Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 6 November 2013

I finished reading Bruno Schulz’s first collection of short stories a few days ago and have now started reading the second. There are only two, The Street of Crocodiles (1933) and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). He was shot by a Gestapo officer in 1942. The manuscripts he had given to friends for safe-keeping have never been found. Everything about these stories is extraordinary. He uses words as an artist uses paint, not to describe but to represent.

‘A tangled thicket of grasses, weeds, and thistles crackled in the fire of the afternoon. The sleeping garden was resonant with flies. The golden field of stubble shouted in the sun like a tawny cloud of locusts; in the thick rain of fire the crickets screamed; seed pods exploded softly like grasshoppers.’

The narrative of each story, such as it is, has more in common with music than literature, a sequence of events that is more like a programme than a plot. In other words, objective reality has the same place in Schulz’s writing as it does in music.

Part of the pleasure of reading Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass is in the illustrations. Schulz was an artist as well as a writer. His expressionist drawings are as distinctive as his stories. Text and image compete for attention and, in this respect, he belongs to that small group of writers whose artistic and literary skills are perfectly matched. Jean Cocteau is another. So, in a different vein, is James Thurber.

It is a great pity that illustration should be confined, with very few exceptions, to children’s books. The rise of children’s literature as a separate genre has coincided with, perhaps even caused, the decline of illustration in adult fiction. There was a time when it was the norm. The engravings by Hablot Knight Browne (better known as Phiz) that illustrated the novels of Charles Dickens (less well known as Boz) are, to anyone like me who grew up with them, as much a part of the novels as Dickens’s own words. It says something about our attitude to childhood that illustration, which is now so closely associated with books for children, should be seen as unsuitable for grown-ups. But what better way could there be to bring art out of the gallery and into our homes?

As well as reading books by Polish authors (I have just finished another novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer) I have been listening to music by Polish composers, in particular music by Andrzej Panufnik. This year’s Proms had two centenaries to celebrate and one bi-centenary: Britten, Lutosławski and Verdi respectively. Panufnik’s centenary comes next year but he made an early appearance in Prom 55 with two short pieces, Lullaby and Tragic Overture, both of which were, for me, exciting discoveries. Unlike Schulz, Panufnik survived the Nazi occupation of Poland and the destruction of Warsaw, but his music didn’t.

‘Tragic indeed was the fate of Warsaw – in 1943, the Nazi destruction of the Ghetto, and in 1944 the Warsaw Uprising, when the Russian Army, right close to the city gates, passively watched the Germans systematically flattening almost the whole of Warsaw, killing over a quarter of a million defenceless Polish men, women and children. During this uprising, I lost my Tragic Overture together with every note of music I had ever composed in my first thirty years of life. However, Tragic Overture being my most recent work, with its structure very deeply engraved upon my mind, I decided to reconstruct it immediately after the war, and to dedicate it to the memory of my only brother, a valiant member of the Polish Underground Army, who fought and lost his life in that tragic Uprising.’

Next came the Soviet occupation. He escaped in 1954 and was granted political asylum in England, where he lived until his death in 1991. He was for a time Principal Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It is easier now for people to leave Poland and many do, especially young people. Talking to a Polish friend, I sometimes think that Poland is like a house where so many bad things have happened that nobody wants to live there anymore.

schulz04  cocteau02  phiz02  thurber01

My next literary essay, due on 13 November, is PEASANTS.

The next entry in my Reader’s Diary is due on 20 November and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2013 by in Literature and tagged , , , , .
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