Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles

“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.


  1. His description of a tailor’s dummy is one of the most wonderful pieces of fashion writing.:

    ”Carried on their shoulders, a silent, immobile lady had entered the room, a lady of oakum and canvas, with a black wooden knob instead of a head. But when stood in the corner, between the door and the stove, that silent woman became mistress of the situation. Standing motionless in her corner, she supervised the girls’ advances and wooings as they knelt before her, fitting fragments of a dress marked with white basting thread. They waited with attention, and patience on the silent idol, which was difficult to please. That moloch was inexorable as only a female moloch can be, and sent them back to work again and again, and they, thin and spindly, like wooden spools from which thread is unwound and as mobile, manipulated with noisy scissors into its colourful mass, whirred the sewing machine, treading its pedal with one cheap patent-leathered foot, while around them grew a heap of cuttings, of motley rags and pieces, like husks and chaff spat out by two fussy and prodigal parrots. The curved jaw of the scissors tapped open like the beaks of those exotic birds.”

  2. Extraordinary John.

    It sounds like the kind of book Pushkin Press would normally be all over.

    “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.””

    As you say, that’s some serious praise. Still, the comparisons you make support it. This goes straight on the TBR pile I think.

    Nice quote from Linda too.

  3. Even more extraordinary, Max, is that the book is not published in the UK: the edition above, which I read, is a Penguin Classics US edition. Of course I think they distribute it here too, but for it not to have a UK home of its own seems bizarre.

  4. It was in print until recently within a Picador UK volume ‘The Fictions of Bruno Schulz’ along with the also superb Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Street of Crocodiles first appeared – to my memory – in a series that Philip Roth edited for Penguin US called Writers from the Other Europe with an introduction by John Updike. The series had Hrabal, Kis, Andrzejewski, Konrad and Konwicki – fantastic basically.

    Jerzy Ficowski has been criticised for being something of a hagiographer of Schulz but his work is essential particularly the volume Letters & Drawings.

    Thanks for this blog. I trust that it will get more people reading this incomparable writer.

  5. That Writers from the Other Europe series does sound marvellous. I’m terribly jealous of the US on this occasion.

    So, between John and Linda’s comments, is there a UK version?

  6. Well perhaps the Picador edition (published in 1988) is the one Linda has? Certainly it’s not presently in print with a UK publisher.

    Thanks for the info, seventydys. Here is what looks like a pretty comprehensive list of Roth’s Writers from the Other Europe series. One commenter asks, “Was this the Central European Classics of its day?”

  7. Did anyone else see the wonderful Theatre de Complicite production based on this book? It was the most stunning piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. It was extraordinarily inventive, funny and tragic – a fitting tribute to the novel.

    1. I watched a Cambridge sixth form production of the Theatre de Complicite version of Street of Crocodiles. It was absolutely spellbinding. My son played the part of Schultz’ father (which is what had encouraged me to attend); the scene where the maid broke the bird’s egg had me weeping buckets. I can’t remember being more moved by a piece of theatre.

  8. I’ve been reading this for the first time this week, inspired to get hold of it – as presumably more than a few people will be – by Jonathan Safran Foer’s tribute to it in his book for Visual Editions, ‘Tree of Codes’, and frankly it’s been making my head ache. It’s writing that demands absolute dedication – not something you can rush or skim. Even having quiet background music on results in an excess of sense data: there is so much going on in the text – colours, sounds, similes heaped upon metaphors, adjectives, adjectives, adjectives – that full attention is required. But then perhaps I am unused to this kind of writing, sat as it is at the far end of the see-saw from the minimalism you might associate with writing coming from the opposite direction, i.e. the west. It’s the kind of over-abundant, over-committed writing that is more or less anathema today, whereas, I’d say, it is easy to see the continuing influence of both Kafka and Walser.

    You say they are “more than ‘just stories'” and I agree. It’s interesting to read in the introduction that the pieces in ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ were written (or rewritten) as letters, and that rings true: there is something self-extending and performative about letter-writing that these stories share: the way they tread water, accruing layers of detail and meaning, rather than drive onwards. I haven’t read all of it, but it’s live in my mind right now. John, have you read, or seen, ‘Tree of Codes’?

