Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Stories of Bruno Schulz

In July my father left to take the waters; he left me with my mother and my older brother at the mercy of the summer days, white from the heat and stunning. Stupefied by the light, we leafed through that great book of the holiday, all of its pages ablaze with splendour; their sickly sweet pulp, deep within, made from golden pears.

Adela would return on luminous mornings, like Pomona from the fire of the enkindled day, tipping from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun: glistening wild cherries, full of water under their transparent skins; mysterious black cherries whose aroma surpassed what would be realised in their taste; and apricots, in whose golden pulp lay the core of the long afternoons. And alongside that pure poetry of fruit she unloaded racks of veal, their keyboards of calf ribs swollen with energy and goodness, and algae of vegetables that called to mind slaughtered octopus and jellyfish—the raw material of dinner, its flavours still unformed and sterile, dinner’s vegetative and telluric ingredients with a wild, fresh from the field aroma.

Through a dark apartment on the first floor of a tenement on the market square, every day of that whole great summer, there passed: the silence of shimmering veins of air; squares of radiance dreaming their fervid dreams on the floor; a barrel organ melody stuck from the day’s deepest golden vein; and two or three measures of a refrain played on a grand piano somewhere, over and over, swooning in the sunshine on the white pavements, lost in the fire of the fullness of the day. Adela, her housework done, drew down the linen blinds, threw a shadow over the rooms. The colours then fell an octave lower; the parlour filled up with darkness as if plunged into the luminosity of the deep sea—still murkily reflected in mirrors of green—though all the scorching heat of the day was breathing on the blinds, which swayed gently to the reveries of the midday hour.

- (The opening of Bruno Schulz’s story “August,” translated by John Curran Davis)
These were the first lines I read of Bruno Schulz and I was hooked. Making the ordinary extraordinary and providing new ways of looking at his surroundings, Schulz’s writing could be called hypnotic and jarring at the same time. He strips the banal veneer off of the everyday and looks at the possible underlying existence(s) of things: items, people, landscapes, and even time. The “spurious thirteenth month” (“A Night of the High Season”) he describes as “white, bewildered, and unnecessary days” could carry over to any time of the year he describes.

Schulz spent much of his youth in Drohobych (returned to Poland after World War I). His job as an art teacher at a local school appears to have bored him—he often requested time off from the authorities in order to write and draw. He temporarily found protection from a Gestapo officer when Drohobych was overrun by the Germans but his luck ran out near the end of 1942. Walking home during a day of unrest he was shot by a Gestapo officer in the street. His published works include Cinnamon Shops (1934), sometimes titled The Street of Crocodiles after another story in the collection, and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). The English translations most often seen are by Celina Wieniewska. In his essay on Schulz, J. M. Coetzee points out several reasons her translations are “open to criticism” while also noting:
First, they are based on faulty texts: a dependable, scholarly edition of Schulz’s writings appeared only in 1989 [after Wieniewska’s translations appeared]. Second, there are occasions when Wieniewska silently emends Schulz. … Third and most seriously, there are numerous instances where Wieniewska cuts Schulz’s prose to make it less florid, or universalises specifically Jewish allusions. In Wieniewska’s favour it must be said that her translations read very well. Her prose has a rare richness, grace, and unity of style.

- (from pages 69-70 of Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee)
John Curran Davis has translated Schulz--all the stories and some additional articles can be found at Schulzian.net. [Note: site not currently active] Davis echoes some of Coetzee’s criticisms of Wieniewska's translation in an interview with Weird Fiction Review. The Sculzian.net site includes Davis’ translation of Schulz’s essay “The Mythicisation of Reality” that lays out the author’s view of the role of the poet and how words and reality are related:
The human spirit is tireless in its glossing of life with the aid of myths, its “making sense” of reality. On its own, left to its own devices, the word gravitates, draws toward meaning.

Meaning is the element that carries humanity into the process of reality. It is an absolute given; it cannot be derived from other givens. Why a thing should appear meaningful to us is difficult to determine. The process of making sense of the world is bound tightly to the word. Speech is man’s metaphysical organ; and yet, in the course of time, the word rigidifies, becomes immobile, ceases to be a conductor of new meanings. The poet, through new short-circuits that arise from fusions, restores conductivity to words. Mathematical symbols are an expansion of the word into new realms. Images, too, are derived from the original word, the word that was not yet a sign, but a myth, a story, a meaning.

We take the commonplace word for a shadow, a reflection of reality. The reverse would be more accurate: reality is the shadow of the word. Philosophy, properly speaking, is philology, the profound and creative study of the word.
So what are Schulz’s stories about? Many of them are childhood memories, “certain images that are of crucial significance” and told through a “mythological mist” (quotes are from Schulz’s letter to S. I. Witkiewicz, also at the Schulzian.net site). While Schulz wasn’t directly talking about his writing in the letter, it is easy to see his stories fit into this mold. These images of crucial significance “perform the role of those filaments, dipped in solution, around which the meaning of the world becomes crystalised for us” as “they evince the perpetual capital of the soul”.

