Illustration by Tim Robinson.
The life of the Polish Jewish author Bruno Schulz was, by pedestrian measures, a small one. It ended prematurely in 1942, when he was murdered in the street at the age of 50 by a Gestapo officer, and it was almost entirely confined to his provincial hometown of Drohobycz. Schulz drew compulsively, and in his brooding sketches crammed big-headed figures into cramped frames and rooms with low, clutching ceilings. Schulz himself was short and hunched. In photographs, he glowers. “He was small, strange, chimerical, focused, intense, almost feverish,” a friend, the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz, recalled in a diary entry. His fiction, too, was small and strange. Schulz’s surviving output consists of just two collections of short fiction, some letters, a few essays, and a handful of stray stories. His longest work spans about 150 pages.
But these slim volumes have earned Schulz a soaring stature. In death, he has been enlarged beyond the bounds of his claustrophobic biography. He was beloved by John Updike, V.S. Pritchett, I.B. Singer, and Czesław Miłosz. He has been the subject of novelistic homages by Cynthia Ozick (The Messiah of Stockholm), Philip Roth (The Prague Orgy), and David Grossman (See Under: Love).
Long before his acolytes brought him back to life, however, Schulz was busy resurrecting himself. His two loosely autobiographical collections, Cinnamon Shops (1934) and The Sanatorium Under the Hourglass (1937)—newly and capably translated by Madeline G. Levine and published by Northwestern University Press in a single volume, Collected Stories—are full of reincarnations. Both books twitch against the strictures of possibility. The same events do and do not take place. Across the collection, the narrator’s father expires like a heap of dust, then returns as a bird, a fly, a cockroach, and a scorpion. In another, the narrator awaits the onset of an enigmatic “age of genius.” “So, did the age of genius happen, or not?” he finally asks. The answer: “Yes and no.”
It is fitting that Schulz survives in the world of books, which license the kind of paradoxes that riddle his writing. It’s only in fiction, after all, that the pressures and limits of the material world can be transcended—that a life as short as Schulz’s can also last forever.
Born in 1892 to assimilated Jews who owned a prosperous dry-goods shop, Schulz lived both longer and better in his books: His banal biography does not live up to the shimmering embellishments of his writing. His stories are set in the uncertain territory of dreams, but in real life he rarely made it out of Drohobycz, an industrial backwater that he hated and yet never managed to escape. In 1910 he went to Lwów to study architecture, but in 1911 his poor health forced him to return home. A few years later, he attempted another sojourn, venturing to Vienna to attend lectures and visit galleries for a couple of months. But by his mid-30s, he was settled as an art teacher at a Drohobycz gymnasium. Cinnamon Shopswas conceived in a series of fanciful letters to the poet Debora Vogel—letters that no doubt doubled as conduits to the foreign countries that Schulz would never have the chance to see in person.
It is standard to compare Schulz to his near contemporary Kafka. And the parallels between the two are striking and abundant. Like Kafka, Schulz wrote oneiric, misfit stories that defied literary precedent. Like Kafka, Schulz was sickly. And like Kafka, Schulz was engaged but never ultimately married: His fiancée, fed up with his failure to take practical measures to leave the town he loathed, broke off all communication with him in 1937.
Both Mitteleuropa writers resented the day jobs that consumed the better part of their creative energies, and both alleviated their crippling loneliness by cultivating vibrant epistolary relationships. In 1932, Schulz wrote to a friend, “I may be wrong, but I feel we must have been on close neighborly terms somewhere, as if we had once knocked against the same wall from opposite sides.” All of his letters convey a similar sense of thwarted intimacy. For his part, Schulz practically acknowledged his affinity with Kafka: He reviewed The Trial favorably, and he and his erstwhile fiancée produced the first Polish translation of the novel, which ultimately appeared (unjustly) under his name alone.
But there are also important differences between the two. Unlike Kafka, who died before his most important writings gained much recognition, Schulz did achieve modest acclaim during his lifetime. He was friends and rivals with Gombrowicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, two giants of Polish letters, and he was awarded the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature in 1938. Perhaps the most important difference between Schulz and his Czech counterpart is stylistic: While Kafka’s mode is ascetic, Schulz’s is lushly ecstatic. He trades not in allegory, sheared and schematic, but in delighted density. “Dazed by the light, we browsed the great book of vacation, whose every page was on fire from the radiance and which contained in its depths the languorous sweet flesh of golden pears” is how he describes the onset of summer in Cinnamon Shops.