  9. “The writing is vivid and violent, the imagery superabundant…”
    So Bruno Schulz was a second Joseph Conrad? He wrote in English? Amazing… 😉

  10. Hi agt, indeed not: this is a 1963 translation by Celina Wieniewska, as noted in the second paragraph.

    Jonathan, no, I haven’t read or seen Tree of Codes; I might get hold of a copy if I’m feeling flush (it’s £25). Certainly it will be interesting to see if what Foer has made from the book has any resonance with the original (I hope so; Foer wrote the introduction to this edition)

    You’re right too about the demands the book places on the reader for quiet attention. It took me a long time to read the 120 or so pages that make up The Street of Crocodiles, and I haven’t tackled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, which is also included in this volume.

    Mary, I haven’t seen or heard of the Theatre de Complicite production. What form did it take?

    1. It took the form of a series of sketches with the cast all playing a variety of roles apart from the actor who played the central character. However `sketches’ can hardly do justice to the way it was presented. It involved music, movement, posture, dance and dialogue and it also played around with perspective with sets that were reminiscent of German Expressionist art. Impossible for me to describe effectively.
      At the end the central character was murdered offstage. He then reappeared and slowly stripped off his clothes and stood in his underwear. His family members were sitting in a row of chairs facing the audience ( I suppose this represented the Jewish tradition of sitting with the bereaved.) The young man , though he was tall and thin, crouched into a fetal position like a small child and was then passed from the lap of one family member to the other ending with his mother. All this was done with extraordinary tenderness.There was no sound apart from a most poignant piece of classical violin music which unfortunately I’ve never been able to trace.
      When the lights went up at the Gardner Arts Centre at Sussex University everybody was weeping. I’ve seen a lot of theatre in my lifetime but this piece really was the most memorable.

  11. I saw Théâtre de Complicité’s production Street of Crocodiles in 1998 and it remains one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen on stage. Edgy, balletic and charged with a vertigo-inducing energy – it felt like being dropped into the world of the book.

  12. There is, of course the murky question of the theft of Schultz’s murals by Yad Vashem, which understandably outraged his supporters in Poland.

    Both Poles and Israelis have claimed Bruno Schultz in the competition for national identity. Needless to say, I believe that a writer belongs first of all to their language, and then to their readers, but there are not many Polish speaking Jews left today, and not enough Polish readers of Schultz.

    As John Self says, Eastern and Central Europe pretty much wiped out its great Jewish creative artists. Visiting Poland in search of its Jewish past is a dispiriting experience. A few years ago I went to the town where my father was born. In 1900 it was 70 per cent Jewish, in 1939, 50 per cent Jewish and by 1943 0 per cent Jewish. The only sign that Jews ever lived there was a plaque marking the place where the ghetto was, used as an assembly point for Treblinka, one of the most awful of the death camps, and a Jewish cemetery defaced with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti. Some of it was in English (WHITE POWER). The German slogan Jude Raus means Jews out. There aren’t any Jews there.

    It seems to be the case that Schultz’s reputation has been best served by the championing of Jewish writers – Philip Roth and Jonathan Safran Foer in America, and David Grossman (Schultz is a character in his novel See;Under Love) Aharon Appelfeld and Etgar Keret in Israel.

    In Britain, with a small Jewish population, he is not even in print.

    1. When I worked for Waterstone’s we were often frustrated by the lack of availability of Bruno Schulz (and others) and used to import the US editions. Street of Crocodiles was one of strongest selling literary imports along with Hermann Hesse’s Fairy Tales and, ironically enough, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night (which John Calder could rarely keep in print). And this wasn’t just in the shops that served Jewish communities but anywhere where people wanted to read the best of whatever from whereever or whenever.

    2. Schultz is very widely read in Poland. I don’t know how many readers is “enough”, still, his books are taught in schools and I don’t know too many people here in Poland who haven’t read him (I mean people who read, as, sadly, there are many people who don’t read at all…)

  13. Have you read Joseph Roth’s essay Auto-da-Fe of the Mind, Linda?

    I suspect being out of print in the UK is mostly due to the relative lack of interest in Central and Eastern European literature generally.

