Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Wrestling with Angels

   European Art and Literature are filled with variations on the theme of the Crucifixion, from depictions of the actual event to fictions that are modelled on it. Similarly the Oedipus tale, the Lear and Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet tales. My own books, without exception, take the tale of Jacob wrestling with the angel at Penuel as their starting-point, and I have found much occasional enjoyment in noticing when other authors do the same: it seems to me a much more potently realistic image than any of the others; the flawed but still resolute human being, wrestling not with the demon but the angel inside himself, cheated, yet managing to sustain the struggle until stalemate is finally achieved. I have often wondered why Samuel Beckett never used the tale; it sums up the Beckettian view of life to perfection. 

   In the chapter “Dead Season”, in Bruno Shulz’s “Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass” (Mariner Books, 1997, first published in German in 1937), we are introduced to a mysterious and enigmatic “distinguished visitor”, “a powerful demon” – which drops the hint, but sadly the wrong hint; we are now expecting something Faustian – with whom the narrator’s father engages in a long and difficult negotiation until “at about two o’clock in the morning…we looked anxiously into the faces of both men to discern who had won the battle.” The two men “plunged into the black waters of the night”, “crossed that black infinity”, and then, what in D.H. Lawrence would be mistaken for repressed homosexuality but here is pure Biblical metaphor, “at some late hour of the night, they found their bodies again on two narrow beds, floating on high mountains of bedding…at some still more distant mile of sleep…they felt that, lying in each other’s arms, they were still fighting a difficult, unconscious duel. They were panting face to face in sterile effort. The black-bearded man lay on top of my father like the angel on top of Jacob. My father pressed against him with all the strength of his knees and, stiffly floating away into numbness, stole another short spell of fortifying sleep between one round of wrestling and another. So they fought. What for? For their good name? For God? For a contract? They grappled in mortal sweat, to their last ounce of strength, while the waves of sleep carried them away into ever more distant and stranger areas of the night.”

   And then, quite wonderfully, the next chapter begins: “The next day my father walked with a slight limp. His face was radiant.” 

   And precisely at dawn, the last moment at which the night-spirit of Penuel is permitted to be in the living world, he gets, as if by inspiration, the answer to the problem that has been worrying him. The black-bearded man “left before daybreak”. And of course, “That was the last night of the dead season. From that summer night onward seven long years of prosperity began…”

   Every ounce of text and myth has been squeezed out, squeezed in. And of course the narrator is named Joseph, and of course the entire book is the anthology of his dreams. I wonder if, now that I have been alerted to the methodology, a second reading will illuminate further Bible tales, and if others have already noticed this.

   Given that all this was written in the 1930s, there are some remarkable precursors of magical realism in the writing too: the snoring in chapter one of the eponymous tale, for example: “His breathing extracted layers of snoring from the depths of his breast. The whole room seemed to be lined with snores from floor to ceiling, and yet new layers were being added all the time…I slowly undressed and climbed onto Father’s bed. He did not wake up, but his snoring, having probably been pitched too high, fell an octave lower, forsaking its high declamatory tone. It became, as it were, more private, for his own use…” 

   Or the museum, in “A Second Fall”, which provides the explanation for seasonal adjustments in the weather, “which is nothing other than the result of our climate having been poisoned by the miasmas caused by degenerate specimens of Baroque Art…that museum art, rotting in boredom and oblivion and shut in without an outlet, ferments like old preserves, oversugars our climate, and is the cause of this beautiful malarial fever, this extraordinary delirium, to which our prolonged fall is so agonisingly prone.” The translation of course only works in American English, where Autumn would remove the word-play.

   But this is magical realism in the tradition of Alice, not Arcadio Buendia, used to generate a psychological rather than a cultural atmosphere. Freud would have loved the mirror in the title piece: “I stood in front of the mirror to fix my tie, but the surface was like bottle glass: it secreted my reflection somewhere in its depth, and only an opaque blue was visible. I tried in vain to adjust the distance – approaching the mirror, then retreating from it – but no reflection would emerge from the silvery, fluid mist. I must ask for another looking glass, I thought, and left the room.”

   After the first production of “Waiting For Godot”, in London, the director Peter Hall made the observation that cinema is simile, but that theatre was once again metaphor. It seems to me that, after a century of naturalism and realism in the novel, works like this by Shulz achieve the identical restoration.

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