How Bruno Schulz found freedom on the periphery of life

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It’s more than a little discomfiting to read the great Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz’s description, in his diary from the early 1960s, of his not-quite-friend Bruno Schulz: “A tiny gnome with enormous head, appearing too scared to dare exist, he was rejected by life and slouched along its peripheries”. Written for publication two decades after Schulz was gunned down by a Nazi just outside the ghetto of his occupied native town of Drohobych in November 1942, these words cannot help but seem impious. Gombrowicz knows this, but he concludes that he has to “risk being distasteful” if he is to abide by the motto that every writer – even, or perhaps especially, one as experimental as himself or Schulz – should embrace: “optimal proximity to reality”.

And indeed, Gombrowicz’s description alights on the real. Schulz was in life and remains in death the archetype of the peripheral artist. Born into a Jewish family on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1892, he matured on the outskirts of interwar Poland – all without abandoning Drohobych, which is situated in the far west of today’s Ukraine. A man of geographical margins, he was also a somewhat marginal character on the Polish literary scene. He published two collections of short stories – Sklepy cynamonowe (1934; Cinnamon Shops) and Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (1937; Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass), which garnered much interest and earned him, in 1938, the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature – but kept his day job as a teacher of arts and crafts at the local secondary school. He claimed to have detested the work, but quitting was out of the question, for reasons both economic and, one gathers, psychological. As the poet Adam Zagajewski puts it in his preface to the Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz (1990), the author never turned his attention away from the people of Drohobych, “for their dilemmas and conflicts were an emblem of the peripheral, of everything that was borderline and provincial – and Schulz needed to be bound to the provinces the way he needed air to breathe”.

There is a word for those who breathe most easily when bound, and Gombrowicz does not shy away from it, calling Schulz “a relentless, untempered masochist – one sensed this in him all the time”. It is the spiritual aspect of this masochism that concerns Gombrowicz, the “homage” his colleague seemed to pay, in his work and his personal conduct, “to the powers of being that were trampling him”, but, he adds, “it is possible that his masochism also had a different aspect”. He means a sexual aspect, and almost certainly has in mind Schulz’s first volume, the self-published Xięga bałwochwalcza (1920–4; The Booke of Idolatry), a canvas-bound album of erotic prints in which invariably long-legged women ignore or stomp on or whip debased, worshipful men, some of whom bear a strong resemblance to the artist. Grombrowicz likely also has in mind the men in Schulz’s fiction, and especially the recurring figure inspired by Schulz’s late father, Jakub, who is forever weakening, forever metamorphosing into smaller lifeforms, forever being harassed and thwarted by the family’s Gentile maid, Adela.

Masochism, metamorphoses, paternal crises – these are obsessions that link Schulz to two other figures from the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his fellow Galician Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Franz Kafka. Indeed, Schulz once claimed that The Booke of Idolatry was a set of illustrations for von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs (1870), but this may have merely been a sign of his reluctance to take full credit for his fantasies. It is more tempting to draw parallels between Schulz and Kafka, another Jewish author with an ambiguous relationship to Judaism whose fiction reshaped the boundaries of modern literature and of the language in which he worked. There is, of course, much that separates them. Whereas Kafka’s imagination often shuts the doors around us, Schulz’s rapturously swings them open, revealing through his child’s-eye narrator, Józef, the hidden grandeur and malleability of the familiar. One needn’t – indeed, cannot – leave one’s Drohobych if one wishes to spy on the limitless, ever-shifting vistas that lie on the other side of reality’s humblest peepholes. Still, the similarities between these two authors in both the artistic and biographical realms are pronounced. And in recent decades each has been the subject of an unsavoury, protracted international dispute.

Benjamin Balint’s compelling new book, Bruno Schulz: An artist, a murder, and the hijacking of history, is a logical follow-up to his Kafka’s Last Trial: The case of a literary legacy (TLS, March 1, 2019), which traced, in great detail, the legal wrangling over the manuscripts that Kafka’s friend Max Brod preserved after the author’s death in 1924 and took to Palestine in 1939. The “hijacking of history” in the subtitle of Balint’s latest volume refers to the removal, under murky circumstances, of fragments of the murals that Schulz completed just before his death. During the Nazi occupationhe was granted the status of “necessary Jew” for his artistic skills and lived under the tenuous protection of Drohobych’s sadistic SS overseer, Felix Landau. Landau ordered Schulz to paint fairy-tale scenes – perhaps inspired, Balint suggests, by the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – on the walls of his young son’s nursery in his “villa”. Covered up for decades, the murals were rediscovered by a German film-maker in 2001, in what was by then a private flat. Only months later a team of Israeli agents removed large portions and spirited them away to Jerusalem, where they are now on display at Yad Vashem.

The second half of Balint’s book is devoted not so much to untangling as to pondering the tangle of the “fresco fiasco” and the issue of Schulz’s cultural belonging. Who has the right to his legacy? The Poles, whose literature he transformed? The Ukrainians, with whom the Jewish community lived side by side, not without violence, and on whose land his Drohobych now sits? Or the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, which sees itself, according to a statement quoted by Balint, as the proper repository for artifacts of “the remnants of the vibrant Jewish life and the suffering of the victims and the survivors scattered all over Europe”? The author presents the positions of Ukrainian, Polish and Israeli officials and cultural figures, but leaves us, perhaps unavoidably, with more questions than answers. Along the way he provides potted histories of the institutions, and biographies of the individuals, involved in the contest, and sets affecting, sometimes disturbing scenes at sites of commemoration – and erasure – in Ukraine.

The most moving and intriguing of Balint’s speculations have to do with the murals themselves. Produced under duress, these images of “kings, knights, squires”, one of Schulz’s students, Emil Górski, recalled in 1980, “had the completely ‘un-Aryan’ features of the faces of people among whom Schulz lived at the time”. It was on the walls of a Nazi’s nursery, Górski continues, that “these tormented people … found for themselves in paintings brilliant richness and pride”. Balint suggests that the nursery “became for Schulz a sanctuary of sorrow”, that in these murals “we can catch a banishment of his fears”. One can only hope.

As engaging and provocative as Balint’s exploration of Schulz’s posthumous legacy often is, the most valuable part of his book may be its first half. Unlike Kafka, Schulz is still something of a cult figure in the anglophone world. In light of this Balint wisely fashions a concise and eloquent critical biography of the man leading up to his murder, which he presents in a Rashomon-like set of versions, underscoring the multiform brutality of the Nazi occupiers and the immensity of their crimes. This biography, which weaves well-chosen, colourful threads from Schulz’s writings into the threadbare fabric of his days, stands as the best brief introduction to the author currently available in English, and as a welcome companion to the fruit of the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski’s heroic labour Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, a biographical portrait (1992; translated in 2002 by Theodosia Robertson).

Schulz’s death and afterlife are ultimately less interesting than his life and art, and his life is mostly interesting for having served as the unpromising soil from which his lush art sprouted. Stanley Bill’s sensitively translated new selection of Schulz’s stories, Nocturnal Apparitions, part of Pushkin Press’s Essential Stories series, offers anglophone readers a profoundly satisfying immersion in that lushness. Bill follows the arrangements of Schulz’s standalone collections, including eight of the fifteen stories from Cinnamon Shops and five of the thirteen from Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, capping these off with “Undula”, a pseudonymous plunge into the masochistic fantasies of a bedridden man that originally appeared in an oil-industry newspaper in 1922 and was discovered by a Ukrainian researcher in an archive in Lviv in 2019. “Undula” – a name Schulz also gave to a woman he depicted in a number of his drawings – affords us a glimpse of the young artist as he learns to wield the tools he would put to masterly use a decade later.

In his selection from the two mature collections Bill tightens the focus on the core drama of Schulz’s oeuvre: the power struggles, resentments, betrayals, desertions and odd affections within Józef’s household. He excises stories in which Schulz’s mind lingers too long on non-recurring characters or on scenes that, for all their loveliness and strangeness, add little to our mental map of his dreamlike Drohobych. He also avoids stories in which Schulz, largely through Jakub, does more telling than showing, discoursing on the nature of matter, on time and on the porous boundary between the living and the dead. That boundary is explored more vividly, with more genuine feeling, in the selection from Sanatorium, which centres on the death and polymorphous returns of Jakub. The real Jakub died in 1915, but Schulz never entirely lets him go in his fiction. Like the doctors at the titular sanatorium, he repeatedly “reactivated past time with all its possibilities”. Few authors could make these possibilities feel so relentlessly haunting.

Bill is the third translator to produce a book-length selection of Schulz’s work in English. As he notes in his elegant foreword (and as Balint chronicles in his book), the first appeared in 1963: an acclaimed translation of Cinnamon Shops by the Warsaw-born Holocaust survivor Celina Wieniewska (1909–85; see TLS, July 26, 1963). This collection – retitled, after another story, The Street of Crocodiles – was then republished in 1977 as part of Penguin’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series, edited by Philip Roth, helping Schulz to reach a far wider audience. In 1988 Wieniewska’s translations of the stories of Sanatorium were published together with The Street of Crocodiles.

Wieniewska’s ear was as keenly attuned to the lyrical potential of English as it was to the music of Schulz’s Polish. Privileging neither sound nor sense, but rather the total effect of the prose – the sharpness of Schulz’s surprising but seldom confusing images and metaphors, the varied but never choppy rhythm of his clauses – she won for Schulz the fervent admiration of stylists such as Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. Yet, as Bill points out, “some scholars, especially in Poland, have criticized [Wieniewska for adopting] a deliberate strategy of simplification [and for] occasionally even omitting whole phrases or sentences”. Calls for a new translation were answered in 2018 with Madeline G. Levine’s volume of Schulz’s Collected Stories (TLS, April 6, 2018). Bill calls this work, in which Levine “hews as closely as possible to the idiosyncratic style and Polish syntax” of the stories, a “towering achievement and an invaluable broadening” of Schulz’s image for the English-speaking world.

Without narrowing that image or ignoring the idiosyncrasies of the original, Bill returns to Schulz the delicate lyricism – and the poignancy – with which Wieniewska suffused her recreations. The opening paragraphs of “August”, the first story in both Cinnamon Shops and Bill’s selection, introduce readers, almost literally (for in this prose metaphors have the habit of turning real), to the cornucopia of Schulz’s devices. Jakub has left his family “to take the waters”, abandoning them to “the mercy of the white-hot, blinding days of summer”. The holiday atmosphere enkindles little Józef’s imagination – an imagination that pores, or perhaps pours, over the raw material of reality:

Adela returned from the market on those luminous mornings like Pomona from the flames of the fiery day, pouring out from her basket the colourful bounty of the sun: glistening cherries bursting with juice under transparent skins; dark, mysterious morellos whose fragrance always surpassed their flavour; apricots whose golden pulp harboured the core of long afternoons. Alongside this pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat, with their keyboards of ribs swollen with strength and nourishment, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead molluscs and jellyfish: the raw material for a dinner whose flavour was as yet unformed and barren; the vegetative, telluric ingredients of a meal whose aroma was wild and redolent of the fields.

Like the maid before the child’s eyes, the clause describing her glides, goddess-like, through our field of vision, to be suddenly tipped over and emptied of its “colourful bounty”. Bill’s syntax is smoother and more evocative than Levine’s, whose choice of tense (“would come back”) sacrifices both verbal elegance and visual immediacy for the sake of grammatical specificity. His diction, too, is more felicitous: “the flames of the fiery day” flash more brightly, with their alliteration, than Levine’s “the fire of the blazing day”, without dropping the productive tautology that Wieniewska had trimmed back to “the flames of day”. It’s also refreshing to see the cherries replenished with the “juice” of Wieniewska’s version and intensified with “bursting”. Levine had opted for “water”, a direct translation of the Polish woda, which feels less flavourless in the original context, and here flavour is all.

Throughout Nocturnal Apparitions Bill, an accomplished scholar of Polish literature, demonstrates an artist’s sense of where to adhere to the original and where to depart. When translating Schulz one is bound, as he was bound, to navigate the border regions, to find freedom in the limitations of one’s task. In characterizing him as a man slouching along the periphery of life Gombrowicz might have been paraphrasing Schulz’s own words – namely, Józef’s description of Jakub in the story “Cockroaches”:

In private, I resented Mother for the ease with which she had shaken off the loss of Father. She had never loved him, I thought, and since Father was not planted in the heart of any woman, then he could not take root in reality, and thus he was doomed to float eternally on the periphery of life, in half-real regions, on the margins of reality.

Stanley Bill’s recasting of Bruno Schulz’s stories is sure to plant the author more firmly in the hearts of new and returning readers, restoring him to the centre of the literary conversation.

Boris Dralyuk is a poet, translator and Associate Professor at the University of Tulsa. His translation of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees recently won the Gregg Barrios prize from the National Book Critics Circle

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