Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.
Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer, was born in 1892 in the town of Drohobycz, the Austrian sector of the Partitioned Poland, in present-day Ukraine. His oeuvre is small: only two collections of stories survive, and a few dozen essays, articles, and reviews, along with paintings and drawings. His two books—”Cinnamon Shops” (known in English as “The Street of Crocodiles”) (1934) and “The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” (1937) —create a fantastic universe, and are written in a language that brims with life.
Schulz developed his extraordinary imagination in a swarm of identities and nationalities; a Jew who thought and wrote in Polish, was fluent in German, immersed in Jewish culture, yet unfamiliar with the Yiddish language. Yet there was nothing cosmopolitan about him; his genius fed in solitude on specific local and ethnic sources. He preferred not to leave his provincial hometown, which over the course of his life belonged to two states: the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Second Polish Republic (during World War II occupied by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany). His adult life was often perceived by outsiders as that of a hermit; uneventful and enclosed.
“Father’s Last Escape” was originally part of Schulz’s novelistic collection of short stories “Street of Crocodiles,” which Schulz described as a “genealogy of the spirit.” In these surreal stories, the narrator’s father undergoes a series of deaths and reappearances, disappearances and transformations. Krauss sees a metaphor for Schulz’s own artistic struggles and reinventions in these tales of obsessive recreation. (Read David Grossman’s 2009 essay in the magazine for more on Schulz’s extraordinary life.)
Schulz’s stories contain an unsettling and sometimes menacing quality to them that is at least the equal of the better-known Czech writer. Schulz’s stories vary from the whimsical to the disturbing, with sometimes only a paragraph or two to separate the twain.
This “thinness” of reality is a motif that Schulz explores frequently in his fiction. Beneath the hum-drum of an industrial society lurks another world, one in which all that activity is revealed to be a masquerade, a sometimes badly choreographed dance of characters from one crumbling cityscape to another. There is little permanency to our lives; all seems to be on the brink of dissolution.
An American friend recently asked me a seemingly impossible question: „What would you recommend to a lover of modern literature if you had to name just one book of Polish fiction?” The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, I replied, the collected stories by a prose writer equal to Kafka. „Kafka?”
My friend mumbled in disbelief. „Aren’t you exaggerating?” Not a bit. Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz are two outstanding citizens of „The Republic of Dreams”, to use Schulz’s beautiful metaphor, capable of transmuting acute observation into prophecy by circumscribing reveries and nightmares as precisely as if they were facts of life. Illuminators of human nature and visionaries of history, they complement each other in interesting and significant ways.
In the story “Father’s Last Escape,” he makes this point quite explicit:
Fate has a thousand wiles when it chooses to impose on us its incomprehensible whims. A temporary blackout, a moment of inattention or blindness, is enough to insinuate an act between the Scylla and Charybdis of decision. Afterward, with hindsight, we may endlessly ponder that act, explain our motives, try to discover our true intentions; but the act remains irrevocable. (p. 311)
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) were born into assimilated Jewish families of the multicultural and multilinguistic Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Kafka was from a well-to-do German-speaking family of Prague, Schulz from a modest Polish-speaking family of Drohobych. Kafka’s German, admired for its cool rigor, is indebted to Pragerdeutsch, the exquisite postclassical German spoken in Prague by the educated Jewish elite. It was a perfect medium for what Kafka had in mind. Employed by an international insurance company, he watched bureaucracy driven by capitalist efficiency operating in a moral vacuum and imagined how easily it could be turned into a totalitarian death machine. Bruno Schulz was as keenly aware of Europe becoming corrupt and criminal, but he had a different point of observation. A gifted painter and draftsman, he made his living as a secondary-school crafts teacher; after teaching, he illustrated his stories and drew self-portraits and portraits of friends. He worked in a rare technique known as cliche verre, printing from treated glass plates, and excelled in the grotesque and erotic in black and white. A follower of Goya, Aubrey Beardsley and other European fin-de-siecle artists, Schulz was fascinated by the human beast and inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian from Lemberg (in Polish Lwów), and his famous novel Venus in Fur (1870), the bible of masochism.
A father-son duo, symbolic of old and new power and evocative of the writers’ respective relationships with their own fathers, stands at the center of Kafka’s and Schulz’s writing. Kafka’s robust and successful father was a family tyrant who disapproved of culture and all things spiritual, including Judaism and his son’s literature. Jacob Schulz, on the other hand, was a lovable eccentric with bad health, bad luck and a passionate interest in animals. This passion was shared by his son and by Kafka, who wrote about an ape wiser than a human, and Josephine, the singer heroine mouse of his last story, which inspired Mauss. Both writers identified with the underdog and delighted in that innocent „crumb of life,” as Schulz calls the puppy Nimrod, named ironically after the Old Testament warrior and hunter.
Jacob Schulz, given to daydreaming more than to commerce or exercise of paternal authority, failed in business and as head of household.
„The Street of Crocodiles” existed. That’s how Schulz renamed his town’s main street as it was turned into a shopping mall, modest and discreet by today’s standards, yet in its essence the same: stuffed with mass-produced rubbish and pornography and run by „moral dregs” whose only goal is to consume and make others consume. Therefore they multiply enticements, devise new sales strategies and tempt clients with tricks and fantastic transformations. What begins as a shopping spree ends in The Street of Crocodiles in confusion and depravity:
„It then appeared that the outfitter’s shop was only a facade behind which there was an antique shop with a collection of highly questionable books and private editions. The servile salesman opened further store rooms, filled to the ceiling with books, drawings and photographs. These engravings and etchings were beyond our boldest expectations: not even in our dreams had we anticipated such depth of corruption, such varieties of licentiousness.”
Drohobych was taken by the Nazis effortlessly. Living comfortably in Jewish homes and enjoying slave labor, they planned to stay for good and did not destroy the town. Even the biggest synagogue of Galicia, though turned into a ruin during the Soviet regime, still stands next to the Market Square, and at 10 Florianska Street is a modest house, as if taken from the suburbs of Vienna, where Bruno Schulz lived with his widowed sister’s family until the German occupation.
Drohobych, now in Ukraine and again as easily accessible as before World War II, is a new destination on the map of European literature. Every spring, the International Bruno Schulz Festival brings together his scholars and lovers from all over the world.