“Bruno Schulz”, says the author page of this book, “was one of the most gifted writers to have come out of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century.” Considering the others who qualify for this description, that’s no small accolade. Like many of them, he was Jewish, and like too many of them – that is, any of them – his career and life were cut short. Jonathan Safran Foer’s foreword gives us the horrible details: Schulz, a talented artist (the cover illustration below is his), was protected by a Gestapo officer named Felix Landau; Schulz painted murals for his son’s bedroom. In November 1942, Landau shot dead a Jew favoured by another Gestapo, Karl Günther. Later, Günther exacted revenge when he came across Bruno Schulz in a forbidden Aryan zone in the town, and shot him in the head. “You killed my Jew,” he told Landau, “I killed yours.”
The Street of Crocodiles (1934, tr. 1963 by Celina Wieniewska) is an object lesson in the effect which expectations have on our reading of a book. Although the title of my edition (above) clearly states The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, I had it in mind that The Street of Crocodiles was a novel, and that the ‘other stories’ were the additional ones collected here, from Schulz’s second book, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. I was right and wrong: what we have is clearly more than a collection of discrete stories. Equally it is not quite a novel; it is more a story cycle, with recurring characters and themes, where the end and the beginning are arbitrary, and the potential seems infinite.
Discovering Schulz is like reading Kafka or Robert Walser for the first time: my reaction was something like, “Well. Here is a new way of looking at the world.” (Kafka is also recalled in details: the end of ‘A Hunger Artist’ in one story, the opening of ‘Metamorphosis’ in another.) The writing is vivid and violent, the imagery superabundant, the imagination unfettered. This is partly because the settings are notionally mundane: Schulz’s subject matter (there is no distinction drawn between him and his unnamed narrator) is his home town – then in Poland, now Ukraine – and his family. Typically for great writing, the subject is secondary to (inseparable from) the treatment.
The way in which the stories rub up against one another, cross-pollinating and seeming to merge, is a result of Schulz’s powerful literary vision. It is this sense of a unifying intelligence which makes them more than ‘just stories’, and suggests a greater whole. Sound and vision is turned up to maximum: “thistles crackled in the fire of the afternoon”; “the golden field of stubble shouted in the sun”; “in the thick rain of fire the crickets screamed.” But where nature is high-contrast and brightly illuminated, the people – Jews of 1930s Europe – are presented otherwise. Uncle Mark, “small and hunched, with a face fallow of sex, sat in his grey bankruptcy, reconciled to his fate.” When cousin Emil sits down, “it seemed as if it were only his clothes that had been thrown, crumpled and empty, over a chair. His face seemed like the breath of a face – a smudge which an unknown passerby had left in the air.”
Of all the family members Schulz details, his father holds his fascination the most; he is the central character of The Street of Crocodiles, as far as it has one. (Cynthia Ozick also made Schulz’s father the protagonist of her novel The Messiah of Stockholm.) We first meet Father in the second story here, ‘Visitation’, “slowly fading, wilting before our eyes … shrink[ing] from day to day, like a nut drying inside its shell.” But he behaves eccentrically: he “climbed on top of the wardrobe, and, crouching under the ceiling, sorted out old dust-covered odds and ends,” and spent “hours rummaging in corners full of old junk, as if he were feverishly searching for something.”
We became used to his harmless presence, to his soft babbling, and that childlike self-absorbed twittering, which sounded as if they came from the margin of our own time.
He begins to disappear. “Knot by knot, he loosened himself from us; point by point, he gave up the ties joining him to the human community.” By the end of the story, we have enjoyed a stimulating tragedy in seven pages. But in the next story, ‘Birds’, having “finally disappeared … as unremarked as the grey heap of rubbish swept into the corner,” Father is back, behaving oddly in new ways, importing and hatching birds’ eggs. “We did not yet understand the sad origin of these eccentricities, the deplorable complex which had been maturing in him.” This complex comes to the fore in ‘Tailors’ Dummies’, when Father expounds his theory of matter (“I shall attempt to explain [it] with due care and without causing offence”), where he proposes the ability of man to create golem-like creatures and the interchangeability of all matter, which brings conceits both disturbing –
All attempts at organizing matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve. There is no evil in reducing life to other and newer forms. Homicide is not a sin. It is sometimes a necessary violence on resistant and ossified forms of existence which have ceased to be amusing.
– and absurd:
“Am I to conceal from you,” he said in a low tone, “that my own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing, and that my poor cousin had to carry him day and night on his cushion, singing to the luckless creature endless lullabies on winter nights?”
These passages convey the surprising, eccentric and sobering qualities of this extraordinary book. Time itself does not behave: “demented and wild, [it] breaks away from the treadmill of events and like an escaping vagabond, runs shouting across the fields.” People in The Street of Crocodiles are retreating or escaping into other worlds and other lives. At night, “there open up, deep inside a city, reflected streets, streets which are doubles, make-believe streets.” Reality, just one of many options, “is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character.” Of all these, Schulz’s own transformation is most impressive. He took the grim reality of life in eastern Europe and exchanged it for the strangest fiction; he evaded his brutal death by escaping into literature.