Monday, July 20, 2009

The Marginal but Unforgettable Bruno Schulz

The Marginal but Unforgettable Bruno Schulz

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Bruno Schulz, self-portrait, 1920
Of the great European writers of the past century, Bruno Schulz may be the writer most highly regarded by the fewest people. He’s often compared to Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, but his provinciality—which was both deliberate and circumstantial, and which was key to his work—as well as his ill-timed life and death have conspired to keep him from standing on the stage alongside his very few equals. Schulz was a Galician Jew born in 1892 in Drogobycz, a small town that at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; after the First World War the town was re-annexed by Poland, and at the start of the Second World War it was seized by the Soviet Union and then later taken by the Nazis. In addition to being a writer, in Polish, Schulz was a draftsman of extraordinary talent—he made his living teaching art at a school for boys—and during the Nazi occupation he was temporarily under the protection of a German officer who liked his drawings. Then in November of 1942 a Gestapo officer who had a grudge against Schulz’s “protector” shot Schulz dead in the street as he was carrying home a loaf of bread. According to the story, the murderer reported to his rival afterward, “I shot your Jew.”

Politics, geography, and ideology then further obscured Schulz as post-War Communist Poland condemned his work for being too personal and unrealistic, only partially rehabilitating his writing in 1957, but even then just to allow it into print, permitting no praise or study of it in any of the official literary journals. Translations into French and German re-spread some of the slight fame that Schulz had gained in his lifetime, and then in 1980 American writer Philip Roth introduced Schulz to English-language readers by sponsoring the “Writers from the Other Europe” series, which also included Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, and Tadeusz Borowski.

My own introduction to Schulz’s work was almost as roundabout. In my early twenties I read Cynthia Ozick’s extraordinary 1987 novel, The Messiah of Stockholm, which conjectured the extantcy of the fabled lost Schulz novel, The Messiah. Having never heard of Schulz, I thought that he was either the world’s greatest writer or that Ozick was the world’s greatest writer for inventing an author whose work sounded so inconceivably original and strange. Then a month or so later, by chance I read David Grossman’s novel See Under: Love (1986 in Hebrew; 1989 in English), which also delved deeply into Schulz’s life and work. I then immediately located a copy of The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz (published in 1989) and was affected by it in ways that not even these two brilliant novels had prepared me for.

Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that, “Schulz cannot be easily classified.” In fact, the categories that Singer lists as aspects of Schulz’s style—surrealist, symbolist, expressionist, modernist—seem quaint and outmoded in comparison to Schulz’s striking approach. For Schulz the inner world becomes manifest in the outer world, and the borders between imagination and reality in his fiction are almost wholly eradicated. The main figure in Schulz’s work—which consists almost entirely of interconnected short stories—is Father, the inspired patriarch who communes with demons and wrestles with angels while his bourgeois family tries to live an ordinary existence. Father delves into the world’s essential quiddities, and at times he lives among his aviary and treats his birds as creatures equal to—or superior to—his family. At another time he treats his tailor’s dummies in the same manner, his experiments with the mutable nature of consciousness and persona recalling the Promethean Doctor Frankenstein, or, in the Jewish tradition, a maker of Golems. His strange communions lead him to the most bizarre personal transformations—into a horsefly in one story, and into a crab in another—which inevitably strengthen the comparisons to Kafka. Schulz certainly loved Kafka, and in fact he translated The Trial into Polish—and like Kafka, who was a Jew living in Prague but who wrote in German, Schulz also wrote not in Yiddish but in the literary language of his particular time and place. Schulz’s main inspirations were Maria Rainer Rilke and Thomas Mann, however, whose influences kept him from being overly consumed by Kafka. Kafka’s stories are exceptionally sharp and precise and deadpan, while Schulz’s are lush and oneiric and febrile. Even at his most luscious, though, Schulz tempers the absurdities of the overwrought Rilke and the ponderous Mann into a perfectly balanced imbalance, where all the exaggerated heights and depths are shaped into the most dazzling and tactile of forms.

From Schulz’s Book of Idolatry, etching, 1920–1922
Schulz’s first collection, Cinnamon Shops, was published in 1934, and his second collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, was published in 1937. He also published many other short stories in various journals, the longest of which, “The Comet,” was appended to his first collection when it was translated into English and renamed The Street of Crocodiles. The Complete Fiction collects all of this work and includes excellent essays by both the translator and the editor. Schulz also published a book of drawings called A Book of Idolatry, which showcases both his visionary artistic talent and his idiosyncratic sexual preoccupations. For decades after Schulz’s murder, literary acolyte Jerzy Ficowski scoured all of Europe to collect the diminished remnants of Schulz’s voluminous correspondence and published them in the Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz, which also contains three previously uncollected stories, most notably the fantastic “Fatherland.” Nobody knows what happened to his perhaps legendary novel, The Messiah. Or perhaps there’s still someone alive who does know. Time and circumstance have only been somewhat kind to Schulz’s legacy. But as small as it is, it’s an awesome legacy, and any reader who encounters it will be forever thankful for its singular disturbance to our collective literary consciousness.

—David Wiley

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