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Mike Russell’s Blog
(in which Mike Russell talks about other people’s strange books)
Many years ago, late at night, in a room above a bookshop, I switched on a barely tuned television and watched a beautiful dream unfold before me. My friend fell asleep. I stayed awake, mesmerised. It was a movie called ‘Institute Benjamenta’ by the Quay Brothers. I hadn’t heard of the Quay Brothers. I was delighted to discover that they were identical twins. The next film of theirs I watched was ‘Street of Crocodiles’. It was liminal, magical; a film of things almost but not quite happening, things almost but not quite seen… I read that it was based on a story by someone called Bruno Schulz. I bought the book. Bruno Schulz wrote two short story collections, or you could even call them novels, or one novel in two parts: ‘Street of Crocodiles’ and ‘Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass’. In fact, he wrote more books (including an unfinished novel) but we were robbed of them by the Holocaust. The two books that exist are, however, like a microcosm that could be extended by inference indefinitely; it’s as if there are a thousand Bruno Schulz books, all contained between the words of the two we know. Shot dead by a Nazi officer at the age of fifty, his writing displays a sensitivity that is the antithesis of something so stupid, brutal and gross as firing a bullet into a human being. His stories are amorphous tales. There is a delight in the absurd, the surreal, no more so than in the author/protagonist’s love of his fathers’ bizarre, irrational, impolite behaviour caused by his mental ill health, not because of his father’s suffering but because his father’s strange actions and ideas break through the usual, mundane and acceptable. There are complex emotions. There is another movie based on his work by Wojciech Has (‘Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass’), colourful and lively, which concentrates more on the absurd imagery of the stories, rather than the atmosphere and poetry focused on by the Quay Brothers. But as with many books, there is so much that is un-filmable. I love Bruno Schulz most when his stories cannot contain his passion and his writing bursts out into reverie. He creates a mood; a mood of receptivity. You may find the world more wonderful and deep after reading Bruno Schulz.
Mike Russell’s Blog (in which Mike Russell talks about other people’s strange books).
1.Franz Kafka: Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor
This, to me, is Kafka’s funniest story.
Yes indeed! There is always a humour, however dark and absurd, in Kafka’s stories. Being funny does not preclude seriousness or depth. A story can be hilarious and desperately upsetting at the same time. And many other things besides. Kafka’s stories are big enough to invoke all manner of emotional and psychological responses. Surrealism can do that, coming as it does from a place beyond logic, a place where things can be many things at once. It can therefore open a person up to a wider perspective, a greater awareness. Prague (Kafka’s home) is a place where surrealism’s power has been acknowledged by various horrific regimes over the years: it has been outlawed there by both Nazis and Communists. Blumfeld is a powerful story, with space to wonder. The reader can consider it as an absurd allegory, as an evocation of mystery and magic, as a symbol of sexual repression, as an illustration of madness… as all of these at once and more. Like many of Kafka’s stories, Blumfeld was considered by the author to be unfinished but to me the story is complete. Kafka famously tried to ‘finish’ all of his stories once and for all by instructing his friend to destroy them after his death. Thankfully, he was prevented from adding that final full stop.