It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Jonathan Safran Foer (it’s not often I find anything he says interesting enough to take issue with either way, but that’s beside the point), but when he says he loved this book but didn’t like it, I kind of know what he means.
There’s no doubt that Shulz could write: sentences of limpid beauty (miraculously translated by Celina Wieniewska) and insight follow each other down the street of crocodiles, and images are as startling and as unforgettable as a Chagall painting, but there’s a sense of disorientation about the whole thing, and one is simply unsure how to read it: as surrealism? As dream diary? As childhood reminiscences? As magical realism? As naïve art? This uncertainty is a mark of Schulz’s huge originality. There is nothing quite like him in Western literature and it’s hard to orient his work into some ready made genre. Bloom wrote that works of genius assimilate us by their strangeness, and perhaps that gives a key here. Undoubtedly strange and original, and quite possibly a work of genius, Schulz’s stories do not ultimately assimilate us.
Perhaps it’s the fact that they are all rather the same, and reading them is like seeing the same object again and again from only slightly different perspectives. There’s a feeling of claustrophobic entrapment in his world, but it’s a world where the borders are always melting away into uncertainty. Just at the edge of sight there’s a rather unsettling blur, as if the veil of reality has become threadbare at that point.
Perhaps it’s the way that one of his main themes is the often overwhelming boredom of childhood, especially on long, stultifying summer days. Schulz is a master at describing intangibles such as the way time sometimes just simply hangs; or the peculiar blend of nostalgia and renewed hope for the future which seems to permeate the atmosphere of an autumn landscape.
Perhaps it’s the overegging of the metaphors. Nothing is ever just simply itself. Schulz’s characteristic move is to mash two unrelated symbolic fields together. Here he describes his father’s haberdashery shop, combining the discourse of armies and logistics with a purely descriptive vocabulary:
My father walked along these arsenals of autumn goods and calmed and soothed the rising force of these masses of cloth, the power of the season. He wanted to keep intact for as long as possible those reserves of stored colour. He was afraid to break into that iron fund of autumn, to change it into cash.
Or perhaps it’s the way inanimate objects are symbolically brought to life (Dickens is Schulz great precursor here):
While he was opening the heavy ironclad door, the grumbling dusk took a step back from the entrance, moved a few inches deeper, changed position and lay down again inside…
These things are all very well and good, and indeed contain much beauty and truth in them, and they are handled by Schulz to great effect. But, as the narrator remarks towards the end of the story Autumn:
Finding no surcease in reality, you created a superstructure out of the figurative stuff of metaphor, you moved among associations and allusions, the imponderables between things. All things referred to other things, which in turn called further things to witness, and so on. In the end your honeyed words grew cloying...
And that there is exactly how I felt reading him. Reading Shulz is rather like being stuck in someone else’s dream. But as Auden so wisely warned, nothing is more boring than hearing about other people’s dreams. Schulz’s genius is perhaps best appreciated in very small, concentrated doses, like the raspberry syrup he adores. But a whole flagon of the stuff leaves one feeling slightly queasy and quailing at the idea of taking any more.
The Book is a myth in which we believe when we are young, but which we cease to take seriously as get older.