Despite his tiny oeuvre and tragically short life, the legendary Polish writer’s legacy to Western literature continues to grow
The Street of Crocodiles—Celina Wieniewska’s translation of Bruno Schulz’s stories (originally published in Polish under the title Cinnamon Shops)—is the tree from which Jonathan Safran Foer carves his latest work, Tree of Codes. Carves, with a knife—a real rather than metaphorical one—excising most of Schulz’s words to form new phrases and sentences with those remaining. Foer writes that he has long wished ‘to create a die-cut book by erasure, a book whose meaning was exhumed from another book’ and that he chose The Street of Crocodiles, being the richest text that he knows,‘feeling that [he] was…transcribing a dream that The Street of Crocodiles might have had’. Tree of Codes, he acknowledges, ‘is a small response to that great book’ and part of ‘The Great Book’ from which all Schulz’s stories come. Foer takes his place in a line of western writers who have appropriated not just Schulz’s modest oeuvre but also his life story, rendering the figure of Schulz himself as a symbol of loss and absence.
Bruno Schulz’s literary career began in 1934 and was abruptly cut short by the Second World War.As early as the 1920s he had received some recognition as a graphic artist but his discovery, by the psychological-realist prose writer, Zofia Nałkowska, led to the publication of his short story collection, Cinnamon Shops. This established him as one of the leading proponents of the Polish avantgarde, alongside such writers as Witold Gombrowicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (‘Witkacy’). Following the war, all experimental writing was suppressed by the Communists, who enforced a rigid cultural agenda of Socialist Realism, and it was not until the Thaw in 1956 that Schulz’s works were published again. Schulz’s biographer, the poet Jerzy Ficowski, dedicated much of his life to tracing his lost letters and drawings; he never gave up searching for Schulz’s legendary lost novel, The Messiah, which is said to have been given to non-Jewish friends for safekeeping (or perhaps sent to Thomas Mann, whose Joseph and his Brothers he greatly admired).
When Schulz’s work began to appear in English it was accompanied by the dramatic story of his death. As a Jew with valuable artistic talents, Schulz had enjoyed the protection of a Nazi officer named Felix Landau who employed him to paint murals for his children. During an anti-Jewish action known as ‘Black Thursday’ in Schulz’s home town of Drohobycz on November 19, 1942, Landau allegedly shot a Jewish dentist who was protected by another Nazi officer named Karl Günther. The story, told by Izydor Friedman to Ficowski, is that Günther shot Schulz in revenge, with the line ‘you shot my Jew; I shot your Jew’. These words, uttered over the body of one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, are so ghoulishly mesmerising that they threaten to overshadow Schulz’s own luminous words. This death-scene has acquired mythical status. For many Jewish writers, it has come to represent the rupture with a golden age of Jewish writing to which they lay claim by virtue of their own second-generation experience of displacement and unresolved trauma. David Grossman (See Under: Love), Cynthia Ozick (The Messiah of Stockholm), and Philip Roth (The Prague Orgy) have all built legends around Schulz, invoking his biographical figure as a trope in their own stories. Each of these works incorporates a fictionalised character or lost literary father based on the figure of Schulz, who is easily identified by references to his stories, the lost manuscript of his novel, The Messiah, and the dramatic story of his death.
Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm recounts the obsession of Lars Andemening, an unappreciated literary reviewer for The Stockholm Morgentorn, with the stories and drawings of Bruno Schulz, whom he believes to be his actual father. He embarks on a quest to find the lost manuscript of The Messiah and is aided and thwarted in his goal by an elderly book dealer, Heidi, and her usually absent husband, Dr. Eklund. He obtains a manuscript, authenticated by Dr. Eklund as Schulz’s, that describes a desolate Drohobycz in which the people have been replaced by stone idols. To this city, the Messiah arrives—a feathery creature with wings resembling pages from a book—and gives birth to a small bird that lands on the idols, causing them to burn and leave Drohobycz empty. On reading this manuscript, Lars becomes suspicious; he accuses Dr. Eklund of forgery and rashly sets it on fire in its brass jar. Eklund is, indeed, an acknowledged forger, but it remains unclear whether he has forged this particular manuscript or merely falsified other documents to smuggle the manuscript out of Poland.
