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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942)


Writer and graphic artist, whose brief career ended tragically during World War II, when he was gunned down by a German officer in the ghetto of Drohobycz.  Bruno Schulz is best-known for his short stories. His is considered one of the finest Polish prose stylists of the 20th century. The American writer John Updike has called Schulz "one of the great transmogrifies of the world into words."

"I am simply calling it The Book without any epithets or qualifications, and in this sobriety there is a shade of helplessness, a silent capitulation before the vastness of the transcendental, for no word, no allusion, can adequately suggest the shiver of fear the presentiment of a thing without name that exceeds all our capacity for wonder. " (from 'The Book' in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1937)

Bruno Schulz was born in Drohobycz (now Drohobycz, Ukraine), a small town in Galicia, into a Jewish family. The area was then part of the Austrian Empire. His father run a clothing shop in the Market Square, but left it to the care of his wife due to his poor physical condition. Also a very important figure in the house was the sadistic maid. Schulz had mostly a secular upbringing. "Before I could even talk, I was already covering every scrap of paper and the margins of newspapers with scribbles that attracted those around me," he once described his childhood self to a friend. (Looking Jewish: Visual Culture & Modern Diaspora by Carol Zemel, 2015, p. 60) Instead of attending an art school, Schulz studied architecture at the Polytechnic Institute of Lvov. Financial difficulties forced him to drop out. During WW I, Schulz briefly continued his studies in Vienna. His father's shop was burned down by Russian troops.

Schulz spezialized himself in lithography and drawing. Upon returning to his native town, Schulz worked from 1924 to 1939 as an art teacher in the local gymnasium. His correspondence with the Yiddish art critic and poet Deboah Vogel (1900-1942) and other women was intense, but he never married. Partly because of religious complications and reluctance to move out of Drohobycz, Schulz's engagement to Jósefina Szelińska was broken off.

One of his students has later recalled that Schulz was considered strange; he always wore a flannel jacket and a scarf around his neck, and was laughed at behind his back. When his friend Wladyslaw Riff died of tuberculosis in 1927, Schulz stopped writing prose for years. The sanitary officers, who disinfected Riff's lodgings, burned all of his manuscripts and his letters from Schulz. 

"I am a painter by education and professional calling but, as sometimes happens during an artist's evolution, an inner impulse and expressive need prompted me towards literary experiments," Schulz wrote in 1935 to the Lvov Regional Board of Education, asking for a leave of absence. (Bruno Schulz: Literary Kabbalist of the Holocaust by Rolando Perez, 2002, p. 2) Schulz did not start his literary career until the1930s. His reviews appeared in literary magazine Wiadomości Literackie, where he signed his name to 27 pieces during 1934-1939, and he corresponded with such avant-gardists as Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939). Tygodnik Ilustrowany, Poland's oldest literary review, published three of his stories and several other writings. A major theme in his letters and fiction is time: "Keep of time, time is untouchable, one must not provoke it!" ('Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass,' translated by Celina Wieniwska, first published 1937)

The cosmopolitan Varsovian Skamander group, led by Kazimierz Wierzyński, took much interest in Schulz's work and he was given space for his reviews in their journals. Mostly Schulz lived far from the literary circles, and the legendary bohemian Cafe Ziemiańska. In the mid-1930s Schulz spent some time in Warsaw. He made in the summer of 1938 a three-week to France, where he visited art galleries and discussed art and literature; Paris was very different from his expectations. All his possible hopes of making his international breakthrough there crumbled. 

In 1939 Germany invaded Poland from the West and the remainder of the country was occupied by the Soviet Union. Between 1939 and 1941 Schulz lived in the Soviet-occupied territory. He was employed as a Soviet propaganda illustrator. His illustrations appeared, among others, in the Ukrainian-language Soviet newspaper Bil'shovits'ka Pravda (Bolshevik Truth). When Germany attacked the U.S.S.R., Drohobycz was occupied by the Nazis. A Gestapo officer, Felix Landau, liked Schulz's drawings, arranged him a pass out of the ghetto, and commissioned him to paint frescoes on the bedroom the walls of his children. Landau killed a Jewish dentist who was protected by another Gestapo officer, Karl Günther. In the "Aryan" quarter Schulz was spotted by him, and shot in retaliation, on the street in November 19, 1942. The manuscript of his novel, entitled Messiah, is said to exist in the KGB archives relating to the Gestapo.

