Oh boy! You couldn’t get two books further apart than my last read (Templeton) and this one! There are coincidences surround the Schulz – I stumbled across it in the Oxfam, and thought it sounded intriguing, and then it turned out to be on Philip Roth’s list of books from the other Europe. The *other Europe* is just about right, as this has to be one of the most out-there books I’ve read… Some words about Schulz first, though:

Bruno Schulz (July 12, 1892 – November 19, 1942) was a Polish writer, fine artist, literary critic and art teacher born to Jewish parents, and regarded as one of the great Polish-language prose stylists of the 20th century. Schulz was born in Drohobych, in the Austrian sector of the Partitioned Poland, and spent most of his life there. He was killed by a German Nazi officer. (Wikipedia)


Like so many of the European writers I’ve read recently (Zweig, Roth and others), Schulz suffered at the hands of the Nazis and it’s a great loss he died so early. “The Fictions of Bruno Schulz” contains just that – all of the stories written during his life that were originally published in two volumes, together with one or two pieces not originally published. The first collection, entitled “The Street of Crocodiles”, was published in 1934, and brought him some measure of fame. The second, “Sanatorium under The Sign of the Hourglass” came out in 1937 – and after that, Schulz’s life must have become more and more difficult, as the Nazi iron grip spread over the continent.

Schulz’s works are in essence mainly a series of inter-related stories of varying lengths. The majority of them are narrated by a young boy/man, given the name of Joseph in some of the stories, and starting out to read the first story you get the impression these are autobiographical sketches. However, as the narrative of the tales takes off into surreal realms, you soon realise that this is no simple re-telling of a young life in Galician Poland! Instead, the story soars off into fantastic realms, as do all the following. We are introduced to Joseph’s family, who run a store which seems to deal mostly in fabrics (these will recur through the story). There are brothers and sisters, mother, aunts and uncles, plus a variety of shop assistants (who reminded me very much of the kitchen boys in Mervyn Peake’s “Titus Groan”). However, two characters stand out and will feature strongly in the narratives – Father, and the maid Adela.

And it’s father who goes through most of the strange experiences in the book – dying several times, changing into a cockroach or a crab, shrinking to dust, dying again and ending up in the Sanatorium of the title, to name but a few. And the world Joseph lives in, whether exaggerated for effect, or filtered through a strange child’s sensibility, is an ever-changing and dramatic one. Schulz conjures up vividly the midday heat of summer, where all is still and dusty and surprisingly bleak; or the time a huge gale comes to the town, so destructive that it’s impossible to leave the house, or go into certain parts of it. In fact, the elements are often given a life of their own, and one that recurs most frequently is darkness. Things are particularly strange at night, and in the story “Cinnamon Shops” Schulz captures brilliantly that nightmare quality of being out at night and lost in a city that isn’t as we thought it was. This is the landscape of dreams and hallucinations, and the lines between what is real or surreal, literal or metaphorical, are constantly blurred.

“For ordinary books are like meteors. Each of them has only one moment, a moment when it soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame. For that single moment we love them ever after, although they soon turn to ashes. With bitter resignation we sometimes wander late at night through the extinct pages that tell their stone dead messages like wooden rosary beads.”

It’s actually hard to say in simple terms what these stories are about as they’re so rich and strange. In broad terms, it seems as if Schulz takes a simple past and transmogrifies it into something fantastic. The writing is dazzling, the metaphors expansive; I can see why commentators have compared his work to Kafka and Proust, but in the end creates a world very much of his own, albeit a sometimes disturbing one. The strangeness is added to by Schulz’s illustrations to the second book which are equally unnerving.


Yet, I do have slight reservations. Despite, or perhaps because, of the dazzling and surreal narrative, the vivid and startling imagery, I did find myself struggling in places; it’s perhaps a little difficult to connect emotionally with the characters. And just because the writing is surreal doesn’t mean you can’t care – for example, I read Leonora Carrington’s “The Hearing Trumpet” some time ago, and also that went into very odd territory, I was very much involved with the characters and their fate. Here there is a detachment, a feeling akin to being stuck in a dream and unable to run away, but also the knowledge that where you are isn’t real.

“And the process of sleeping is, in fact, one great story, divided into chapters and sections, into parts distributed among sleepers. When one of the stops and grows silent, another takes up his cue so that the story can proceed in broad, epic zigzags while they all lie in the separate rooms of that house, motionless and inert like poppy seed within the partitions of a large, dried-up poppy.”


Nevertheless I’m glad I’ve read Schulz and I have to agree with John Updike’s assessment of him as a great transmogrifier of the world – he’s certainly changed my view, and I will never look at certain things in quite the same way again. And actually, the more I think about it, the more this *isn’t* the strangest book I’ve ever read. In my time I’ve read Mervyn Peake, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Ernst Junger, Kafka, Proust…. plenty of so-called difficult writers. Schulz is a one-off, a writer out on his own, but his work is mesmeric and its images will haunt me forever. A challenge, yes – but one worthy of taking up!