In the afterword that he wrote for The Trial, Schulz claims that “Jozef K’s mistake lies in clinging to his human reason instead of surrendering unconditionally.” Schulz did not make the same mistake. In his drawings, collected in a volume called The Booke of Idolatry, there are recurring images of men groveling at the feet of regal, naked women. When Schulz submitted in his own life, it was not to the dominatrices who populate his sketches but to the demands of his craft. His relationship with literature was violently worshipful. As Gombrowicz observed, “Bruno was not so much a disbeliever in God as he was uninterested in Him…. So only art remained.” Schulz, he continued, “approached art like a lake, with the intention of drowning in it.”
And drown he did—and so did the characters he subjected to the kind of unsettling, absurdist transformations that Kafka also favored. In one story in The Sanatorium Under the Hourglass, the narrator remembers his father becoming so angry that he “wafted towards us as a monstrous, buzzing, hairy, steel-blue fly”—but “despite all appearances what little significance such episodes have stems from the fact that in the evening of that very day my father was sitting over his papers as he usually did in the evening.” In “The Comet,” one of the four orphaned tales that appear at the end of Collected Stories, the narrator’s father’s launches an amateur scientific experiment that transforms a beloved uncle into an electric bell. His family is “delighted” by his new “career.”
The uncle-turned-doorbell can live on because nothing, in Schulz’s stories, is strictly inanimate. The wallpaper in one nightmarish room is “full of whispers, hisses, and lisps.” The balconies in a deserted square “confessed their emptiness to the sky.” In Cinnamon Shops, the narrator’s father proclaims, “There is no dead matter; lifelessness is only an external appearance behind which unknown forms of life are hiding.” There is no death in such a world, only alteration. “Every organization of matter is impermanent and unfixed, easily reversed and dissolved,” the father lectures. For this reason, “There is no evil in the reduction of life to new and different forms. Murder is not a sin. Often, it is a necessary act of violence against unyielding, ossified forms of being that are no longer satisfying.”
recomended by: Leon Rozenbaum
Schulz’s writing delivers just such a jolt to the “ossified forms” of recognizable genre. He writes not traditional, plotted stories but what he once called “spiritual genealogy.” The results have the gauzy quality of childhood memory, with its jumbled chronologies. Scenes blur, and time bulges, like distortions bloating panes of glass. In “The Night of the Great Season,” a year sprouts a 13th month “like a sixth little finger on a hand.” Space, too, is structured not by physics but by longings and anxieties. In the titular “Cinnamon Shops,” a child tasked with running home from the theater to retrieve his father’s wallet loses his way when “duplicate streets, doppelgänger streets, lying and deceptive streets, so to speak, reveal themselves in the depths of the city.”
But there are also emotional fixtures in Schulz’s slippery fiction—landmarks that come in the form of the seasons. In the winter, “days hardened from cold and boredom like last year’s loaves of bread.” In the summer, a hill heaps up “as if the garden had turned onto its other side in its sleep,” drawing the earth up over it like a sheet. Schulz’s best pastoral scenes rival Thomas Hardy’s. Of one abandoned garden, he writes, “There were the ordinary blades of meadow grasses with feathery tassels of grain; there were delicate filigrees of wild parsley and carrots; the wrinkled, coarse little leaves of ground ivy and of blind nettles, which smelled like mint; fibrous, glistening ribwort plantain, spotted with rust, shooting out tufts of thick red buckwheat.”
And then there’s the comfort of the relatively stable cast of characters: antiseptically practical Mother, the nagging yet seductive servant girl Adela, and Father, superficially a shopkeeper but more fundamentally a visionary or philosopher or prophet. In one story in Cinnamon Shops, he falls ill. Despite pleading to God for his life, he begins to disintegrate, “shrinking from one day to the next, like a nut shriveling inside its shell.” Then he dies—only to return in the very next chapter with an obsessive interest in the exotic birds he raises in the attic. His menagerie is dismantled when Adela drives out the “peacocks, pheasants, capercaillies, and condors” that he has assembled, leaving Father to flap his arms in a desperate attempt to fly.
