Cynthia Ozick’s short novel The Messiah of Stockholm is a book about lost identity, creation, fabrication, appropriation, redemption, and burning. It’s a book of forgery and fraud, but also of authentication and judgment: the story of the word. But who gets to judge and create, and who has forged and fabricated? I’ve been procrastinating writing about it because it’s so closely written, so thick and complex, that I’m not always sure how to separate the strands.
Lars Andemening is an unsuccessful journalist in Stockholm. He is middle-aged, twice-divorced, lonely and alienated, and obsessed with his origins: he has convinced himself that he is the son of Bruno Schulz, a Polish author who was shot dead in his native town of Drohobycz by an SS official in 1942. (I should say here that while I was reading this book, I thought Schulz was made up for the purpose of Ozick’s book, like John Shade for Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It turns out that Schulz is quite real, and the details Ozick gives of his life and works are authentic, which makes a difference to the feel of the book.) Lars has revealed the secret of his paternity only to a bookshop owner named Heidi Eklund. The book revolves around a conspiracy and a mystery involving Mrs. Eklund; Mr. Eklund, a dealer in manuscripts; and a young woman named Adela, purporting to be Schulz’s illegitimate daughter. Up to that point, Adela is like Lars, claiming the paternity of Schulz, but Adela has more: she claims to have the manuscript of her father’s last lost book, presumed gone in the Holocaust: The Messiah.
This novel has a dense texture of repeated themes. Lars’s lost identity, re-established under his father’s words (Lars learns Polish so he can read the original of Schultz’s stories) melts and changes into themes of plagiarism, crossing borders, changing names, shuffled pages, appropriated genius, and confused time. Lars has appropriated his father’s words, but not his life; is he telling the truth, even as he knows it, or is it all mere invention? In the central scene of the book, Lars reads the manuscript of The Messiah — is it a forgery or is it real? is his rage fabricated or appropriate? — and then burns it, another sacrifice after his father’s, and after six million others. Even words repeat themselves. We are told that Schultz was killed in a roundup referred to as “the wild action,” a phrase that returns several times. After Lars burns the manuscript, Adela scrambles to douse it. “Adela lifted her wild face….Wild, wild. Adela’s look exactly, at last.”
It is fairly well known that Cynthia Ozick has been ambivalent about the act of writing and its kinship to the religion of art. Storytelling can become a violation of the second commandment (“thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”) and stories themselves an “adoration of the magical event.” The central event of The Messiah of Stockholm — a reading of what is supposed to be Bruno Schulz’s lost The Messiah, but may be a forgery — is key to thinking about this question. In the manuscript, all humans are gone from Schulz’s city of Drohobycz. Instead, the town is peopled (?) with idols:
Some were plump Buddhas in lotus position, unable to walk or move. They were carried on litters by miniature Egyptian figurines, several dozen for each litter. Others were mammoth Easter Island heads. Another was the monolatrous Ikhnaton, with his disease-deformed face and limbs, hismself elevated to an idol. A great many were in the shape of large stone birds — falcons, eagles, vultures, hawks, oversized crows hewn out of black marble.
To this town, in which smaller and more diffident deities have begun to sacrifice themselves to the larger and more complacent ones, comes the Messiah (“palpitating with wild motion”) in the shape of a book. On the arms, or flippers, or pages of this organism,
the inky markings showed themselves to be infinitely tiny and brilliantly worked drawings of these same idols that had taken hold of the town of Drohobycz. It was now clear that Drohobycz had been invaded by the characters of an unknown alphabet.
So the Messiah (and also The Messiah) is made up of words (as Schulz is, for Lars), but unknown words: idols, in fact. And whether this unknown alphabet, now associated with forgery, fraud, idolatry and deception (whether or not it is forgery is up to the reader to decide) could ever be deciphered, translated, and publicized will remain unknown, because Lars burns it. Since the beginning of the novel, he has been smelling the scent of something roasting in Stockholm, and now he knows what it is:
What went on troubling him was the smell — that smell of something roasting — all through Stockholm. It was a plague in every corner of the city, no matter how cleanly the bright wind came. Sometimes it seemed to lift from the baffled waters of the locks; sometimes it steamed out of the tips of steeples. It always found him out, wherever he was, whatever the season. It was as if Stockholm, burning, was slowly turning into Africa: the smell, winter or summer, of baking zebra.
A couple of years ago, I read and loved Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers. I found this book more complex and less accessible, but equally beautifully-written and worth reading. Though I can’t say even now that I’m sure what this novel is about, I can say that some of what it’s doing is important, and worth doing as well as Ozick can do it, and that’s saying a lot.