The symbolism of Ozick’s proposed reconstruction reflects a postwar vision of a Jewish land without Jews. Its former population, having escaped to the familiar destinations of Jewish emigrés, are replaced by stones. Even the stones are burned up, like the markers of Jewish graves bulldozed after the war to make way for progress.The remarkable fiction of Drohobycz has been ‘invaded by the characters of an unknown alphabet’. With the former Jews of Drohobycz succeeded only by their remnants, the text experiences its own Holocaust inside the brass amphora. The problem of the work, and one it shares with Grossman’s and Roth’s, is the seeming incommensurability that the postwar generation feels with regard to the world of their parents and grandparents. With the loss of family ties to Russia and Eastern Europe, those born in the West also lost the linguistic ties necessary to maintain continuity with that culture. The age of Schulz is, for these later writers, what the Age of Genius was for Schulz, as he described it in a 1936 letter to the critic Andrzej Plesniewicz—a time of ‘primordial childhood’ or a ‘messianic time’, which ‘is promised and sworn to us by all mythologies’.
Philip Roth’s epilogue to the Zuckerman trilogy, The Prague Orgy, is cast as a fragment from Nathan Zuckerman’s notebooks, in which he meets a Czech writer, Zdenek Sisovsky, and his companion, an actress, Eva Kalinova, (famous in Prague for her Chekhovian roles). Sisovsky describes his father as a Jew who, unlike Schulz, wrote stories about Jews in Yiddish. Despite having a Czech wife and children (who do not resemble him), the character clearly resembles the iconic Schulz: he is a shy high-school teacher, protected during the war by a Nazi until he dies in a revenge killing by a rival Gestapo officer with the unmistakable line: ‘He shot my Jew; so I shot his.’ It later transpires, however, that Sisovsky’s father was hit by a bus, and the story about the revenge killing ‘happened to another writer, who didn’t even write in Yiddish. Who didn’t have a wife or have a child.’ It seems that Roth is indulging in the creation of a literary father from Schulz’s biography while acknowledging that this is a fantasy. David Grossman’s ‘Bruno’ section of See Under: Love begins with an author from Drohobycz named Bruno, who is taken under the wing of the Polish writer and artist Zofia Nałkowska (known for his grotesque drawings in which he often portrays himself in submissive positions under the heel of a servant girl named Adela). Grossman’s Bruno carries a manuscript called The Messiah and is described jumping off a dock in the port of Danzig where he has escaped to see the Edward Munch exhibition.These details come from Schulz’s biography (except for the escape to Danzig) and several lines quoted later in the chapter come from Schulz’s texts and are attributed to those works by title: Bruno’s works are the works of Bruno Schulz, though Grossman’s Bruno is not actually Bruno Schulz—a fact acknowledged by the author-narrator within the work, who confirms that‘[i]t’s not their Bruno I’m writing about’ and then recounts his first encounter with The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. It goes without saying that he retells the ‘I killed your Jew’ story of Landau and Gunther, although Grossman reverses the sequence of events.Then he spins a tale of his Bruno being consumed by the ocean, stirring elements of reality (the words ‘I killed your Jew’) into fantasy—the moment of death expanded over about a hundred pages. Still haunted by these words years later, Grossman went on, in 2009, to publish an interview in The New Yorker with Ze’ev Fleischer, a survivor of the Nazi ‘Black Thursday’ action in which Schulz was killed. Fleischer’s account of the sequence of events leading up to Schulz’s death affirms the rivalry between Landau and Günther, but raises questions about whether Schulz was actually shot by Günther or by common soldiers, and if, indeed, that immortal line was ever uttered at all.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss does not have an explicit Schulz figure or a manuscript called The Messiah but is shot through with fragments of Schulz: a lost manuscript that emerges from a correspondence between the author and a woman who inspired him; several references to The Street of Crocodiles; a mysterious writer character named Bruno who functions as the conscience of one of her protagonists; Leo Gursky, an aging retired Jewish locksmith who once aspired to be a writer but here functions as a lost father in search of his son. Gursky’s structural counter-weight—perhaps a literary granddaughter—is a young woman named Alma Singer in search of the ‘Alma’ she was named after, who inspired a character named Alma in a novel entitled The History of Love. In keeping with the ancient mythology mapped out in Schulz’s own writing, the evanescent Yiddish manuscript is drowned in a flood, although in the supremely interconnected world of Krauss’s novel nothing is ever quite lost: the lost father knows where his son is, and the son eventually knows where the father is, and the author of the lost manuscript knows who has it, and even when the original is lost it appears in translation and a translation of a translation. There is some hope, in the fragmented world, of restoring lost connections.
Salman Rushdie offers a fascinating and unmistakable homage to Bruno Schulz, first identified by Canadian scholar and novelist Norman Ravvin, in the last section of The Moor’s Last Sigh. The hero and narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, travels from Cochin, India, to Benengeli (a mountain village in Andalusia) to see Vasco Miranda, a long lost admirer of his mother’s. The village takes on a magical quality akin to Schulz’s Drohobycz, particularly a district called the Street of Parasites which resembles the very ‘parasitical quarter’ Schulz names the ‘Street of Crocodiles’:
…I felt as if I were in some sort of interregnum, in some timeless zone under the sign of an hourglass in which the sand stood motionless, or a clepsydra whose quicksilver had ceased to flow. [...] I wandered down sausage-festooned streets of bakeries and cinnamon shops, smelling, instead, the sweet scents of meat and pastries and fresh-baked bread, and surrendered myself to the cryptic laws of the town.
The hourglass is a clear reference to Schulz’s second collection of stories—The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass—and is translated into Polish as klepsydra (either a sandglass or a mercury or water clock—‘clepsydra’ in English). ‘Under the sign of the hourglass’ is a common idiomatic form in Polish for referring to a business establishment, usually a cafe or restaurant, denoted by a distinctive sign or architectural ornament above the door. What Rushdie borrows from Schulz, however, is not merely an architectural idiom or biographical detail, but a metaphysical essence of Schulz’s imagined world: a sense of suspended time and a feeling of rootedness in displacement itself, which he transposes onto his own historical and cultural context.
In contrast with Western writers at pains to use Schulz as a cultural conduit to their own European past, are Polish and East European writers who come from the same cultural tradition as him. For these writers, Schulz is not a distant figure representing absence and loss but an exciting figure of the interwar avant-garde that paved the way for the most adventurous work of the postwar era in Poland. Key to this movement is Schulz’s idea that there was a mythological structure underlying all language and representation, which he articulated in his brilliant essay ‘The Mythicisation of Reality’:
Poetry happens when short-circuits of sense occur between words, a sudden regeneration of the primeval myths. . . . Not one scrap of an idea of ours does not originate in myth, isn’t transformed, mutilated, denatured mythology.The most fundamental function of the spirit is inventing fables, creating tales. . . . [T]he building materials [that the search for human knowledge] uses were used once before; they come from forgotten, fragmented tales or ‘histories’. Poetry recognises these lost meanings, restores words to their places, connects them by the old semantics.
This idea—that even the trivial and mundane had an underlying mythic structure—shaped the imaginations and work of countless Eastern European writers and artists, and the proliferation of Schulzean figures and references across this work testifies to this legacy. The Polish dramatist and visual artist, Tadeusz Kantor, uses characters and images from Schulz and from the work of Witold Gombrowicz’s interwar avant-garde fiction, in his great work for the stage, The Dead Class. Kantor’s work in the theatre began with underground productions of the pre-war dramas of Witkiewicz, who was also a great advocate of Schulz’s work. Kantor adapts characters like Adela the servant-girl, a sexually dominant woman in Schulz’s mythology: in Schulz, she sweeps her broom through the air to clear the birds from the father’s attic but in Kantor’s mythic world she becomes a force for destruction.There is a distinct pall of death hanging over this work,but it comes from Kantor’s own experience of the war rather than his references to the world of Bruno Schulz.
