Von Martin Sander
„Als ich das erste Mal die „Zimtläden“ von Bruno Schulz gelesen hab und in den Händen hielt, da hab ich es einfach niemals mehr ins Regal gestellt. Ich wollt es immer in meiner Nähe haben, und ich wollte eintauchen können, wann immer ich will.“
Die in Wien lebende Übersetzerin und Musiklehrerin Doreen Daume hatte die Initiative. Ihrer Überzeugungskraft ist es zu verdanken, dass die Werke des polnisch-jüdischen Avantgardisten Bruno Schulz, eines der bedeutendsten europäischen Erzähler des 20. Jahrhunderts, in einer neuen Werkausgabe des Carl Hanser Verlags erscheinen.
„Ich hab das Gefühl gehabt, also ich kann das immer nur in ganz kleinen Dosen zu mir nehmen, irgendwas ist da, vielleicht liegt das an der Sprache. Ich hatte mich damals noch gar nicht so sehr mit dem Thema Übersetzung beschäftigt. Aber das kam dann langsam, und irgendwann hab ich rumgekritzelt in dem Buch und Stellen markiert, wo ich dann einfach beim Lesen stecken geblieben bin.“
Mit den „Zimtläden“ liegt nun Band eins der neuen Bruno-Schulz-Werkausgabe vor – in der Übertragung von Doreen Daume. Damit gibt es erstmals eine Alternative zu der bereits vor fast einem halben Jahrhundert angefertigten Übersetzung von Josef Hahn. Innerhalb der eher exklusiven Gemeinde deutschsprachiger Bruno-Schulz-Freunde könnte sich die Frage erheben: Hat sich der Aufwand gelohnt? Die Antwort lautet zweifelfrei: ja. Denn im Ergebnis dürfte es dieser Aufwand einem weitaus größeren Publikum ermöglichen, das einzigartige Erzählwerk von Bruno Schulz besser, um nicht zu sagen angemessen zu verstehen.
Josef Hahn gilt als verdienter Übersetzer – vor allem russischer Literatur. Die zweifelsfrei experimentelle, nicht selten ins Absurde mündende Wortkunst des Bruno Schulz hat er allerdings auch dort ins Aberwitzige gesteigert, wo eine solche Absicht des Autors keineswegs vorlag. So erklärte Hahn das von Bruno Schulz gern beschworene „Fleisch“ der Sommerfrüchte irreführend zu „Matsch“. Die „manekiny“, zentrale Objekte der Schulz’schen Weltphilosophie, hießen bei Hahn konsequent Mannequins. Dabei handelt es sich nicht um Models, sondern um Schneiderpuppen. Und die Bärte, die Josef Hahn den Kakerlaken andichtet, von denen es in den „Zimtläden“ wimmelt, sind auf Deutsch nichts anderes als die Fühler dieser Kreaturen. Vor allem aber wurde der deutsche Leser immer wieder von Hahns Satzarchitektur aus der Bahn geworfen, was nicht unbedingt mit den Schulz’schen Erzählflüssen und Gedankenströmen im Original zu tun hatte.
Der Neuübersetzung von Doreen Daume gebührt das Verdienst, solche Verständnishürden entfernt und den Text, wo nötig, enträtselt zu haben. Die phantastische Welt der Kindheit, wie sie Bruno Schulz in den „Zimtläden“ entwirft, erscheint so nach wie vor in ihrem skurrilen Glanz, wobei zugleich die Konturen ihres oft alltäglichen Hintergrunds deutlich werden – etwa dort, wo der Ich-Erzähler den spätsommerlich überwucherten Garten seines Elternhauses durchstreift und vor dem Abfallhaufen am Zaun verharrt. Dort steht das Bett von Tłuja, einer stadtbekannten Wahnsinnigen.
Tłuja sitzt zusammengekauert inmitten von gelbem Bettzeug und Lumpen. Von ihrem großen Kopf steht das schwarze Haar in Büscheln ab. Ihr Gesicht läßt sich zusammenziehen wie der Balg einer Ziehharmonika. Alle Augenblicke legt eine weinerliche Grimasse diese Ziehharmonika in tausend Querfalten, und das Erstaunen zieht sie wieder auseinander, glättet die Falten, enthüllt die Schlitze der winzigen Augen und das feuchte Zahnfleisch mit den gelben Zähnen unter der rüsselartigen, fleischigen Lippe. Stunden voller Hitze und Langeweile vergehen, in denen Tłuja halblaut vor sich hin brabbelt, einnickt, leise jammert und grunzt. In dichten Schwärmen belagern Fliegen die Reglose. Doch plötzlich gerät der ganze Haufen schmutziger Lappen, Lumpen und Fetzen in Bewegung, als hätte ihn das Rascheln darin ausgebrüteter Ratten belebt. Die halbnackte und dunkle Irre richtet sich langsam auf und steht da, wie eine heidnische Gottheit auf kurzen Kinderbeinen.
In den „Zimtläden“ wird die Wahnsinnige aus der Nachbarschaft zur heidnischen Göttin. Gassenjungen, die mit Münzen werfen, verwandeln sich in Wahrsager und Kaufleute in Propheten. Die „Zimtläden“, dieser 1934 erstmals im polnischen Original publizierte Zyklus von fünfzehn Erzählungen, entstanden aus der Korrespondenz mit einer engen Freundin des Autors, mythologisiert die eigene Kindheit.
Bruno Schulz kam 1892 als Sohn eines jüdischen Tuchhändlers im ostgalizischen Drohobytsch zur Welt. Die kleine Industriestadt lag damals an der östlichen Peripherie der Habsburger Monarchie und bildete einen Schmelztiegel der Sprachen und Kulturen. In der Familie Schulz wurde vor allem Polnisch gesprochen, aber auch Deutsch. Jiddisch, die Sprache der Vorfahren, benutzte man nicht. Das Verhältnis zur jüdischen Tradition war alles andere als eng. Gleichwohl sind Bezüge zur jüdischen wie auch zur christlichen Religion, biblische Motive und Anspielungen in den Erzählungen von Bruno Schulz unverkennbar. Viele Schulz-Forscher sehen darin sogar den Schlüssel zum Verständnis des Werks.
Und als die Menge die Festung im Sturm eroberte und unter Lärm und Tumult in den Laden einmarschierte, schwang sich mein Vater mit einem Satz auf die Tuchregale und stieß, hoch über der Menge, mit voller Kraft in eine riesige Horn-Posaune und blies Alarm. Doch das Gewölbe füllte sich nicht mit dem Rauschen zu Hilfe eilender Engel, statt dessen antwortete auf jeden Jammerlaut der Trompete der riesige, lachende Chor der Menge.
„Jakub soll handeln! Jakub, verkaufen!“ riefen alle und der ständig wiederholte Ruf, im Chor rhythmisiert, ging langsam in die Melodie eines aus allen Kehlen gesungenen Refrains über. Da gab sich mein Vater geschlagen, er sprang von seinem erhöhten Sims herab und stürmte mit einem Aufschrei zu den Tuch-Barrikaden. Die Ballen flogen durch die Luft und wickelten sich flatternd zu riesigen Bannern auf, von allen Seiten entluden die Regale ihre explodierenden Draperien, Wasserfälle aus Tuch, wie unter dem Schlag von Moses‘ Stab.
Alles dominiert die Figur des Vaters. Im steten Rollentausch, in der dauernden Metamorphose hält er den Zyklus der „Zimtläden“ zusammen. Der Tuchhändler erscheint mal als biblischer Weiser, mal als zorniger Tribun. Sein Geist wird sogar in einem ausgestopften Kondor lebendig, während der dahinsiechende Körper irgendwann elend von der Bildfläche verschwindet. Im wirklichen Leben starb der Vater 1915, Bruno Schulz war dreiundzwanzig Jahre alt und ohne Beruf. Der Erste Weltkrieg hatte eine Schneise der Zerstörung in Ostgalizien hinterlassen und auch das Schulz’sche Elternhaus am Marktplatz von Drohobytsch nicht verschont. Die Familie geriet in existentielle Nöte, gleichzeitig brach die Habsburger Monarchie zusammen. All das markierte für Bruno Schulz den tragischen Ausklang jener Kindheit und Jugend, die er viele Jahre später in seinen Erzählungen wieder aufscheinen lässt.