"On Saturday afternoons I used to go for a walk with my mother. From the dusk of the hallway, we stepped at once into the brightness of the day. The passers-by, bathed in melting gold, had their eyes half closed against the glare, as if they were drenched with honey. Upper lips were drawn back, exposing the teeth. Everyone in this golden day wore that grimace of heat - as if the sun had forced his worshipers to wear identical masks of gold. The old and the young, women and children, faces with thick gold paint; they smiled at each other's pagan faces - the barbaric smiles of Bacchus." (from 'August' in The Street of Crocodiles, 1934)

Althouhg Schulz knew both Yiddish and German, he wrote in Polish. As a writer Schulz made his debut with Sklepy Cynamonowe (1934, Cinnamon Shops), a collection of short stories, which was published at the urging of the novelist Zofia Nalkowska. The reviews were good, in general, except those written by anti-Semitic critics.

Cinnamon Shops was followed by Sanatorium pod Klepsydra (1937, The Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass). With these two collections Schulz became one of the most original figures of polish avant-garde, joining the front rank of Stanislaw Witkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz. In 1938 he was awarded the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature. "It was not in the "literature of fact," but in Schulz's weird phantasmagories that the Jewish town found its reflection, though it was a distorted one, emanating from the concave and convex mirrors of his mind." (Czesław Miłosz in The History of Polish Literature, second edition, 1983, p. 430)

Schulz's prose reflected the influence of Franz Kafka, but in spite of their threatening atmosphere, they had surrealistic humor and realistic details, which tied them to everyday family life. Schulz also drew from Hasidic literature and folktales. According to some sources he did not translate Kafka's The Trial into Polish, but lent his name to a work made by his fiancee, Jósefina Szelinska. Commenting the novel, he said that "The perceptions and insights Kafka means to give expression to here are not his exclusive. They are the common heritage of the mysticism of all times and nations . . . " ('Jewish Mysticism – a Source of Similarities Between Bruno Schulz's Writings and Psychoanalysis' by Marta Suchańska-Drażyińska, in (Un)masking Bruno Schulz: "New Combinations, Further Fragmentations, Ultimate Reintegrations, edited by Dieter De Bruyn and Kris Van Heuckelom, 2009, p. 370)

After the war Schulz was "rediscovered" and a comprehensive collection of his stories, Proza, was published in 1964. It included also letters and literary reviews. Philip Roth included the published collections of fiction in his Writers from Other Europe Series. Schulz's erotically suggestive paintings and drawings have been compared to those of Utrillo, de Chirico, Henri Rousseau, and Chagall. A selection of his drawings was published in Druga jesien (1973).

Schulz's overpainted fairytale murals were discovered in 2001 in Landau's old villa, and smuggled by Israeli agents to Jerusalem, to the Holocaust memorial. Schulz has also featured in novels by Philip Roth (The Prague Orgy, in which Schulz is never mentioned by name), Cynthia Ozick (placed in the center of The Messiah of Stockholm, dedicated to Roth), and David Grossman (See Under: Love, in which Schulz appears both as a fictional character and as himself).

From 1934, Schulz had worked on a novel entitled Messiah. In 1990, the Swedish ambassador to Poland heard from a Soviet civil servant that a packet of papers had been found, mis-shelved, in the KGB archives relating to the Gestapo. The top sheet announced the novel Messiah. (Stuart Kelly, in The Book of Lost Books, pp. 359-361)

In his short stories Schulz created a mythical childhood world which combined autobiographical elements with fantastic elements and occasionally masochist bursts. His central character is the Father, Jakub, whom the narrators describes through the eyes of Józef, his son. Other characters are Adela, the servant girl, and the narrator's mother.

Schulz's stories leave much unsaid, he doesn't rely on conventional plot development, and often there is not much events. Life in Schulz's world follows its own logic and undergoes transmutations, and his characters live parallel realities. In Dr. Gothard's sanatorium the clock is put back to postpone the Father's death. At great cost he imports rare birds' eggs to hatch in his attic, and soon the house if full or exotic birds. He is a great believer in metamorphosis and his obsessive fear of cockroaches causes him to resemble one.

When a son is changed into a giant cockroach in one of Kafka's most famous stories, 'The Metamorphosis', Schulz turns the Father into a crab-like being, who climbs curtains, eats crumbs of bread and little pieces of meat from the floor, and sleeps under a table. Eventually Józef's mother cooks the creature for the dinner, but nobody wants touch the gray crab. The Father spends some days in his bowl and then disappears, l eaving behind one leg in the tomato sauce and jelly.

