Sunday, 14 April 2013

Bruno Schulz: a world of profiles and gestures

There is a passage in Schulz, from the mouth of the mad father, which constitutes a kind of writer's manifesto:

 Our creatures will not be heroes of romances in many volumes. Their roles will be short, concise; their characters- without a background. Sometimes, for one gesture, for one word alone, we shall make the effort to bring them to life. [..] Our creations will be temporary to serve for a single occasion. If they be human beings, we shall give them, for example, only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed for their role. It would be pedantic to bother with the other unnecessary leg. Their backs can be made of canvas or simply whitewashed.
But this seems to me true of all literature and its objects. The objects and people of literature are always ‘incomplete’. There are questions that we cannot ask. The width of the doorframe or the colour of the carpet in Gregor Samsa’s room, Hamlet’s breakfast. It is enough for the story to mention a pot or a kettle without knowing any of its properties or its history. In a sense we are content with the incomplete. In a story, a woman moves her finger across her lips absentmindedly as she draws in a sketchbook.  It’s a background detail, and it’s enough. We don’t ask about her dress or what she was drawing. The detail unfolds, if at all, only in relation to other ‘incomplete’ details. A vase consists only of the sun diverted through its blue glass, its only attribute. This detail does not relate to other properties of the vase – its weight or height or shape, which do not exist, but only to the other partial details which compose the novel. And something is ‘conducted’ through these details to compose a world which is somehow also the medium in which the details move. So it is that with fictional worlds (and this is also true with figurative painting I suppose) we rest content with gestures, corners, profiles, isolated properties, which we do not try and probe or unwrap (what did Hamlet have for breakfast?). We move only from surface to surface, detail to detail - always passing beyond and between .
 An exception to this, a person who can or does ask questions like “how wide is the doorframe?” or “what did Hamlet have for breakfast” or other ‘illegitimate’ questions is the actor. But this asking is not to do with textual interpretation as such. They are gearing themselves up to attack the role from a certain angle and therefore create something new; somethin not given in the text but perhaps permitted by it.

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