Der menschliche Geist ist unermüdlich, wenn es darum geht, das Leben durch Mythen zu glossieren, die Wirklichkeit mit Sinn zu versehen.
Nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg wurde Drohobytsch der neu gegründeten polnischen Republik eingegliedert. Schulz erhielt eine Anstellung als Kunstlehrer am Gymnasium. Bevor er als Erzähler an die Öffentlichkeit trat, hatte er sich als bildender Künstler einen Namen gemacht. Seine Zeichnungen, die in phantastischer Manier, nicht selten als Karikatur, die alte, untergegangene Welt seiner Kindheit einfingen, waren wie seine Texte von Motiven des Masochismus durchdrungen.
In den späten dreißiger Jahren fand Schulz Aufnahme in die damalige literarische Elite Polens. Es war ein kurzer Augenblick der Anerkennung. 1939 fiel Drohobytsch – im Gefolge des Hitler-Stalin-Pakts – an die Sowjetunion. Schulz betätigte sich mehr oder minder freiwillig als Maler von Stalinbildern und versuchte erfolglos Erzählungen in der kommunistischen Literaturpresse zu lancieren. „Wir brauchen hier keine Prousts“, hieß es. 1941 kamen die Deutschen nach Drohobytsch. Sie errichteten ein Ghetto und mordeten die jüdische Bevölkerung dahin. Bruno Schulz erfuhr Protektion durch den Drohobytscher Gestapo-Chef Felix Landau, der ihn als Haus- und Kunstsklaven beschäftigte. Dennoch gab es auch für Schulz keine Rettung. Im November 1942 wurde er von einem mit Landau verfeindeten SS-Mann auf offener Straße erschossen.
„Nach dem Einmarsch der Roten Armee im September 1939 in Ostpolen verdiente Schulz sein Brot, indem er unter anderem für die neuen Machthaber propagandistische Bilder malte. Eine Zeitlang arbeitete er in der Bibliothek des ehemaligen Klosters in Chyrów (ukr. Chyriv). Als die deutsche Armee nach dem Überfall auf die Sowjetunion bis nach Galizien vordrang, musste Schulz 1941 in das Drohobyczer Ghetto übersiedeln.
Als Maler und Zeichner fand er im SS-Hauptscharführer Felix Landau einen, wenn auch zweifelhaften, Protektor. Schulz wurde gezwungen, das Kinderzimmer einer von Landau beschlagnahmten Villa mit Fresken zu bemalen, die Szenen aus deutschen Märchen zeigen. Sie wurden im Jahr 2001 von dem deutschen Dokumentarregisseur Benjamin Geissler entdeckt. Die Suche nach den Wandbildern und die Affäre um ihre illegale Ausfuhr nach Yad Vashem dokumentiert Geisslers Film Bilder Finden. Am 19. November 1942, kurz vor seiner geplanten Flucht aus dem Ghetto, wurde Schulz auf offener Straße von Landaus SS-Kollegen Karl Günther erschossen, wahrscheinlich aus Unmut gegen Schulz’ Gönner, der zuvor Günthers Leibzahnarzt Löwe erschossen hatte. Dabei soll Günther zu Landau im Anschluss gesagt haben: „Du hast meinen Juden getötet – und ich deinen!“ Die Todesumstände genau zu rekonstruieren erweist sich wegen widersprüchlicher mündlicher Zeugenaussagen als schwierig. Sein Grab ist nicht bekannt.“
In demselben Jahr – 1942 – wandte sich der junge, 1924 geborene Jerzy Ficowski, später selbst ein bekannter polnischer Schriftsteller, an Bruno Schulz.
Durch Zufall kam ich an Schulz‘ Adresse und schrieb ihm naiv und mit der ganzen Begeisterung eines Achtzehnjährigen, es werde ihm vielleicht nichts bedeuten, aber er solle wissen, dass es jemanden gibt, für den die „Zimtläden“ eine Quelle höchsten Entzückens und eine ganz große Offenbarung sind. Ich hatte keine Ahnung, wie ungünstig der Zeitpunkt war, den ich für mein Schreiben gewählt hatte.
Jerzy Ficowski bekam keine Antwort mehr. Bruno Schulz ließ ihn indes nie wieder los. Nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg war es Ficowski, der den auch in Polen zunächst vergessenen Künstler wieder entdeckte. Er fand verloren gegangene Manuskripte, erforschte das Leben mithilfe von überlebenden Zeitzeugen und verfasste die erste Schulz-Biographie, die lange Zeit konkurrenzlos blieb. Gemeinsam mit den „Zimtläden“ hat der Hanser Verlag jetzt auch diese Studie Ficowskis herausgebracht „Bruno Schulz 1892-1942. Ein Künstlerleben in Galizien“, wurde von Friedrich Grieses übersetzt und ergänzt. Das Buch des 2006 in Warschau verstorbenen Ficowski, war in seiner ursprünglichen Fassung 1967 erschienen. Heute stellt es längst nicht mehr die einzige, aber immer noch eine grundlegende Arbeit über einen Künstler dar, den man heute vor allem in Polen verehrt und in vielen Ländern zu schätzen weiß.
Fast gar keine Notiz indes nahm man von Bruno Schulz lange Zeit ausgerechnet in der Stadt, in der er gelebt und über die er geschrieben hatte – im seit 1945 zur Sowjetunion und seit 1991 zur unabhängigen Ukraine gehörenden Drohobytsch.
„Abgesehen von einem kleinen Zirkel von ukrainischen Intellektuellen, die sich wirklich sehr stark für Bruno Schulz interessieren, muss ich Ihnen sagen, dass er den breiteren Kreisen der Drohobytscher Bevölkerung eigentlich völlig unbekannt ist. “
Alfred Schreyer, ein Drohobytscher Musikdozent, war Schüler von Bruno Schulz und ist heute wahrscheinlich der einzige, der den Künstler noch persönlich gekannt hat. Die lange Zeit, in der sowjet- und später nationalukrainische Behörden den polnisch-jüdischen Avantgarde-Künstler entweder als dekadent oder als national fremd totschwiegen, geht allerdings auch in Drohobytsch allmählich zu Ende. Seit 2004 ehrt die Universität den wohl international bekanntesten Sohn der Stadt mit einem eigenen Festival. Die nächste Ausgabe findet Ende Mai dieses Jahres statt. Zum Programm gehört unter anderem ein internationales Arbeitstreffen der Bruno-Schulz-Übersetzer.
Bruno Schulz: Die Zimtläden.
Aus dem Polnischen von Doreen Daume,
Carl Hanser Verlag
Jerzy Ficowski: Bruno Schulz 1892-1942. Ein Künstlerleben in Galizien. Übersetzt und für die deutsche Ausgabe bearbeitet von Friedrich Griese,
Carl Hanser Verlag
„In 1939, after the Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland in World War II, Drohobych was occupied by the Soviet Union. At the time, Schulz was known to have been working on a novel called The Messiah, but no trace of the manuscript survived his death. When the Germans launched their Operation Barbarossa against the Soviets in 1941, they forced Schultz into the newly formed Drohobycz Ghetto along with thousands of other dispossessed Jews, most of whom perished at the Belzec extermination camp before the end of 1942. A Nazi Gestapo officer, Felix Landau, however, admired Schulz’s artwork and extended him protection in exchange for painting a mural in his Drohobych residence. Shortly after completing the work in 1942, Schulz was walking home through the „Aryan quarter“ with a loaf of bread, when another Gestapo officer, Karl Günther. shot and killed him in revenge for Landau’s having killed Günther’s own „personal Jew.“ Subsequently, Schulz’s mural was painted over and forgotten – only to be rediscovered in 2001.“
It would be hard to call it friendship—in the years we became acquainted we were both still unborn. The years 1934, 1935. Aleje Ujazdowskie. We are strolling along. Talking. He and I on Sluzewska. 1 He, Witkacy,2 and I. Nalkowska,3 he and I. In this film, “flickering onto the screen of memory,” I see him as someone almost completely unknown to me, but then I see myself that way, too—it was not us, but the introduction to us, an overture, prologue.