The contemporary Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk, whose own novel Primeval and Other Times is required reading for Polish high school students, recently cited Schulz as one of her greatest influences. Unlike other writers she does not appropriate the paraphernalia of Schulz’s world. But she comes closer to its essence through this infusion of the everyday with the mythic. As a trained Jungian psychologist, her work deals with the intersection of the archetypal with daily life and her recent novel, Drive Your Plough Through the Bones of the Dead (not yet translated into English) reveals a keen interest in astrology. A pre-scientific art of psychological or social types (like astrology) should, she suggests, be seen as a rich source of symbolism and wisdom, a power Schulz acknowledges in the story ‘Tailors Dummies’ in which the sight of two fish top-to-tail on a plate transforms ordinary time into mythic time:
We assembled again around the table, the shop assistants rubbed their hands, red from the cold, and the prose of their conversation suddenly revealed a full grown day, a gray and empty Tuesday, a day without tradition and without a face. But it was only when a dish appeared on the table containing two large fish in jelly lying side by side, head-to-tail, like a sign of the zodiac, that we recognised in them the coat of arms of that day, the calendar emblem of the nameless Tuesday.
An obsession with Schulz seems to satisfy a particularly American search for the self, a trope not lost on the Eastern European writers of today. Anya Ulinich, the young Russian-American translingual author of the satirical novel, Petropolis (2007) about Russian immigration in the United States, has a story called ‘The Nurse and the Novelist’. This includes a conversation between a young male novelist and a woman who has sacrificed her own education to work as a nurse to support her graduate-student husband. The novelist, now successful and living with his family in a condominium near the nurse’s apartment, began his career as a depressed Manhattan writer wrestling with the demons of his identity and searching for his East European roots in a suburb of Minsk that had once been a shtetl destroyed during the war. They meet in a grocery store and arrange to have coffee, where the nurse tells the novelist: ‘In your novels, past calamities are nothing but milestones of self-discovery. The central question is: “Why am I collecting toenails in a jar?” It only takes a village of dead Jews to figure it out.’ Ulinich denies, despite the resemblances, that this is a satire on Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated, but it is instructive that it was widely read as such, because it seems to capture what Foer’s detractors find so infuriating—the assumption of the identity, and, by implication, the suffering of others for narcissistic ends. Beyond Schulz and his oeuvre, there is a broader tension around the appropriation of East European identity that has manifested itself in contemporary ‘translingual’ writers like Gary Shteyngart, Andreï Makine, and Wladimir Kaminer—Russian-born writers with Western literary careers, writing in Western languages. Adrian Wanner, in an excellent essay on this subject published in The Slavic Review in 2008, recounts the illustrative tale of two reviews of Makine’s Le Testament Français by the Russian writer Tatiana Tolstaia, praising the novel for its ‘Russianness’ in The New York Review of Books and vilifying it in her review for Znamia for a Russian audience. Everything is Illuminated, in which an American student sharing the name of the author travels to Ukraine in search of the rescuer of his grandfather, likewise wasn’t received with as much enthusiasm in Ukraine as it was in the United States. Ukrainian scholar Ivan Katchanovski typified this response in his review in The Prague Post in 2004, criticising the novel for its negative stereotypes of Ukrainians and for omitting important details about the role of Ukrainian partisans who resisted the Nazis and defended Jews during the war in the towns named in the novel.
Perhaps these works that revive Schulz in fiction are only a sign that what we want is more Schulz. Krauss, at least, offers the hope that something lost is only lost to those who don’t know where it is or haven’t looked hard enough to find it. Perhaps the reason that Schulz appeals to writers struggling with a very personal sense of loss is that although he appears, from the postwar perspective, to have come from an Age of Genius, he, too, is writing about a lost world. The Drohobycz of Franz Joseph and the Emperor Maximilian, figures in Schulz’s postage stamp album, was actually a childhood legend (Franz Joseph having passed through the region in 1880, twelve years before Schulz’s birth): oil refineries and businesses were pushing aside the culture of that former era,and transitional urban spaces like the ‘Street of Crocodiles’ were displacing the ‘Cinnamon Shops’ of old. If modern readers don’t always recognise the absences in Schulz’s world, it is because he paints such a vivid picture with the remnants of the lost world that we can hardly recognise it as already lost. And if we strip away that richness, and use him as a proxy for a sense of loss we cannot remedy, we wilfully blind ourselves to what does, miraculously, survive.
David A. Goldfarb is Curator of Literature and Humanities at the Polish Cultural Institute in New York and is currently working on a book about the work of Bruno Schulz.