writing, with little beyond the terraces and the sight of Friday scattering petals on the waters to elevate it above a windy weekend in an obscure seaside resort during the off-season.

It is amusing to observe—as Coetzee surely means us to—that Defoe, with his Puritan animus against fiction, shared Susan’s feelings on the subject. In his essayistic continuation, The Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, he condemned invention in this sphere as “a most scandalous crime,” a species of lying which encouraged further falsehood. Obviously he was able to condone his own writings—fictions that tended to foster morality and religion were, as he put it, “honest cheats,” the more honest if they were also realistic—and no doubt he had a shrewd idea of what would sell, too.

In Part III Susan decides that she was meant to be not the mother of her story but its begetter, in the manner of the female Muse who visits authors in the night and, assuming the traditional male role, impregnates them. So she takes Foe to bed, claims “a privilege that comes with the first night,” coaxes him underneath her, and straddles him, behavior “which he did not seem easy with, in a woman.”

The remainder of the book reads less like an allegory than like the explication, overt yet dark, reiterative yet muzzy, of an allegory which itself is absent from the scene. One reviewer has proposed that Foe is an allegory of the creative process. (How did people manage to write fiction in the past, when they lacked theories about the practice?) “We are accustomed to believe that our world was created by God speaking the Word,” Foe tells Susan: “but I ask, may it not rather be that he wrote it, wrote a Word so long we have yet to come to the end of it? May it not be that God continually writes the world, the world and all that is in it?” Coetzee is a South African, and possibly a reversal of the case of Prospero vs. Caliban is also in the air: the endeavor to “teach language” to a slave and give him a voice. What a momentous tale Friday would tell if only he could speak! As the novel ends, he is being taught to write and has mastered one letter: o. That is a beginning, Foe says: “Tomorrow you must teach him a.” A third possibility is that there is a feminist fable dimly at work, since Susan, though exasperating and even repellent in her self-indulgent fantasizing about Friday as a former and conceivably recidivistic cannibal, is self-dependent, brave, intelligent, and energetic, with more character than the rest of them put together.

Highly respectable such themes are, of course, but also by now somewhat overworked, too. It may be uncharitable to wonder whether Coetzee has aimed to make them more telling, more subtle, by smudging them together. Keats remarked that we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us; and much the same goes for fiction as well. However skillful the organization, however impeccable the idiom, as in Coetzee here, allegories and fables need to be good tales in the first place. And Susan is correct, alas. Her story is a rather dull one. But never mind, we still have access to Defoe’s Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which is more than can be said of Schulz’s The Messiah.

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