I would like immediately to unload an irritating impropriety, something most certainly in bad taste: Bruno adored me but I did not adore him.
He first showed up at my place, on Sluzewska, after the publication of Cinnamon Shops—I had just published my Memoir from Adolescence. He was small, strange, chimerical, focused, intense, almost feverish—and this is how our conversations got started, usually on walks.
That we truly needed each other is indisputable. We found ourselves in a vacuum, our literary situations were permeated with a void, our admirers were spectral, something of the apparent rari nantes in gurgite vasto, we both roamed Polish literature like a flourish, ornament, chimera, griffin.
After reading my first book, Bruno discovered a companion in me. He kept showing up in order to find confirmation in me, wanting me to furnish him with the Outside without which an inner life is condemned to a monologue—and he wanted me to use him in the same way. He would show up as a friend, yes (I emphasize) as a kindred spirit to consolidate and raise my esteem.
And here is where the “miss” or “dislocation,” to use the language of our works, came in…for his extended hand did not meet my own. I did not return his regard, I gave him abysmally little, almost nothing, of myself, our relationship was a fiasco…but perhaps even this secretly worked to our advantage. Perhaps he and I needed fiasco rather than happy symbiosis.
Today I can speak of this openly because he has died.
Allow me therefore to repeat once again with delight: how he built me up, how he strengthened me. In my melancholy literary life I have gotten my share of shabby treatment, but I have also met people who would favor me, out of the blue, with the lavishness of a Padishah—no one, however, was more generous than Bruno. Never, before or since, have I bathed in such crystalline joy on account of my every artistic attainment. No one ever supported me in so heartfelt a manner, no one ever delighted in me, ever stoked each and every one of my thoughts the way he did—I note: never in the course of our friendship was there any malice toward me on Bruno’s part; indeed, he fed me the milk of human kindness…. It will suffice for me to tell you what happened with Ferdydurke. I gave him the unfinished book, still in typescript, and he returned it in a week, his face extinguished.
“You should return to your fantasies of Memoir from Adolescence, that kind of writing suits you better,” he said with obvious and considerable vexation.
But later when he read Ferdydurke in book form he burst into a flame which almost scorched me, cool as I was. When he had the opportunity to come to Warsaw, he gave a lecture (later reprinted in Skamander) on Ferdydurke at the Writers Union which was taken for a lot of fanfare and infuriated the mandarins of our day.
Do you think I am not aware of how much more tactful it would be if I did not thrust myself to the forefront in this souvenir about a “deceased friend”? Modesty!… I hasten to warn you that I am familiar with this rule in its social as well as moral aspect. But didn’t Prince Ypsilanti say that those who know one should not eat fish with a knife may eat fish with a knife? So much for the drawing room. And if you have in mind even more profound moral considerations, then I will say to you, quite frankly, that in maintaining silence about these things I would be completely distorting what had come to exist between us—and this kind of sin is unforgivable in a writer because his motto should always be: optimal proximity to reality. Perhaps I should not write about Schulz with me or me with Schulz—but would it be worth recommending this kind of abstinence? Dangerous subjects exist for prim old maids to run from, not literature. Omit this? The distaste, the weariness with myself that overwhelms me because even here in writing about a “deceased friend,” I have to be myself…I have to risk being distasteful.
And what was my reaction to Schulz’s magnanimity? I liked him…yes. We had a lot of friendly talks, I often backed him up; in the eyes of others, we were a pair. Appearances! My nature never allowed me to approach him other than with incredulity; I trusted neither him nor his art. Have I ever honestly read even a single one of his stories, from beginning to end? No—they bored me stiff. I had to be extremely careful, therefore, in everything I said so that he would not suspect the void which lay waiting in ambush for both of us. How much did he really suspect?
I am not blaming myself at all for lacking the feelings to reciprocate. On the contrary—I consider it laudable that I did not allow myself to be bribed; I find it quite appealing when we respond with an icy coolness to someone else’s white heat; an artist should not be the function of someone else’s temperatures. Except that…I did write a brief article about Bruno in the Morning Courier (Kurier Poranny) and I recall dreading that people would say that I was praising him because he had praised me…out of this fear came an article not directly about Schulz but about how one should go about reading him. And sometimes I could be quite petty toward him and perhaps this might even have been mean except that the meanness of my stinginess, like the nobility of his magnanimity, was strangely deprived of all weight. Inauthentic. As if. Unreal. In virtue and in sin, we embryos were innocent.
Were we friends? Colleagues? How often we were mentioned together in various literary inventories as “Polish experimental prose.” And yet if anyone existed in Polish art who was 100 percent my opposite, it was he.
I am no longer capable of remembering whether this was ever openly stated in the dialogue we carried on with his every visit to Warsaw. But once, while walking down Aleje Ujazdowskie, in front of the Chopin monument, he said that even though our works were joined by “their irony, sarcastic escapism, and game of hide-and-seek, my spot on the map is a hundred miles away from yours, and what’s more, your voice, in order to reach mine, would have to be deflected by a third something or other; there is no direct telephone line between us.”
In my opinion, it was like this: Bruno was a man who was denying himself. I was a man seeking himself. He wanted annihilation. I wanted realization. He was born to be a slave. I was born to be a master. He wanted denigration. I wanted to be “above” and “superior to.” He was of the Jewish race. I was from a family of Polish gentry.
And he was a relentless, untempered masochist—one sensed this in him all the time. No, he was not made to dominate! A tiny gnome with enormous head, appearing too scared to dare exist, he was rejected by life and slouched along its peripheries. Bruno did not acknowledge his right to exist, he sought his own annihilation—not that he wanted to commit suicide; he merely “strove” for nonbeing with all his might (and this is precisely what made him, Heidegger-style, so sensitive to being). In my opinion there was no sense of guilt à la Kafka in this striving, it was more like the instinct that moves a sick animal to separate, remove itself. He was superfluous. He was extra. It is possible that his masochism also had a different aspect, I don’t know, but it most certainly was homage paid to the powers of being that were trampling him.
What should a man cast out of life do? He can do nothing but take refuge in the Spirit—and it will be God if he is a believer; Morality, if he is not a believer but is a moral man; Art if he has deified beauty…. Bruno was not so much a disbeliever in God as he was uninterested in Him, and even though he demonstrated a profound moral sense in all his dealings, he was not at all disposed to morality conceived as doctrine and conscious dictate of action. So only art remained…. And indeed I saw him completely devoted to it, consumed by it with a zeal and concentration I had never seen in anyone else—he, a fanatic of art, its slave. He entered this cloister and submitted to its rigors, carrying out its strictest injunctions with great humility in order to attain perfection.
Except that he never attained sanctification.
As far as I got to know Bruno, a man not at all easy to get to know, his masochistic inclinations, duly thrown into relief by Sandauer,4 make up the key to the spiritual defeat which befell him in his last refuge, in art. Yes, the dialectic of pleasure and pain, peculiar to masochism (and characteristic of art as well), and even more so, the desire for self-destruction, can explain a great deal.
What happens when a monk who is flagellating himself with enthusiasm before a holy image suddenly feels that the whip has stopped being the instrument of torture and has become the instrument of ecstasy? The logical development of this situation would lead us to a macabre paradox: the sinner, to attain salvation, thinks up more and more horrific tortures, yet the greater the pain the greater the fun, the more delicious the sin!
Never mind about the pain. Let us talk about the self-destruction. This holy artist—such do occur—could most certainly have drawn so much dignity and pride, so much spirit from the splendor of artistic attainments, that his biological decrepitude would have become less important. He could have come into existence at this other pole, because life was rejecting him. He who humbles himself will be exalted—he could have risen this way. But what if degradation and humility cost him nothing, what if they had no moral value in him? On the contrary, he was pleased by everything that degraded him, everything that hurled him to the ground. He approached art like a lake, with the intention of drowning in it. Falling to his knees before the Spirit, he experienced sensual pleasure. He wanted to be a servant, nothing more. He craved nonexistence.