So Schulz must have felt in Drohobycz as his fantasies whirled out into the world, leaving him defenseless in the wake of the German occupation. For a time, he survived. The Nazis deemed him a “necessary Jew” because his artistic talents enabled him to paint competent propaganda on the walls of an art-loving (or at least image-loving) Gestapo officer’s residence. Meanwhile, in a burst of fateful foresight, Schulz distributed his writings among his non-Jewish friends for safekeeping. Lost, probably forever, is the incomplete manuscript of a novel, The Messiah.
As if mourning in advance, Schulz wrote to an old classmate in 1934, “You ask ‘What the hell is depressing you?’ I don’t know how to answer that. The sadness of life, fear of the future, some dark conviction that everything is headed for a tragic end.” And it was. In November 1942, Schulz was shot dead on his way home with a loaf of bread.
What would The Messiah have been like if it had ever arrived? In a sense, this is the question that Schulz is always asking. Of course, he never had the opportunity to craft a complete answer. But his stories suggest that it is only in books that the Messiah even partially arrives, for it is only in fiction that we can trace even the faintest outlines of alternative worlds. In “The Book,” the first and best story in The Sanatorium Under the Hourglass, Schulz writes of a book that exceeds all others—a book that is itself a sort of messiah:
I am calling it simply The Book, without any attributes or epithets, and in this abstinence and limitation there is a helpless sigh, a silent capitulation before the immensity of the transcendent, since no word, no allusion can manage to shine, smell, flow with that shudder of terror, that premonition of the thing without a name, the first taste of which on the tip of the tongue exceeds the capacity of our rapture.
The Book, of course, is no real book, not even The Messiah. It is the ideal book, a book that honors our sense of what books can and should be. By the standard set by The Book, all concrete books are failures. “Fundamentally,” Father cautions the narrator of “The Book,” “there exist only books. The Book is a myth that we believe in our youth, but with the passing of years one stops treating it seriously.” Despite his father’s warning, the narrator (and Schulz himself) continues to believe in The Book. “I knew that The Book is a postulate, that it is a task,” he reports.
Even Schulz could not complete this task, for many reasons. Magical imaginings can never withstand the ordeal of their realization. Schulz conceded that our dreams “try the ground of reality to see if it will bear them. And soon they retreat, fearful of losing their integrity in the imperfection of realization.” The end of Cinnamon Shops enacts the disappointments that any actual book, by dint of failing to live up to The Book’s enormous promise, occasions. After the townspeople have raided Father’s fabric store, after all the cloth has been transmogrified into a landscape, the narrator notes:
The artificial day was already slowly taking on the colors of an ordinary morning. In the devastated shop the highest shelves were suffused with the colors of the morning sky. Among the fragments of the fading landscape, among the demolished coulisses of the nighttime stage set, Father saw the salesclerks getting up from sleep. They were standing up among the bales of cloth and yawning at the sun. In the kitchen, on the second floor, Adela, warm from sleep, her hair tousled, was grinding coffee in a mill, pressing it to her white breast from which the beans took on a radiance and heat. The cat was licking itself clean in the sunlight.
Finishing Cinnamon Shops is like waking up from a fever dream. The spell of the story is undone. The world, it seems, remains unchanged.
But sometimes something changes. The impossible does happen. Father comes back to life. Though ordinary books pale in comparison to The Book, even they are, Schulz writes, “like meteors”: “Each of them has a single moment, one moment when with a cry it soars like a phoenix, blazing with all its pages. For the sake of that single instant, that one moment, we love it afterward even though by then it is only ashes.” In the face of even those faint intimations of The Book to be found in its lesser iterations, we experience what Schulz describes as “that contraction of the heart, that blessed anxiety, that holy nervous trembling that precedes ultimate things.”
In Schulz’s books, we catch more than one glimpse of the mysterious exigencies he understood so well. “Perhaps, with diminishing fervor, terrorized by the uncontainable nature of the transcendent,” we sometimes question the existence of The Book. But “despite all reservations,” Schulz insists, “it did exist.” All too briefly—but it did
Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard.