Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick

One of the saddest legacies of the Twentieth Century was the invention, by necessity, of a new literature, the literature of the Holocaust. We find, next to the histories of the war in general and the liquidation of the Jews specifically, personal memoirs of survivors (an inadequate designation) and those who did not survive. We have the works and testimonies of Weisel, Levi, Appelfeld, and a nondescript girl from Amsterdam whose name is etched forever into the annals of human sorrow. Included in this literature are secondary works, echoes of the loss, which reveal the scars which have passed to second and third generations, and which continue to manifest themselves.

The author and artist Bruno Schultz lived 50 years before his life was ended by a bullet from the gun of a Gestapo officer. This death occurred not in Auschwitz or Treblinka, but on the streets of the Polish village of Drohobycz, where Schultz, carrying a luxurious loaf of bread and living on borrowed time, was under the apparently inadequate protection of another officer who admired his visual artistry. The author of Cinnamon Shops (aka The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, two surreal autobiographical works set on the streets of Drohobycz, died on one of those very same streets.

Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is another of the echoes of loss. It concerns one Lars Andemening, a book reviewer for a mediocre Swedish newspaper, who has immersed himself in the literature of Central Europe and who had come to the conclusion that he is the son of Bruno Schultz, who died on a cold November day in 1942, killed by a nonchalant Gestapo officer and who, in addition to two published works, is rumored to have left the manuscript of an lost work entitled The Messiah.

Lars shares his obsession with the owner of a small bookshop, an elderly German refugee named Heidi. Heidi also claims to carry the scars of the Holocaust. As a girl, she lived near one of the camps, and would venture out on dark nights to lob packages of food over the barbed wire, listening for the sound of the Jews pouncing upon the packages like hungry dogs. Heidi is an irascible sort, with a rumored husband whom Lars never sees and who feeds him documents and letters pertaining to Schultz smuggled out of Poland. This is the totality of Lars’ life: reviewing the works of Kundera and Kis for an unappreciative public, sleeping through the afternoons, and meeting Heidi in the hopes of obtaining new relics of his “father”.

Soon enough, events occur which cause Lars to re-evaluate his paradigm, his lost childhood and his lost father. A woman has arrived in Stockholm, a Polish immigrant, and she carries with her, in a white plastic bag, a manuscript salvaged from an old tin box and old shoes. It is the last known work of her father, the writer and artist Bruno Schultz – the manuscript of The Messiah.*

The theme of Ozick’s short novel is the question of how one reconstructs one’s life and identity when true identity has been stolen. How do we claim a birthright, a personal history? How do we insert ourselves into that mystical flow of heredity when our unknown fathers and mothers have been obliterated from the face of the earth? And how do we react when our carefully constructed reality is challenged by that of another orphan?

Ozick’s novel takes some turns which it would be inappropriate to reveal. Questions remain, particularly regarding an agonizing decision for Lars, who, when faced with the dubious manuscript of The Messiah and what appears to be a cabal of swindlers, takes an irreversible action that necessitates the creation of an entirely new persona to mitigate the potentially devastating psychic effects of that action. While perhaps not a major addition to the canon of Holocaust literature, The Messiah of Stockholm is nevertheless worth a read as an echo of the loss, a testament to the memory of one man among millions who died a tragic and undeserved death.

*Ozick’s speculation regarding the theme and content of this work, revealed through Lars’ reading of it, is wonderfully imaginative.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Zone by Guillaume Apollinaire

You are weary at last of this ancient world
Shepherdess O Eiffel tower whose flock of bridges bleats at the morning

You have lived long enough with Greek and Roman antiquity

Here even automobiles look old
Only religion stays news religion
As simple as hangars at the airfield

Alone in Europe you Christianity are not antique
The one modern European is you Pope Pius X
And you whom windows watch what shame keeps you
From entering a church and confessing your sins this morning
Handbills catalogues advertisements that sing overhead
Furnish your morning's poetry for prose there are newspapers
Dime detective novels packed with adventure
Biographies of great men a thousand and one titles

This morning I saw a fine street whose name slips my mind
New and bright the sun's clarion
Where executives and workers sweet stenographers
Hurry every weekday dawn and dusk
Three times a morning sirens groan
A choleric bell barks at noon
Billboards posters and
Doorplates twitter like parakeets
There is charm to this Paris factory street
Between rue Aumont-Thiéville and the avenue des Ternes

Here is the young street and you still a baby
Dressed by your mother only in blue and white
A pious child with your oldest friend René Dalize
You like nothing so much as church ceremonies
Nine o'clock the gas turns blue you slip out of bed
To pray all night in the school chapel
While an eternal adorable amethyst depth
Christ's flaming halo revolves forever
He is the lovely lily we all worship
He is the red-haired torch no wind may blow out
Pale and scarlet son of the sorrowful mother
Tree hung with prayer
Twofold gallows of honor and eternity
Six-pointed star
God who dies Friday and rises on Sunday
Christ who flies higher than the aviators
And holds the world's record

Christ pupil of the eye
Twentieth pupil of the centuries he knows his business
And changed to a bird this century ascends like Jesus
Devils in hell raise their heads to stare
They say it imitates Simon Magus in Judea
They say if it lifts to call it a lifter
Angels soar past the young trapeze artist
Icarus Enoch Elijah Apollonius of Tyana
Hover near the original airplane
Or give place to those whom the Eucharist elevates
Priests rising continuously as they raise the Host
At last the plane lands with wings outspread
Through heaven come flying a million swallows
At full speed crows owls falcons
Ibises flamingoes storks from Africa
Roc so celebrated in song and story
Clutching Adam's skull the original head
Eagle from the horizon pounces screaming
Hummingbird arrives from America
From China long supple phis
Who have only one wing and fly in couples
Here comes the dove immaculate spirit
Escorted by lyrebird and ocellated peacock
That funeral pyre the phoenix engendering himself
Momentarily veils all with his ardent ash
Sirens quit their perilous perches
And arrive each singing beautifully
Everyone eagle phoenix phis
Fraternizes with the flying machine

Now you stride alone through the Paris crowds
Busses in bellowing herds roll by
Anguish clutches your throat
As if you would never again be loved
In the old days you would have turned monk
With shame you catch yourself praying
And jeer your laughter crackles like hellfire
Its sparks gild the depths of your life
Which like a painting in a dark museum
You approach sometimes to peer at closely

Today in Paris the women are bloodstained
It was as I would rather forget it was during beauty's decline

From fervent flames Our Lady gazed down on me in Chartres
Your Sacred Heart's blood drowned me in Montmartre
I am sick of hearing blessed words
My love is a shameful disease
You are sleepless anguished but possessed by an image
Which hovers never distant

By the Mediterranean
Under lemon trees that flower the year long
You take ship with friends
One from Nice one from Menton two from La Turbie
Terrified we see in the depths giant squid
And fish the Savior's symbols gliding through seaweed

In a tavern garden near Prague
You are content instead of writing your stories
To watch a rose on the table and
A rosebug asleep in the rose's heart

Agahst you trace your likeness in the mosaics at Saint Vitus
And that day almost died of grief to see yourself portrayed
As Lazarus distracted by daylight
The hands of the ghetto clock run backward
You also creep slowly backward through life
Climbing to the hradchen listening at twilight
To Czech songs from the taverns

You in Marseilles among piles of watermelons

You in Coblenz at the Giant's hotel

In Rome sitting under a Japanese medlar tree

In Amsterdam with a girl you find pretty but who is ugly
And engaged to a student from Leyden
One can rent rooms there in Latin Cubicula locanda
I remember three days there and three at Gouda

You are in Paris arrainged before the judge
Arrested like a criminal

You went on sad and merry journeys
Before growing aware of lies and old age
Love made you unhappy at twenty again at thirty
I have lived like a fool and wasted my youth
You no longer dare examine your hands and at any moment I could weep
Over you over her whom I love over all that has frightened you

With tears in your eyes you see the shabby refugees
Who have faith in God and pray the mothers nurse their children
Their smell fills the waiting room at the gare St. Lazare
Like the three kings they believe in a star
Hoping to strike it rich in Argentina
And return home wealthy
One family carries a crimson quilt as you your heart
Quilt and our dreams are equally unreal
Some of these refugees stay on and lodge
In slums on the rue des Rosiers or the rue des Écouffes
They keep close to home like chessmen
And are mostly Jewish their wives wear wigs
Pallid they sit at the back of little shops

You stand at the counter of a dirty bar
Taking a café for two sous among the wretched

You are in a huge restaurant at night
These women are not evil only careworn
Each has tortured her lover even the ugliest

Who is the daughter of a Jersey policeman

Her hands which I had not noticed are calloused and cracked

Pity fills me for the scars on her belly

Now I humble my mouth to a poor creature with a horrible laugh

You are alone morning comes
Milkmen clink bottles along the street

Night leaves like a lovely Métive
Ferdine the false or watchful Lea

You sip a liquor as burning as your life
Your life you drain like an eau-de-vie

And stride home to Auteil
To sleep among your fetish from Oceania or Guinea
Other forms of Christ and other faiths
Lesser Christs of dim aspirations

Farewell Farewell

Sun slit throat

Guillaume Apollinaire