Such are the trials of someone who likes the taste of the lash!
And if he called art “betrayal” or “a feint,” it was because of this perversion.
And it was with a perverse artist like this that I made friends. Since he groveled with delectation and kneeled sensually, couldn’t art at least have become a tool of his personality even momentarily, something which he could put to his own spiritual or simply personal use? Hermes—Sandauer calls him. No, no, to my mind there wasn’t much Hermes in him; he was useless as an intermediary between spirit and matter. In fact, his perverse attitude to being (the Heideggerian question: “Why does Something and not Nothing exist?” could be the motto of his work) resulted in the fact that for him matter became illuminated by the spirit, and the spirit was incarnated, but this Hermes-like process is spiced with the desire to “debilitate” being: matter is corrupt, diseased, or insidiously hostile, or mystifying, and the spiritual world is transformed into an utterly sensual phantasmagoria of color and light, its spiritual purpose is corrupted. To replace existence with half-existence, or with the appearance of existence—such were Bruno’s secret dreams. He also wanted to weaken matter as well as the spirit. We often discussed various moral and social issues but behind everything he said crouched the passivity of someone brought to ruin. As an artist he was completely fixed in the very material of his work, in his own game and internal arrangements; when he wrote a story he had no other law beyond the immanent law of the unfolding form. A false ascetic, sensuous saint, lascivious monk, nihilistic fulfiller. And he knew this.
While he subordinated himself to art this way, I wanted to be “above” it. This was our chief disagreement.
I hail, as I have said, from the landed gentry, and this is a burden almost equally strong and only a bit less tragic than to have behind one those thousands of years of Jewish banishment. The first work I wrote at age eighteen was the history of my family, based on household archives which encompassed four hundred years of affluent living in Samogitia.5 A landowner—whether he is a Polish squire or an American farmer makes no difference—will always harbor distrust of culture, for his remoteness from the great centers of human activity makes him resistant to human confrontations and products. And he will have the nature of a master. He will demand that culture be for him—not he for culture—all that is humble service, devotion, sacrifice will appear suspect to him. To which of the Polish gentry that imported paintings from Italy in their day would it have occurred to humble himself before a masterpiece hanging on the wall? Not to a single one. Both the works and artists who created them were treated high-handedly.
I, on the other hand, traitor and derider of my “class” that I was, belonged to it nevertheless—and I have probably already said that many of my roots are to be found in the epoch when the gentry was most unrestrained, the eighteenth century. I am very much from the Saxon period. Even for this reason, then, Bruno, kneeling before art, was completely unacceptable. But that’s not all. Having one leg in the jolly world of the landed gentry, another in the world of the intellect and avant-garde literature, I was between worlds. Being in-between is not a bad way to elevate yourself—for in applying the principle of divide et impera you can bring about the mutual devouring of the two worlds, then escape and soar “above” them.
I had a habit of passing myself off as an artist with my relatives in the country (to irritate them), and with artists I passed myself off as a first-rate landed gentleman (to infuriate them, in turn).
I was always irritated by artists who were too fanatic. I can’t stand poets who are poets too much and painters too devoted to painting. I generally want man not to devote himself to anything entirely. I want him always to be a little detached from what he does. Bruno was more of an artist than all of the poètes maudits put together and for the paradoxical reason that he did not adore art at all. In adoring one is someone and he preferred to lose himself in it, to vanish altogether.
I, on the other hand, wanted to be myself, myself, not an artist or an idea or any of my works—just myself. I wanted to be above art, writing, style, ideas.
He liked me to attack him. Actually I even have the impression that he understood a really strange fact—namely, that I, having known him for so long, had not even taken the trouble to read his book. He was discreet and did not quiz me on it, knowing I would fail the test. (But perhaps he knew—the way I did—that high art almost always remains unread, that it acts differently somehow, by its very presence in a given culture?) Everything that went into my knowledge of him (and still goes into it) derives from the bits of reading (which dazzled me) combined with bits that have remained from our many conversations. Did he perhaps relish my scorn? And put me on a pedestal because of it?
I was also astonished by his keen and easy understanding of what alienated me from art, but united me with the everyday things in life. Cultured, educated people have a difficult time grasping this in me. How is it that you, a difficult, sophisticated writer, are bored by Kafka, unimpressed by painting, read cheap novels?—I have often been asked these questions. Bruno had no trouble at all with the schoolboy in me (perhaps this was simply because his marvelous intelligence conceived of me in broader terms).
Frustration. False note. Who knows…perhaps this appealed to him not only because he was an enemy of realization on principle. Perhaps because his capacity for awe hit upon my incapacity for it, this turned out to be a mutual enrichment from the standpoint of our artistic potentials?
If someone had eavesdropped on our conversations in those now distant years, he would have taken us for conspirators. The plot? Bruno talked to me about an “illegal codex” and I spoke to him about “exploding the situation” and “compromising form.” He told me about “reality’s side track” and I carried on about a “liberating cacophony.” There was also talk about “subculture” and “just-short-of-beauties,” and “kitsch” (which Bruno called “ersatz“), etc. What sort of laboratory was this?
In fact we were conspirators. We were consumed with experimenting with a certain explosive material called Form. But this was not form in any ordinary sense—the issue was “creating form,” “producing it,” and “creating oneself through the creation of form.” It is hard for me to explain this in few words; those interested should look into our books. I will note only that although each of us began differently (for while I wanted to get at myself, and to man in general, through a provocation of form and its dissonant explosions, Bruno gave himself up to this alchemy gratis, completely gratis, with the impartiality of a peripheral being), we had a certain trait in common. We were both utterly alone in confrontation with Form. Bruno the monk without God…and I, with my proud humanity which was indeed “alone with itself,” supported by nothing, a king of categorical imperative crying in a void: be yourself!
These games with form united us, therefore. And is it exactly here that I have the suspicion—for experimenters like ourselves, people in a trial stage—wouldn’t a failed friendship be the luckiest of developments? What would have happened if I had responded to admiration with admiration—wouldn’t we have felt too content…too serious, in each other’s eyes? If he had felt my awe, if I had, in admiring, placed a value on his admiration—wouldn’t this have made us too heavy for experimentation…with one another? Ah, yes, both he and I sought admiration, affirmation…because a vacuum wears one down…. Would this kind of harmony have been in keeping with our style? Far more in keeping with our style was exactly the bungled reverse of a thing, in which his extended hand did not meet mine—this typically Schulzian situation, certainly not alien to me either, allowed us at least to preserve the strange freedom of beings not yet born, the peculiar innocence of embryos—this, therefore, rendered us light in confrontation with Form.
And as for admiration—or lack of it—what did we really care since both of us were not real writers.
Let us not forget to mention the third musketeer, Witkacy (Witkiewicz). The one arrayed in plumes of a metaphysical dandy, the perpetually removed madman. I did not like him. He irritated me, and his experiments with form, probably the boldest of all, were unconvincing to me—they were too intellectual and incapable of moving beyond a grimace…. I felt he lacked talent. And his tricks, the same Dali uses today to épater, were too classic in their surrealism for my taste.
Like King Lear, Witkacy always showed up with a retinue of courtiers and jesters, recruited chiefly from among the various literary deformities (like all dictators, he could bear only inferior beings). Upon seeing Schulz or me with the master, many of these humble acolytes would consider us members of Witkacy’s court as no other interpretation would fit into their servile heads—and hence the rumor that Schulz and I hail from Witkacy’s school. Nothing doing. Bruno, as I recall, profited little and judged him unenthusiastically; and I see no traces of Witkacy in his work.
But we were, nonetheless, a trinity and a fairly characteristic one. Witkiewicz: intentional affirmation of the madness of “pure form” through vengeance as well as fulfillment of his tragic destiny, the distraught madman. Schulz: self-destruction in form, the drowned madman. I: burning desire to use form to get at my “I” and reality, the madman in revolt.