Schulz recreates not just childhood memories but a childhood consciousness which includes every possibility, fabulous or mundane—nothing has been ruled out as impossible at this stage. The narrator recounts experiences with his family and friends through this consciousness, where a simple stroll in the evening with his father turns into a cosmic lightshow. A stampbook becomes imbued with additional meaning that provides insight into history and current events. His father appears in many of the stories, usually diminishing in size and influence as the tale progresses. A book divulges different secrets when the page is rubbed or the wind blows colors and figures away. There are a few stories told from an older narrator’s point of view—some work well, some don’t. I’ll talk about one of them when I post on Wojciech Jerzy Has’ film Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.

Highly recommended. I’ll end with one more quote revealing Schulz’s belief of where stories come from, at least for him. Words decompose into their elements, retreating “into the depths, into its own dark root.” From Chapter 17 of “Spring” (translation again by John Curran Davis):
When the tree roots want to speak, when a great many pasts, old novels and primeval stories are gathered beneath the turf, when too many breathless whispers are assembled beneath the roots, inarticulate pulp and that unbreathing darkness that is prior to all words, then the bark of the trees blackens and falls away in clumps, in thick flakes and deep slices; and through dark pores, like bearskin, their core is exposed. Sinking one’s face into that downy fur of the twilight, for a moment everything turns utterly dark, silent, and airless, as if a coffin lid is closed. One must press one’s eyes like leeches to the blackest darkness to afford them the delicate force, to squeeze through the impenetrable, to push through the muffled soil. And behold, we are here, on the far side of things. We are in the depths, in the Underworld. And we can see…

And thus within us a regression takes place, all along the line, a withdrawal into the depths, a homeward journey to the roots. Thus do we branch our way into the depths of anamnesis, startled by the subterranean shudders that course through us. Thus do we dream subcutaneously, all over our hallucinative surface. For it is only above, in the light—let it nevermore be said—that we are a bright and articulate collection of melodies, a luminous skylark’s apex. In the depths, we crumble once more into black murmuring, into hubbub, into a muddle of unfinished stories.

Only now can we see what this spring has been growing on, and why it is so unutterably sad and heavy with knowledge. Ah, we would not have believed it had we not seen it with our own eyes. Here are the labyrinths of the interior, storehouses, and granaries of things. Here are still warm graves, mould and mulch; primeval stories, seven layers as in ancient Troy, corridors, chambers, and treasure houses. How many golden masks? mask after mask, flattened smiles, faces eaten out, mummies, empty chrysalises… Here are those columbaria, those drawers for the dead, where they lie shriveled and as black as roots, awaiting their time. Here are those great drysalteries, where they are placed for sale in lachrymatories, crucibles, and jars. They stand for years on end on their shelves, in long, solemn rows; though no one buys them. Perhaps they have already been returned to life in the compartments of their cases, completely convalesced now, as clean and fragrant as incense, chirruping specifics, impatient, awakened medicines, balsams and morning ointments weighing their early taste on the tip of the tongue. Those immured dovecots are filled with beaks hatching out, their first probing and luminous twittering. How matutinal and prior to all time it suddenly becomes in those long and empty lanes, where the dead awaken in rows, deeply rested, to a completely new dawn…!


Schulzian.net: [Note: site not currently active] all of Schulz’s stories translated by John Curran Davis and many interesting links, including an interview with Davis and various articles on the author and his work

The Art of Bruno Schulz

Schulz’s Wikipedia entry, with many more links

Many thanks to zmkc for the pointing out the link to Nicole Krauss reading Bruno Schulz’s “Father’s Last Escape” (from a podcast at The New Yorker).

At the closed Giornale Nuovo, mr. h posted on Schulz, covering various aspects of his work with special emphasis on his artwork.

Weird Fiction Review has several interesting posts on Schulz.

"Decay is the Way Dead Things Live" by Jacob Mikanowski takes Schulz's work as a starting point: "His work is a doorway to one of the unexplored regions of existence: a universe built out of garbage and rubbish, whose creatures are by turn ridiculous and pathetic, not alive but not dead, and perpetually surprised by the labyrinth of night. "


zmkc said...

I only recently came across Schulz. For me the introduction was the New Yorker's fiction podcast, which featured Father's Last Escape by him. If you haven't heard it, you can find it here:
It has stayed in my thoughts so much. I hope you will enjoy it too.

Dwight said...

Wow, thanks! I'm definitely adding that to the 'links' section. Although after everything else Schulz does to his father in his stories, turning him into some sort of crustacean and having him boiled and jellied was minor.

Again, many thanks.

zmkc said...

No worries, it is so captivatingly strange and brilliant - for some reason, the bit that particularly holds my imagination is when the father/crustacean learns to manoeuvre under doors or round door frames - and the details of ... oh, all right, just everything about the whole very peculiar but fully articulated (no pun intended, if a crustacean is actually articulated [not sure what that word really means in a non-verbal sense] )vision

LMR said...

I can't stand his writing, but I loved Wojciech Has' film adaptation of "The Hourglass Sanatorium," one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen.