WRITING WITH SCISSORS: A review of TREE OF CODES (Jonathan Safran Foer)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“[Schulz’s] writing is so unbelievably good, so much better than anything that could conceivably be done with it [?], that more often than not I simply wanted to leave it alone.”
–Jonathan Safran Foer
He should have left it alone.
What does one do if one wishes to become a writer but lacks verbal talent? If one is Jonathan Safran Foer, one mutes and mutilates magical masterpieces. Tree of Codes (2010) is an anti-book, assaulting language, crushing words under the weight of optical imagery, a non-book in which words serve a merely ornamental function. It is an atomic weapon that is pitted against verbality, against writing, against the Word. It is the stifling of a book, a sequence of stillnesses. There is more writing–more expressive language–in Max Ernst’s collage novels.
To construct this monstrosity, Foer took an English translation of Bruno Schulz’s magisterial Sklepy Cynamonowe (“Cinnamon Shops,” 1934). (Please note: The book is NOT called “The Street of Crocodiles,” no matter what Foer might tell you.) Foer then carved blocks of text out of the English translation, excising Schulz’s beautiful prose poetry, scissoring it up. Anyone who finds this practice innovative should consult the work of Tristan Tzara, Brion Gysin, and Raymond Queneau.
Here are two of Foer’s vicious eviscerations:
“The demands were made more loudly, we heard him talk to God, as if begging against insistent claims” (28).
“Knot by knot he loosened himself, as unremarked as the grey heap swept into a corner waiting to be taken” (39).
The first problem with Foer’s cut-up is that he chooses the wrong object. Knock, knock! Schulz wrote in Polish, not in English. What on Earth is the point of cutting up, mucking up, mashing up, and rescrambling the English translation of a Polish novel? Polish is frightfully difficult to render into English. If you would like evidence for this assertion, take a look at any English translation of Jan Potocki, Bruno Schulz, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, or Witold Gombrowicz. Consider, for instance, Alastair Hamilton’s translation of Gombrowicz’s Pornografia. Hamilton translated a French translation of the novel into English: His is the translation of a translation.
Secondly: The ingenious Bruno Schulz–a writer more gifted than Kafka, in my estimation–did not have to dazzle his readers with glistening typographies. He let language do the work. He let his beautiful prose speak for itself. If Schulz’s book is the richest book Foer ever read (it is one of the richest books I’ve yet read), why disembowel all of that richness? We know the answer: Because Foer feels condemned by the richness, threatened by the richness, punished by the richness. Foer the Hipster, who is incapable of expressing himself inventively in writing, chainsawed the work of a great author, an author who intimidated him. Foer’s venomous envy and hatred of Schulz are unmistakable.
Snip, snip, snip! Pare it down! Tear it up! What we are left with is an absolute abomination, something far worse than a book burning. It is one thing to immolate a great book such as “Cinnamon Shops.” It is quite another to replace a great book with a papier-mâché dummy, an Ersatz effigy, a kitschy replica. Nothing more malicious in the literary arts could be imagined.
In the republic of letters, Jonathan Safran Foer will be remembered as a slicer, shearer, and shredder of literature. He is at home in a culture that is tawdry, boring, and stupid and that is becoming tawdrier, more boring, and more stupid by the day.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
Postscript: STREET OF CROCODILES = *TREE* OF C*O**D**ES