—translated by Lillian Vallee
by Jerzy Ficowski, translated from the Polish and edited by Theodosia Robertson
Norton, 255 pp., $25.95
In his earliest childhood recollection, young Bruno Schulz sits on the floor ringed by an admiring household while he scrawls one “drawing” after another over the pages of old newspapers. In his creative transports, the child still inhabits “the age of genius,” still has unselfconscious access to the realm of myth. Or so it seemed to the man whom the child became; all of that man’s strivings would be to reacquire his early powers, to “mature into childhood.”
Schulz’s strivings would issue in two bodies of work: etchings and drawings which would be of no great interest today had Schulz not become famous by other means; and two short books, collections of stories and sketches about the inner life of a boy in provincial Galicia, that propelled him to the forefront of Polish letters in the interwar years. Rich in fantasy, sensuous in their apprehension of the living world, elegant in style, witty, underpinned by a mystical but coherent idealistic aesthetic, Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass were unique and startling productions, seeming to come out of nowhere.
Schulz had been born in 1892, the third child of Jewish parents from the merchant class, and named for the Christian saint Bruno on whose name-day his birthday fell. The province of his birth was at the time a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His home town, Drohobycz, was something of an industrial center with oil wells nearby. After World War I Drohobycz again became part of a resurrected Poland.
There was a Jewish school in Drohobycz, but Schulz was sent to the Polish gymnasium, where he excelled in art. His languages were Polish and German; he did not speak the Yiddish of the streets. Dissuaded by his family from becoming an artist, he registered to study architecture at the polytechnic in Lwów, but had to break off his studies when war was declared in 1914. Because of a heart defect he was not called up. Returning to Drohobycz, he set about a program of intensive self-education, reading and practicing his draftsmanship. He put together a portfolio of graphics on erotic themes entitled The Book of I dolatry and tried to sell copies, with some diffidence and not much success.
Unable to make a living as an artist, saddled, after his father’s death, with a houseful of ailing relatives to support, he took a job as an art teacher at a local school, a position he held until 1941. Though respected by his students, he found school life stultifying and wrote letter after letter imploring the authorities for time off to pursue his creative work, letters to which, to their credit, they did not always turn a deaf ear.
Despite his isolation in the provinces, Schulz was able to exhibit his artworks in various cities in Poland and to enter into correspondence with kindred spirits. Into his letters—of which only a small proportion have survived—he poured much of his creative energy. Jerzy Ficowski, Schulz’s biographer, calls him the last great exponent of epistolary art in Poland. All evidence indicates that the pieces that make up his first book, Cinnamon Shops (1934), began their life in letters to the poet Debora Vogel.
Cinnamon Shops was received with enthusiasm by the Polish intelligentsia. On visits to Warsaw Schulz was welcomed into artistic salons and invited to write for literary reviews; at his school he was awarded the title “Professor.” He became engaged to Józefina Szelinå«ska, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and, though not himself converting, withdrew formally from the Drohobycz Jewish Religious Community. Of his fiancée he wrote: “[She] constitutes my participation in life; through her I am a person, and not just a lemur and kobold…. She is the closest person to me on earth.” Nevertheless, after two years the engagement fell through.
The first translation into Polish of Franz Kafka’s The Trial appeared in 1936 under Schulz’s name, but the actual work of translation had been done by Szelinå«ska.
In 1937 Schulz published a second book, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. The book was put together from early pieces, some of them still tentative and amateurish. Schulz tended to deprecate it, though in fact a number of the stories are quite up to the standard of Cinnamon Shops.
Burdened by teaching and by familial responsibilities, anxious about political developments in Europe, Schulz was by this time descending into a depression in which he found it impossible to write. Receipt of the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature did not raise his spirits; nor did a three-week visit to Paris, his only substantial venture outside his native land. He set off for what he would in retrospect call “the most exclusive, self-sufficient, standoffish city in the world” in the dubious hope of arranging an exhibition of his artworks, but made few contacts and came away empty-handed.
In 1939, as a consequence of the Nazi–Soviet partition of Poland, Drohobycz was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine. Under the Soviets there were no opportunities for Schulz as a writer (“We don’t need Prousts,” he was told). He was, however, commissioned to do propaganda paintings. He continued to teach until, in 1941, the Ukraine was invaded by the Germans and all schools were closed. Executions of Jews began at once, and in 1942 mass deportations.
For a while Schulz managed to escape the worst. He had the luck to be adopted by a Gestapo officer with pretensions to art, thereby acquiring the status of “necessary Jew” and the precious armband that protected him during roundups. For decorating the walls of his patron’s residence and the officers’ casino he was paid with food rations. Meanwhile he bundled his artworks and manuscripts in packages and deposited them among non-Jewish friends. Well-wishers in Warsaw smuggled money and false papers to him, but before he could summon up the resolve to flee Drohobycz he was dead, singled out and shot in the street during a day of anarchy launched by the Gestapo.
By 1943 there were no Jews left in Drohobycz.
In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, news reached the Polish scholar Jerzy Ficowski that an unnamed person with access to KGB archives had come into the possession of one of Schulz’s packages, and was prepared to dispose of it for a price. Though the lead ran dry, it provided the basis for Ficowski’s enduring hope that Schulz’s lost writings may yet be recovered. These writings include an unfinished novel, Messiah, as well as notes that Schulz was taking at the time of his death, records of conversations with Jews who had seen the working of the execution squads and transports at first hand, intended to form the basis of a book about the persecutions.*
In Poland Jerzy Ficowski, born in 1924, is known as a poet and scholar of Gypsy life. His main reputation rests, however, on his work on Bruno Schulz. Since the 1940s Ficowski has indefatigably, against all obstacles, bureaucratic and material, scoured Poland, the Ukraine, and the wider world for what is left of Schulz. His translator, Theodosia Robertson, calls him an archaeologist, the leading archaeologist of Schulz’s artistic remains. Regions of the Great Heresy is Robertson’s translation of the third, revised edition (1992) of Ficowski’s biography, to which he has added two chapters—one on the lost novel Messiah, one on the fate of the murals that Schulz painted in Drohobycz in his last year—as well as a detailed chronology and a selection of Schulz’s surviving letters.
Within her translation of Regions of the Great Heresy, Theodosia Robertson has elected to retranslate all passages quoted from Schulz. She does so because, along with other scholars of Polish literature in the United States, she has reservations about the existing English translations. These appeared from the hand of Celina Wieniewska in 1963: it is through them, under the collective title The Street of Crocodiles, that Schulz is known in the English-speaking world. Wieniewska’s translations are open to criticism on a number of grounds. First, they are based on faulty texts: a dependable, scholarly edition of Schulz’s writings appeared in Poland only in 1989. Second, there are occasions when Wieniewska silently emends Schulz. In the sketch “A Second Autumn,” for example, Schulz fancifully names Bolechow as the home of Robinson Crusoe. Bolechow is a town near Drohobycz; whatever Schulz’s reasons for not pointing to his own town, it behooves his translator to respect them. Wieniewska changes “Bolechow” to “Drohobycz.” Third and most seriously, there are numerous instances where Wieniewska cuts Schulz’s prose to make it less florid, or universalizes specifically Jewish allusions.
In Wieniewska’s favor it must be said that her translations read very well. Her prose has a rare richness, grace, and unity of style. Whoever takes on the task of retranslating Schulz will find it hard to escape from under her shadow.
As a guide to Cinnamon Shops, we can do no better than go to the synopsis that Schulz himself wrote when he was trying to interest an Italian publisher in the book. (His plans came to nothing, as did plans for French and German translations.) Cinnamon Shops, he says, is the story of a family told in the mode not of biography or psychology but of myth. The book can thus be called pagan in conception: as with the ancients, the historical time of the clan merges back into the mythological time of the forebears. But in his case the myths are not communal in nature. They emerge from the mists of early childhood, from the hopes and fears, fantasies and forebodings—what he elsewhere calls “mutterings of mythological delirium”—that form the seedbed of mythic thinking.
