Bruno Schulz was gunned down by an SS man in his hometown of Drohobycz on November 19, 1942. Schulz lived there quietly as a high school art teacher who secretly wrote fiction. He is now celebrated as one of Eastern Europe’s great 20th century writers, and Cynthia Ozick has put him at the center of her novelistic homage.
In Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm, Lars Andemening has convinced himself that he is Bruno Schulz’s orphaned son. He works as a book reviewer for the Morgontörn newspaper in Stockholm, and dedicates his column inches to the Eastern European writers who were from Schulz’s generation or the following one. Lars’s coworkers (along with his supplier, the prominently featured bookstore owner, Heidi Eklund) rib him about his interest in these writers who they berate as obscure, inscrutable, and bogged down in “existential dread.” For readers of the many writers named (including Musil, Kafka, Hrabal and Kundera), Ozick’s novel is a pleasure from the first page, and it only becomes more intriguing and mysterious when a woman claiming to be Schulz’s daughter shows up with The Messiah, his long-missing manuscript.
Ozick weaves her story skillfully, and includes a father-son connection that is as uncanny as the one found in Schulz’s vividly surrealistic tales which orbit around the tragicomic figure of the narrator’s mentally unstable father. In Ozick’s book, Lars is visited by Schulz in his dreams, and upon waking he finds his book reviews are fully formed in his mind, as if by some occult intervention, just waiting for him to type them out.
To read books from the late 1980s, such as this one – a time just before the advent of the world wide web – can be a shocking reminder of how thoroughly the world has changed. The already ghostly quality to The Messiah of Stockholm is augmented by being set in the not-so-distant past when typewriters clattered, newspapers were thriving, and even small papers had fully-staffed books sections.
Ozick has written a beautiful tribute to the brilliant Schulz that is also a satisfying mystery, a reminder of the horrors of the Nazi regime, and a warning not to give up on your dreams if you don’t want them to give up on you.
Cynthia Ozick is a writer of novels, short stories and essays. Among her many awards are the PEN/Malamud award for short fiction and the PEN/Nabokov award, both of which honor a writer’s lifetime achievement. Check back for the next installment of Heartwood where we’ll take a look at Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles.