When I heard that Jonathan Safran Foer's favorite book was The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and that he had written a new book using some of Schulz's words but die cutting out others, I felt like a literary loser. How could it be that I had never heard of this renowned masterpiece? Then I checked at my library, and found that they didn't have it. In fact, there are very few libraries in Michigan that do stock it.
Schulz was an author and artist who was murdered as a side effect of the Holocaust. He was working on a painting for one Gestapo officer, when another Gestapo officer got mad at the first, and killed Schulz as vengeance.
I decided to read Crocodiles because I wanted to read Tree of Codes, which is the book that Jonathan Safran Foer wrote using Schulz's words. As such, I read Crocodiles knowing that someone else had looked at the narrative, loved it, and cut it to pieces in order to create a new and different story. In reading Crocodiles it is easy to see how JSF got his idea.
Schulz uses words in a way unlike any other author I have read. His sentences are so full of metaphor, that I am actually not sure that I properly understood the story, and plan to read it again. As an example, this is Schulz describing the work of two seamstresses:
"The girls trod absentmindedly on the bright shreds of material, wading carelessly in the rubbish of a possible carnival, in the storeroom for some great unrealized masquerade. They disentangled themselves with nervous giggles from the trimmings, their eyes laughed into the mirrors. Their hearts, the quick magic of their fingers were not in the boring dresses which remained on the table, but in the thousand scraps, the frivolous and fickle trimmings, with the colorful fantastic snowstorm with which they could smother the whole city."
I can't wait to see what JSF does with this paragraph. He could take these words about seamstresses, and include them in a story about a carnival, rubbish, magic, a snowstorm, or any of 70 or 80 other topics.
As I understand it, in its most simple terms, Crocodiles is the story of a father drifting deeper and deeper into dementia, as told by his young son. But there's so much more. With the story being told in Schulz' language of metaphor and allusion, it twists and turns like a dark fairy tale. Through it all, the son seeks and finds glimmers of brilliance in his father.
In one such moment, the father is studying the same scientific principles as the brother in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I would really like to know if Bender has read Crocodiles, and deliberately modeled her novel as an updated and expanded examination of one of its topics, or if the similarities are purely coincidental.
The version of Crocodiles that I read also includes Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and a few other stories by Schulz. While I plan to read more of Schulz in the future, I am putting Crocodiles down now, so that I can start Tree of Codes to see where JSF takes Schulz's story while it is still fresh, if jumbled, in my mind.
In Other News: Valentino Achak Deng accepted my Facebook Friend Request!
Next Up, obviously: Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
Still listening to: Sunset Park by Paul Auster, which also has had me thinking of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. This is strange, because Sunset Park has very little in common with Crocodiles. Stay tuned.