At the center of the family in question is Jacob, by trade a merchant, but preoccupied with the redemption of the world, a mission he pursues through the means of experiments in mesmerism, galvanism, psychoanalysis, and other more occult arts from what he calls the Regions of the Great Heresy. Jacob is surrounded by lumpish folk, led by his archenemy, the housemaid Adela, who have no grasp of his metaphysical strivings.
In his attic Jacob rears, from eggs he imports from different parts of the world, squadrons of messenger birds—condors, eagles, peacocks, pheasants, pelicans—whose physical being he sometimes seems on the brink of sharing. But Adela, with her broom, scatters his birds to the four winds. Defeated, embittered, Jacob begins to shrink and dry up, metamorphosing at last into a cockroach. Now and again he resumes his original form to give his son lectures on such subjects as puppets, tailors’ dummies, and the power of the heresiarch to bring trash to life.
This summary was not the end of Schulz’s efforts to outline what he was up to in Cinnamon Shops. For the eyes of a friend, the writer and painter Stanisl/aw Witkiewicz, Schulz extended his account, producing a piece of introspective analysis of remarkable power and acuity amounting to a poetic credo.
He begins by recalling two images that go back to his “age of genius” and still dominate his imagination: a horse-drawn cab with lanterns blazing, emerging from a forest; and a father striding through the darkness, speaking soothing words to the child folded in his arms, while all the child hears is the sinister call of the night. The origin of the first image is obscure to him, he says; the second comes from Goethe’s ballad “Der Erlkönig,” which shook him to the bottom of his soul when his mother read it to him at age eight.
Images like these, he proceeds, are laid down for us at the threshold of life; they constitute “an iron capital of the soul”; all of the rest of an artist’s life consists in exploring and interpreting and trying to master them. After childhood we discover nothing new, only go back over and over the same ground in a struggle without resolution. “The knot the soul got itself tied up in is not a false one that comes undone when you pull the ends. On the contrary, it draws tighter.” Out of the tussle with the knot emerges art.
As for the deeper meaning of Cinnamon Shops, says Schulz, it is not a good idea for a writer to subject his work to too much rational analysis. It is like demanding of actors that they drop their masks: it kills the play.
In a work of art the umbilical cord linking it with the totality of our concerns has not yet been severed, the blood of the mystery still circulates; the ends of the blood vessels vanish into the surrounding night and return from it full of dark fluid.
Nevertheless, if driven to give an exposition, he would say that the book presents a certain primitive, vitalistic view of the world in which matter is in a constant state of fermentation and germination. There is no such thing as dead matter, nor does matter remain in fixed form:
Reality takes on certain shapes merely for the sake of appearance, as a joke or form of play. One person is human, another is a cockroach, but shape does not penetrate essence, is only a role adopted for the moment, an outer skin soon to be shed…. [The] migration of forms is the essence of life.
Hence the “all-pervading aura of irony” in his world: “the bare fact of separate individual existence holds an irony, a hoax.”
For this vision of the world Schulz does not feel he has to give an eth-ical justification. Cinnamon Shops in particular operates at a “premoral” depth. “The role of art is to be a probe sunk into the nameless. The artist is an apparatus for registering processes in that deep stratum where value is formed.” At a personal level, however, he will concede that the stories emerge from and represent “my way of living, my personal fate,” a fate marked by “profound loneliness, isolation from the stuff of daily life.”
On the basis of his two books, preoccupied as they are with a child’s view of the world, Schulz is often thought of as a naive writer, a kind of urban folk artist. In his letters and essays, however, he emerges as a sophisticated intellectual who, despite being based in the provinces, can cross swords on terms of equality with confrères like Witkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz.
In one exchange, Gombrowicz reports to Schulz a conversation with a stranger, a doctor’s wife, who tells him that in her opinion Schulz is “either a sick pervert or a poseur, but most probably a poseur.” Gombrowicz challenges Schulz to defend himself in print, adding that Schulz should regard the challenge as both substantive and aesthetic: he should find a tone that is neither haughty nor flippant nor labored nor solemn.
In his reply Schulz ignores the task Gombrowicz has set him, coming at the question instead from a slant. What is it in Gombrowicz and in artists in general, he asks, that takes secret delight in the most stupid, philistine expressions of public opinion? (Why, for example, did Gustave Flaubert spend months and years collecting bêtises, stupidities, and arranging them in his Dictionary of Received Opinions?) “Aren’t you astonished,” he asks Gombrowicz, “at [your] involuntary sympathy and solidarity with what at bottom is alien and hostile to you?”
Unacknowledged sympathy with mindless popular opinion, Schulz suggests, comes from atavistic modes of thinking embedded in all of us. When an ignorant stranger dismisses Schulz as a poseur, “a dark, inarticulate mob rises up in you [Gombrowicz], like a bear trained to the sound of a gypsy’s flute.” And this is because of the way the psyche itself is organized: as a multitude of overlapping subsystems, some more rational, some less so. Hence “the confusing, multitrack nature” of our thinking in general.
Schulz is also commonly thought of as a disciple, an epigone, or even an imitator of his older contemporary Franz Kafka. The similarities between his personal history and Kafka’s are certainly remarkable. Both were born under Franz Joseph I into merchant-class Jewish families; both were sickly and found sexual relations difficult; both worked conscientiously at routine jobs; both died before their time, bequeathing troublesome literary estates. Furthermore, Schulz is (mistakenly) believed to have translated Kafka. Finally, Kafka wrote a story in which a man turned into an insect, while Schulz wrote stories in which a man turned not only into one insect after another but into a crustacean too.
Schulz’s comments on his art should make it clear how superficial these parallels are. His own inclination was toward the recreation, or perhaps fabulation, of a childhood consciousness, full of terror, obsession, and crazy glory; his metaphysics is a metaphysics of matter. Nothing of the kind is to be found in Kafka.
For Józefina Szelinå«ska’s translation of The Trial Schulz wrote an afterword that is notable for its perceptiveness and aphoristic power, but even more striking for its attempt to draw Kafka into the Schulzian orbit, in order to make of Kafka a Schulz avant la lettre.
“Kafka’s procedure, the creation of a doppelgänger or substitute reality, stands virtually without precedent,” writes Schulz:
Kafka sees the realistic surface of existence with unusual precision, he knows by heart, as it were, its code of gestures, all the external mechanics of events and situations, how they dovetail and interlace, but these to him are but a loose epidermis without roots, which he lifts off like a delicate membrane and fits onto his transcendental world, grafts onto his reality.
Though the procedure Schulz describes here does not go to the heart of Kafka, what he says is true and admirably put. But then he goes on:
[Kafka’s] attitude to reality is radically ironic, treacherous, profoundly ill-intentioned—the relationship of the prestidigitator to his raw material. He only simulates the attention to detail, the seriousness, and the elaborate precision of this reality in order to compromise it all the more thoroughly.
All of sudden Schulz has left the real Kafka behind and begun to describe another kind of artist, the artist he himself is or would like to be seen as. It is a measure of his confidence in his own powers that he could try to refashion Kafka in his own image.
The world that Schulz creates in his two books is remarkably unsullied by history. The Great War and the convulsions that followed upon it cast no backward shadow; there is no intimation that the sons of the barefoot peasant who, in the story “Dead Season,” is made fun of by the Jewish shop assistants will decades later ransack the same shop and beat the sons and daughters of the assistants.
There are hints that Schulz was aware that he could not forever live on the iron capital he had stored up in childhood. Describing his state of mind in a 1937 letter, he says that he feels as if he is being dragged out of a deep sleep:
The peculiarity and unusual nature of my inner processes sealed me off hermetically, made me insensitive, unreceptive to the world’s incursions. Now I am opening myself up to the world…. All would be well if it weren’t for [the] terror and inner shrinking, as if before a perilous venture that might lead God knows where.