For further reading: 'Introduction 'by C. Wieniewska to The Street of Crocodiles (1963); Regiony wielkiej herezji by J. Ficowski (1967);  Bankructwo realnosci by J. Speina (1974); Die Prosa von Bruno Schulz by E. Goslicki-Baur (1975); 'Introduction' by J. Ficowski to The Street of Crocodiles (1977); New York Review of Books, April 14 (1977); 'Introduction' by C. Wieniewska to Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (1978); New York Review of Books, July 20 (1978); The History of Polish Literature by Czesław Miłosz, (second edition, 1983); 'Schulz, Bruno,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20the Century, Vol. 4, edited by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Bruno Schulz: New Documents and Interpretations by Czeslaw Z. Prokopczyk ( 1999); Regions of the Great Heresy: The Life and Work of Bruno Schulz by Jerzy Ficowski (2001); Bruno Schulz: New Readings, New Meanings, published under the direction of Stanisław Latek (2009); (Un)masking Bruno Schulz: "New Combinations, Further Fragmentations, Ultimate Reintegrations, edited by Dieter De Bruyn and Kris Van Heuckelom (2009); Dancing with the Unconscious: The Art of Psychoanalysis and the Pychoanalysis of Art by Danielle Knafo (2012); Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller (with two stories by Bruno Schulz, 2016); Bruno Schulz' Mythopoesie der Geschlechteridentitäten: der Götzenblick im Gender-Spiegel by Beata A. Bieniek (2018); 'Kantor and Bruno Schulz' by Nina Király, in Theatermachine: Tadeusz Kantor in Context,  edited by Magda Romanska and Kathleen Cioffi (2020); Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History by Benjamin Balint (2023); Bruno Schulz and Galician Jewish Modernity by Karen Underhill (2024)

Selected works:

  • Sklepy Cynamonowe, 1934
    - Cinnamon Shops and Other Stories (translated by Celina Wieniawska, 1963; U.S. title: The Street of Crocodiles, 1963)
    - Krokotiilikuja (suom. Aarno Peromies, 1965; valikoima teoksista Sklepy Cynamonowe; Sanatorium pod Klepsydra; Kometa) / Kanelipuodit (suom. Tapani Kärkkäinen, teoksessa Kanelipuodit ja muita kertomuksia, 2013)
  • Jesien, 1936
  • Republika marzen, 1936
  • Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą, 1937
    - The Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (translated by Celina Wieniawska, 1978)
    - Kuolinilmoituksen sanatorio (suom. Tapani Kärkkäinen, teoksessa Kanelipuodit ja muita kertomuksia, 2013)
  • Kometa 1939, Ojczyzna, 1938
    - Pyrstötähti (suom. Tapani Kärkkäinen, teoksessa Kanelipuodit ja muita kertomuksia, 2013)
  • Proza, 1964 (ed. Artur Sandauer and Jerzy Ficowski, rev. ed. 1973)
  • Druga jesień, 1973
  • Ksiega listów, 1975 (ed. Jerzy Ficowski)
  • Xięga bałwochwalcza, 1988 (ed. Jerzy Ficowski)
    - The Booke of Idolatry (translated by Bogna Piotrowska, 1988)
  • Letters and Drawings of Bruno Sculz, 1988 (ed. Jerzy Ficowski, ed. Jerzy Ficowski; tr. Walter Arndt and Victoria Nelson)
  • Opowiadania, wybór esejów i listów, 1989 (ed. Jerzy Jarzebski)
  • The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 1989 (translated by Celina Wieniawska)
  • The Drawings of Bruno Schulz, 1990 (edited by Jerzy Ficowski)
  • The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz, 1998 (ed. Jerzy Ficowski)
  • The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, 2008 (translated by Celina Wieniewska; foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer; introduction by David A. Goldfarb)
  • Bruno Schulz: Wiosna: 12 przekładów, 2008 (edited by Wiery Meniok)
  • Ksiega obrazów, 2012 (edited by Jerzy Ficowski)
  • The Cinnamon Shops and Other Stories, 2016 (translated by John Curran Davis)
  • Collected Stories, 2018 (translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine; foreword by Rivka Galchen)
  • Nocturnal Apparitions: Essential Stories, 2023 (translated fron the Polish by Stanley Bell)

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