:: Buzzwords

3:AM Cult Hero: Bruno Schulz

By Darran Anderson.

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“The books we read in childhood don’t exist anymore; they sailed off with the wind, leaving bare skeletons behind…”

Every decision, action, accident causes the universe to split into divergent paths, according to the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. Take Franz Kafka as an example. There exists a parallel universe where Max Brod burns Kafka’s papers as instructed (Kafka died believing he was, and would be, virtually unknown as a writer). There is another world where Brod hesitates too long in Prague and is intercepted, briefcase in hand, at the border by the SS. There’s even the possibility of a universe where Kafka avoids contracting the TB that killed him and survives long enough to be shot dead in the Łódź ghetto, starved to death in Terezín, gassed in the deathchambers of Auschwitz alongside his sisters. In each of these scenarios, his work evaporates and the world knows almost nothing of the writer. The world doesnt even know what it has lost. There’d be no The Trial, no Hunger Artist, Metamorphosis, no In the Penal Colony or The Castle. Without Kafka’s influence, there’d be no Paul Auster, Borges or Lanark, no Danilo Kiš or Andrey Kurkov, no Cronenberg or Lynch (at least as we know them). And yet as strange as this seems, something akin to this has already happened, in this universe, not to Kafka, who remains one of the great godheads of modern literature but to another Eastern European Ashkenazi-Jewish writer by the name of Bruno Schulz.

To be as gifted, as visionary a writer and artist as Schulz was and to be forgotten is both terrifying and disgraceful. As his self-portraits suggest, Schulz was a timid, introverted soul, whose world ended at the city limits of his hometown – the Eastern Galician backwater Drohobych. His short story collections Cinnamon Shops (also known as The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass are phantasms in the early mystical-modernist sense; they elude reason (“poetry occurs when reason is short-circuited”) and traditional narrative existing on their own logical terms, in their own world even. His is prose intensified until it becomes poetry, full of harrowing personal events (images of enveloping beds, chamberpots, poverty and illness) turned epic and otherworldly. His writing is florid, expansive, surreal but never transcendent. It may take flight but it never escapes. It’s rooted in the streets of Drohobych. He studies existence like insects under magnifying glass, the heightened scale revealing the inherent wonder and terror in the simplest things. There’s always the sense that Schulz is seeing the world in such high definition that it appears teeming and squirming, even the static is in motion, the inanimate engaged in sinister conspiracies.

Whilst this acute sense of the too-muchness of everything may have paralysed him in life, it’s what sets his writing free. In his letters, Schulz castigated himself for the creating his work from the “miserable state of disintegration and chaos within him” yet it’s precisely this that gives his work it’s power and it’s pathos. From the ruin of man, art can be salvaged. Even in his most extravagant flights of fancy, there is a groundedness. He finds magic in the dirt and grit of the domestic, in the melancholy recollection of childhood, in the mythic everyday. It’s just that the rules that govern reality dissipate in Schulz’s fictional world, where even time itself shakes off it’s restraints (“time, crazy and wild, breaks loose from the daily round of events, and like a fugitive vagrant, flies with a scream, cross-country across the fields”) or breaks down, allowing people to exist in two places at once, or can be wound back allowing the dead to return to life (Schulz was haunted by the long illness and death of his beloved father and tries to reverse in his writing what he could not in life). Kafka the martyr turned himself (in the guise of Gregor Samsa) into a cockroach, who was rejected by his family and ultimately dispatched by them under a shower of apples. Schulz reversed the scenario, turning his father into a crab who the family boil but then cannot bring themselves to eat (he crawls off to wander the earth). In another scene, his father works himself into such a frenzy he transforms, “before we could understand what had happened, he vibrated vehemently, began to buzz, and hovered before our eyes, a monstrous, droning, hairy, steel-blue fly, thrashing in its crazy flight against all the walls of the shop.”

In Schulz’s stories, grown men live under floorboards with insects. Weeds turn feral. Mannequins reinvent the world. Jesters stone mutated birds to death. Specks of dust contain embryos. Forgotten rooms stir unseen into life. Cripples crawl on all fours by moonlight. Old men are carried off into the sky by the wind. Cities turn into labryinths at nightfall. All terrible and fantastic in the original sense of both words. So too is his art. Schulz one of the few creative minds whose art and writing were of comparable genius; the dark eroticism of the drawings (reminiscent in style of Käthe Kollwitz) collected in The Book of Idolatry, mixing pleasure, pain and death, are signs of a major lost talent.

What seems initially like a weakness, his small-town hermitage, in fact, is Schulz’s great strength. For the most local writing is often the most universal (a great many writers are lost posing as cosmopolitans). In focusing and magnifying the claustrophobic minutiae of small-town life, Schulz’s Drohobych joins Joyce’s Dublin, Bulgakov’s Moscow, Kafka’s Prague on the literary map, places we can all recognise without even visiting. Sadly Schulz’s loyalty to his hometown would also seal his fate. Looking back, we interpret the ominous undercurrents in his work as somehow prophetic, that sense that the old certainties were shattered and something terrible is coming (whether detected in the blazing trajectory of an incoming comet or tempest, in the relics of the disintegrated Hapsburg Empire or his feeling that “the gates are closing” with the Nazi assumption of power), a prophecy that for Schulz and millions of others, was all too accurate.

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A master of metafiction and magic realism before the terms were coined, Schulz was to find that time, fate and death are less malleable in life than in his writing. Reluctant to flee, Schulz was a bystander, then reluctant participant as Drohobych was invaded first by the Red Army and then the Wehrmacht. In the first instance, he was forced to paint a mural of Stalin for the townhall which, with Schulzian irony, was destroyed by an infestation of crows. Following the Nazi blitzkrieg and their occupation, Schulz, as a Jew, was forced to move into the town’s ghetto. There his artistic skills came to the attention of the SS-Hauptscharführer Felix Landau, the Gestapo officer in charge of the area, a man of refined tastes whose artistic temperament extended to murdering passing Jews from his balcony using a hunting rifle and keeping a diary of his activities, a bible of nihilism in stark contrast to Schulz’s writing. He forced Schulz, who was according to the rations allowed to Jews starving to death, to undertake a series of vanity portraits and a set of murals for his young son’s nursery depicting scenes from Grimm Brothers fairy tales (which the artist subtly subverted by placing himself and members of the Jewish community secretly in the cast). In return, Schulz was spared deportation to the extermination camps. Yet this patronage would eventually cost Schulz his life. Landau had randomly killed a Jewish dentist who was in the service of an SS rival Karl Günther. In retaliation, Günther sought out Schulz during an SS killing spree through the ghetto (a day that cost 300 lives and became known as Black Thursday). He met him on the corner of Czacki and Mickiewicz Streets. Schulz was carrying a loaf of bread and a forged Aryan passport which he had intended to use to escape that very night. Günther shot him twice through the head, left his corpse in the street (a friend would sneak out at night and bury him in an unmarked grave) and relayed a simple message to his rival, “You killed my Jew, I killed yours.”

After his death, Schulz’s “masterpiece” The Messiah, on which he worked for over seven years and which he had left with gentile friends, was lost (rumours it was secreted away to a KGB archive so far seem unfounded). It is known that other collections of his writing were incinerated with the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto and a novella The Homecoming, which had been sent to Thomas Mann, was lost in the post. One remarkable discovery was made, when the paint on the pantry wall of a retired communist party official flaked away to reveal the remnants of Schulz’s fairytale murals (a diplomatic incident occured when the murals were dissembled and exported to Israel for the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum there). Nevertheless his major works remain undiscovered and we can only guess, encouraged by the strengths of his short stories, at the extent of what the literary world has lost.

There is perhaps another universe, a kinder one than this, where Schulz is recognised as the talent he was. There is even another, kinder still (or at least less barbarous) where he did not meet his death the way he did, where The Messiah was released, where he and his work escaped oblivion. In truth, we’ll never know.

More: The Art of Bruno Schulz / The Lost (Searching for Bruno Schulz) / Street of Crocodiles by the Brothers Quay / Alina Skiba – Excerpt from A Street Trade in the Tickets for Time / The Hourglass Sanatorium /
David Grossman on Bruno Schulz / Behind Fairy Tale Drawings, Walls Talk of Unspeakable Cruelty / Painting Under Coercion / A Living Schulz / Who Owns Bruno Schulz? / The Strange Afterlife of Bruno Schulz.

First posted: Saturday, October 2nd, 2010.

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  1. [...] Bruno Schulz’s untimely death at the hands of a Nazi stands as one of the great losses to modern literature. During his lifetime, his work found little critical regard, but word of his remarkable talents gradually won him an international readership. This volume brings together his complete fiction, including three short stories and his final surviving work, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Illustrated with Schulz’s original drawings, this edition beautifully showcases the distinctive surrealist vision of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted and influential writers. Read more. [...]