The story in which he most clearly opens his face to the wider world and to historical time is “Spring.” Here the young narrator encounters his first stamp album. In this burning book, in the parade of images from lands whose existence he had never guessed at—Hyderabad, Tasmania, Nicaragua, Abracadabra—the fiery beauty of a world beyond Drohobycz suddenly reveals itself. And amid this magical plenitude he comes across the stamps of Austria, dominated by the image of Franz Joseph, emperor of prose (here the narrating voice cannot any longer pretend to be a child’s), a dried-up, dull man used to breathing the air of chanceries and police stations. What ignominy to come from a land with such a ruler! How much better to be a subject of the dashing Archduke Maximilian!
“Spring” is Schulz’s longest story, the one in which he makes the most concerted effort to develop a narrative line—in other words, to become a storyteller of a more conventional sort. Its plot concerns the quest of the young hero to track down his beloved Bianca (Bianca of the slim bare legs) in a world modeled on the stamp album. As narrative it is formulaic; after declining into a pastiche of costume drama it peters out.
But halfway through, as he is beginning to lose interest in the story he has concocted, Schulz turns his eyes inward and launches into a dense four-page meditation upon his own writing processes that one can only imagine as having been written in a trance, a piece of rhapsodic philosophizing that develops one last time the imagery of the subterranean bed from which myth draws its sacred powers. Come to the underground with me, he says, to the place of roots where words break down and return to their etymologies, the place of anamnesis. Then travel deeper down, to the very bottom, to “the dark foundations, among the Mothers,” the realm of unborn tales.
In these nether depths, which is the first tale to unfold its wings from the cocoon of sleep? It turns out to be one of the two foundation myths of his own spiritual being: the Erlkönig story, the story of the child whose parent has not the power to hold her (or him) back from the sweet persuasions of the dark—in other words, the story that, heard from his mother’s lips, announced to the young Bruno that his destiny would entail leaving the parental breast and entering the realms of night.
Schulz was incomparably gifted as an explorer of his own inner life, which is at the same time the recollected inner life of his childhood and his own creative workings. From the first comes the charm and freshness of his stories, from the second their intellectual power. But he was right in sensing that he would not forever be able to draw from this well. From somewhere he would have to renew the sources of his inspiration: the depression and sterility of the late 1930s may have stemmed precisely from a realization that his capital was exhausted. In the four stories we have that postdate Sanatorium, one of them written not in Polish but in German, there is no indication that such a renewal had yet occurred. Whether for his Messiah he succeeded in finding new sources we will probably—despite Ficowski’s optimistic wishes—never know.
Schulz was a gifted visual artist within a certain narrow technical and emotional range. The early Book of I dolatry series in particular is a record of a masochistic obsession: hunched, dwarflike men, among whom Schulz himself is recognizable, grovel at the feet of imperious girls with slim, bare legs.
Behind the narcissistic challenge of Schulz’s girls one can detect the example of Goya’s Naked Maja. The influence of the Expressionists is also strong, Edvard Munch in particular. There are strong hints of the Belgian Félicien Rops. Curiously, in view of the importance of dreams to Schulz’s fiction, there is no trace of the Surrealists in his drawings. Rather, as he matures, an element of sar-donic comedy grows stronger.
The girls in Schulz’s drawings are of a piece with Adela, the maid who rules the household in Cinnamon Street and reduces the narrator’s father to childishness by stretching out a leg and offering him a foot to worship. Fiction and artwork belong to the same universe; some of the drawings were meant to illustrate the stories. But Schulz never pretended that his visual art, with its restricted ambitions, was on a par with his writing.
Ficowski’s book includes a selection of Schulz’s drawings and graphics. A fuller selection is available in the Collected Works of Bruno Schulz, edited by Ficowski and published in the UK by Picador, but alas not on sale in the US. All of Schulz’s surviving drawings are available in reproduction in a handsome bilingual volume published in 1992 by the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw.
Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz with Selected Prose
edited by Jerzy Ficowski, translated by Walter Arndt, with Victoria Nelson
Harper and Row, 256 pp., $25.00
One odd feature of our century’s literature is a metamorphosis to childishness. Childhood had been a subject for great literary artists—Wordsworth, Dickens, Tolstoy, Aksakov, Fournier—for almost a hundred years, but they had always created it retrospectively, revealed it from the standpoint of maturity. The war, and Freud, possibly Dada and Surrealism too, seemed to change all that. Childishness began to extrude itself into literature on its own terms, as it were; it crawled out raw and unmodified from the subconscious.
After World War I the new state of Poland seemed a suitable experimental region—“God’s playground” as it had been called, where the ruling classes had never taken power and politics seriously, and with to them fatal results. The grown-ups of Russia, Germany, and Austria had closed the place down. But the Polish intelligentsia had never lost its identity, or, in a sense, its wonderful irresponsibility.
Between the wars was its heyday. Warsaw intellectuals and lively periodicals like Skamander inaugurated new kinds of writing that drew inspiration from other European authors—Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Thomas Mann—but possessed a very definitely Polish personality and Polish characteristics. Witold Gombrowicz, who achieved international fame in 1938 with his novel Ferdydurke, had for some years before been publishing in Warsaw his stories and studies of adolescence. Ignacy Witkiewicz, usually known as Witkacy from the way he signed his paintings, was perhaps the most versatile Polish artist and writer of the time, pioneering and encouraging new cliques and movements. He committed suicide during the German and Russian invasion of 1939, and Gombrowicz had emigrated to Argentina the year before, never returning to Poland.
The two made a trio with a small, shy Jewish writer from the provincial Galician town of Drohobycz (now in the Soviet Union), whom Witkacy championed in 1934 as the most significant contemporary phenomenon in Polish literature. This was Bruno Schulz, whose fantasy The Street of Crocodiles, sometimes translated under the title Cinnamon Shops, had just appeared. Unremarked before Witkacy hailed it as a masterpiece, the gestation of Schulz’s book was itself sufficiently extraordinary. The son of a dry-goods merchant, and himself the drawing master at a local high school, Schulz depended on letters to friends for intellectual support and nourishment. In 1929 a fortunate chance introduced him to Debora Vogel, a girl from Lvov who was a poet and had a Ph.D. in philosophy; she had scored a critical success with a book of imaginative prose called The Acacias Are in Bloom. They began writing letters to each other, and Schulz’s letters developed postscripts, of greater and greater length and originality of fantasy, with a mythology of his childhood, his family, and the town where he lived.
In 1938, when he was well known in writers’ circles, Schulz wrote to the editor of a literary periodical, modestly disclaiming that he had been an influence on Gombrowicz, whose Memoir from Adolescence had, he pointed out, appeared in 1933, The Street of Crocodiles a year later. “What led to the association of our names and respective works were certain fortuitous similarities,” he wrote. When Ferdydurke appeared in 1938 Schulz wrote an enthusiastic review of it in Skamander, reprinted in Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz. He observes that “until now a man looked at himself…from the official side of things,” and that what happened inside him led “an orphaned life outside…reality,” “a doleful life of unaccepted and unrecorded meaning.” It was this inner childishness that he and Gombrowicz sought, in their separate ways, to mythologize. “Gombrowicz,” Schulz wrote,
showed that the mature and clear forms of our spiritual existence…live in us more as eternally strained intention than as reality. As reality we live permanently below this plateau in a completely honorless and inglorious domain that is so flimsy that we also hesitate to grant it even the semblance of existence.
(“Flimsy” is a key word here.) Ferdydurke, in which the middle-aged narrator hero has been transformed into a schoolboy, “breaks through the barrier of seriousness with unheard-of audacity.”
Schulz himself did not use such comparatively direct methods. His child’s-eye vision is utterly natural, perpetuating into middle age the humble, celestial rubbish that filled our consciousness in infancy, and helped to pass its time. There is no sense of looking back; “not a touch of whimsy in it,” as V.S. Pritchett, a devotee of Schulz, has commented. Since Schulz’s time childishness has been both stereotyped and made use of—we can all fondly play catcher in the rye—and Gombrowicz, who struggled heroically to free himself from the coils of theory and literary fashion, eventually succumbed to being typecast as one of the early “mad” writers.
It is impossible to typecast Schulz because, to quote Pritchett again, “his sense of life is a conspiracy of improvised myths.” Again, the word “improvised” is crucial. As his postscripts grew and flew off to his correspondent, Schulz’s imagination dissolved, reformed, liquidated itself. His wonderful language—a kind of sparkling liquid Polishness, as an admirer has said—is almost impossible to translate into a less vivacious and ebullient medium. Even Goncharov’s fantasies of the Russian village of Oblomovka, or Proust’s magical first sentences in A la recherche du temps perdu, seem set in monumental majesty—very unchildish—compared to the eddies and spiraling paragraphs of “Cinammon Shops” and “Crocodile Street,” two of the chapters, sections, or stories in Schulz’s book, which was followed a year later by a similar compilation called Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.
In these stories, the father figure, then hero, almost becomes a bird or a cockroach, as he acts out internal fascinations not normally on adult display. Adela, the housemaid, has only to wag her finger at him—the sign of tickling—for him “to rush through all the rooms in a wild panic, banging the doors after him, to fall at last flat on the bed in the farthest room and wriggle in convulsions of laughter.” Perched on the pelmet he becomes an enormous bird, a sad stuffed condor; once, as an enormous cockroach, he is almost served up in crayfish sauce at family dinner. He breeds strange birds in the attic, which fly away and return a few chapters later in outlandishly spiky forms, flying on their backs, or blind, or with misshapen beaks like padlocks, or “covered with curiously colored lumps.” Debora Vogel, the recipient of these amazing reveries (which do not in the least seem like fantasy) has herself a surname that in German means “bird.” Perhaps his postscripts were Schulz’s strange way of making love to her—strange and, at the same time, delicate, unimportunate, unpretentious.
In one of his letters Schulz refers to a door, the good solid old door in the kitchen of his childhood. “On one side lies life and its restricted freedom, on the other—art. That door leads from the captivity of Bruno, a timid teacher of arts and crafts, to the freedom of Joseph, the hero of The Street of Crocodiles.” In an introduction to the book the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski, who has helped to do for Schulz what Max Brod did for Kafka, comments that “behind the mythological faith of the writer there peers, again and again, the mocking grin of reality, revealing the ephemeral nature of the fictions that seek to contend with it.” That seems to me misleading. There is no Peter Pan element in Schulz’s imagination; rather does he show, with a tender excitement far removed from the calculated shamelessness of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, that we really and always do live in two worlds, and that the ability to live in and with both is a sign of sanity. Not many of us can turn the compulsive contingencies of the inner life into art, but when it has been done—and in so magical a form as this—we recognize its truth from our own inner experience.
No whimsy there, and nothing coy either. Schulz as a writer was a grown man, whose sexuality is immanent in the marvelous agitations of his world: in Adela’s silken legs, the motion of her finger as she threatens to tickle the father, and in an idiot girl’s frenzied rubbing of herself on an elder tree by the town rubbish dump. In his drawings reproduced in the book under review, particularly the ones from a collection called “I dolatry,” two-dimensional sex takes over, its fixed poses replacing the dynamic three-dimensional fantasy of “Crocodile Street” and “Cinnamon Shops.” In a sense we are now in the night life of Weimar Berlin—and indeed a Gestapo officer is said to have admired Schulz’s drawings—but even so there is a fluidity, a childishness, an innocence in these beautiful fetishistic little sketches that wholly removes them from the pornographic fixity in the pictorial world of—say—Balthus. There is rather a touch of Fragonard, more than a touch of Picasso, in the slender nudes with their big heads and bobbed hair, who stretch out an alluring toe toward their groveling male devotees, whose nakedness has the pathos of desire but also its dignity. There is a singualr naturalness and unselfconsciousness in Schulz’s graphic world, in which he often features himself, surrounded at times by the higgledy-piggledy intimacy of a big patriarchal Jewish household. For his engraving he used the laborious cliché-verre technique, drawing on gelatin-coated glass and developing the print like a photographic negative. It produced for him lines and shadings of great delicacy, effects entirely his own.
Schulz admired and translated The Trial, but his world does not in the least resemble Kafka’s. There is no quest, no terrible unknown compulsions, no anguish before the law. Schulz’s family, with whom he was in his own peculiar way on good terms, had no Yiddish or Hebrew but spoke German and Polish. In Polish he was as at home as Celan, another exile and victim, was to be in German, or as Italo Svevo, otherwise Ettore Schmitz, was in Italian. And like Mandelstam, Schulz acknowledged no particular Jewish identity; he was just different from everybody. Gombrowicz, who came from a Polish gentry family in Samogitia, the heart of old Lithuania, was much more aware of his background than Schulz was, and always felt divided between his own “schoolboy” personality and his semiaristocratic provenance. In an open letter to Schulz commissioned by the editor of Studio, beginning “My Good Bruno,” Gombrowicz cannot help patronizing his friend, even while praising him, and rudely dwelling on the fact that he has not actually read The Street of Crocodiles, even though he is sure he admires it. (In his diary he comments more candidly that Schulz’s stories “bored him stiff.”* ) Schulz’s letter for Studio in reply is a model of rational selfexplanation, ignoring the innuendo of class and race that Gombrowicz—perhaps deliberately, perhaps not—had let emerge in his own letter, and that seems to reflect the jealousy of the conscious and determined intellectual for the natural and involuntary fantasist who had crawled out as if from the woodwork.
“Dance with an ordinary woman” was one of Gombrowicz’s more bracing prescriptions. Schulz indeed had done so, and become engaged to her: a Catholic girl called Józefina Szelinska for whom he felt a naive warmth and affection, which was evidently returned. But somehow it all petered out, and his many letters to his one-time fiancée have disappeared, whereas Kafka’s to his Milena have survived. Even in the matter of marriage, though, the pair of writers were probably very different. Schulz was timid, poor, and constitutionally reluctant to leave the place he worked and dreamed in, the burrow of Drohobycz, no matter how much he might have seemed to want to.
In his letters to Romana Halpern, a handsome, clever, and sympathetic woman who worked as a journalist and was to be killed by the Germans in Warsaw just before its liberation, he confided his plans for change, wider recognition, a job in Warsaw. She helped him; in 1938 he even spent three weeks in Paris. But the war found him still back home, and in 1942, after a temporary respite during which Galicia became part of the USSR, the Germans reoccupied the area and started to carry out their Final Solution. Cornered on the street one day during a “drive” Schulz was shot in the head by a Gestapo man named Günther, who no doubt felt—if he felt anything—that he was casually stamping on a cockroach. Friends had already prepared non-Jewish papers for Schulz, and had plans to help him disappear into the Polish countryside, but he had been characteristically reluctant to take the step.
Illustrating his own books Schulz felt himself to be akin to a medieval priest or craftsman. And like a good child he dreamed and scribbled and drew, secretly and spontaneously. From his letters to Romana Halpern it is clear that his sudden literary fame depressed and disturbed him. He consulted her anxiously about his plans for marriage, which she hinted might be bad for his writing and make him “middle-class.” He refutes this, defending his fiancée warmly; but Romana, herself a divorcée, probably had a clearer idea than Schulz himself did of what might go wrong. By the late Thirties he is very low, unable to write, planning masterpieces commensurate with his new reputation; but obscurely longing, one senses, to return to that womblike existence in which his real books had gestated, and in which he had drawn his haunting little pictures of bearded rabbis at their sabbath meal, or slim-legged blondes gazing impassively at their prostrate suitors.
Gombrowicz understood Schulz’s plight. “He approached art like a lake, with the intention of drowning in it.” His masochism made it impossible for him to impose himself on a project, or to plan a work ahead. Cinnamon Shops and its successor, Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, remained his only achievements, although he meditated on blending them in some way into a long work to be called Messiah, perhaps inspired by his deep admiration for Thomas Mann’s encyclopedic novel Joseph and His Brothers. Nothing of this survives, if it ever existed. Yet on the strength of his two little books Schulz is undoubtedly one of the masters of our century’s imaginative fiction. He himself probably wrote the anonymous blurb for Sanatorium, in which he spoke of fiction’s “dream of a renewal of life through the power of delight.” That is an accurate description of the way his books work on us.