    On Poland, some years ago I worked on a Polish power plant financing. I can’t remember who but someone looked at the site map and said “what are all the little crosses?”

    When I did Greek projects, the risk of archaeological discoveries (and so having to stop or pause works) was a major concern that needed careful consideration. In Poland the risk was of finding mass graves.

  14. This looks interesting. In the U.S., you can walk into most any bookstore and find one of Schulz’s volumes. I have a paperback copy of the 1979 (Penguin) “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass”. It’s part of Penguin’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series, under the general editing of Philip Roth. The translation is the Wieniewska, and the 13 stories are interspersed with 30 drawings by Schulz. The introduction is by John Updike. It also contains a translator’s preface which also briefly outlines the sad facts of Schulz’s last years. In the introduction, Updike inserts a quote about Schulz by I. B. Singer: “He wrote sometimes like Kafka, sometimes like Proust, and at times succeeded in reaching depths that neither of them reached.” Updike goes on to compare him to Borges, as a “cosmogonist without a theology”.

  15. IIRC, Ozick’s Messiah features Schulz’s “daughter” — thereby Schulz becomes The Father?

    The collection is published in Polish as The Cinnamon Shops — possibly it’s been published in the UK under that title. (Mieville gives that title as the source for the epigraph for The City & the City .)

    They’re great stories, and very much in keeping with the spirit of other art being produced in Poland at the time, Jewish or not.

  16. Thanks for the comments everyone. Isabella, I stand corrected on the Ozick! I haven’t read The Messiah of Stockholm so my knowledge was second-hand.

    I had read that the original title in English too had been Cinnamon Shops. I wonder if Mieville’s epigraph comes from the story ‘Cinnamon Shops’ within the collection, hence his using that reference?

    Todd, thanks for the info. Someone else mentioned the Writers from the Other Europe series upthread – it looks like a fascinating list.

    And thanks for the info on the production, Mary. I wonder if it will ever reappear?

  17. I believe this book is referenced in Nicole Krauss’s The History Of Love, and ever since reading that book (and loving it), I’ve been really curious about this one. I love that this book made you look at the world differently; isn’t that what the very best books prompt in us? I haven’t had any luck finding this at local bookstores, but hopefully my public library will have a copy!

  18. I was sure I had a UK Penguin edition (with a different cover from John’s) but no, it’s the US one as well.

    Anyone considering reading this as a result of John’s fine review should do themselves a favour and do just that. As an added incentive, I believe Chris Power is going to write it up on his occasional short story blog series at the Guardian.

    This is an urgent re-read for me, thanks for the reminder John.

  19. “Well. Here is a new way of looking at the world.”

    What a perfect response. Another book you might like is Henryk Grynberg’s ‘Drohobycz, Drohobycz’. He’s a Polish short story writer, and the title story in that collection is about Schulz’s assassination. The stories in general certainly show Schulz’s influence.

    1. I’m glad somebody mentioned the film on this thread because the Brothers Quay were my introduction were Schulz — I liked their Street of Crocodiles so much that I watched it twice, and then decided to pick up the book, which, years later, is still one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. Their version of Gilgamesh is memorable too, and they’ve turned Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten into a feature film called Institute Benjamenta.

  20. As a Pole, I’m happy to see this review on your blog. Well, Bruno Schulz is probably not the most popular writer here in Poland, but his “Cinamonn Shops” is an obligatory read in secondary schools.

  21. Thanks for the comments everyone, and the info on the Brothers Quay film, Chris (they did some lovely cover designs for the Picador paperbacks of Italo Calvino’s books in the early 1990s).

    Grendella and padma, I’m pleased to hear that Schulz is still read in Poland, even if largely in schools. I wish my own literature syllabus had had such energising stuff in it.

  22. Thank for the review. I think — no exaggeration — that the new US Penguin version is my favorite of all Penguin Classics I own. I can’t believe I got the thing for like $8 shipped from amazon.

  23. Wow! Great review! I have to say that before I read this post, I was not familiar with Bruno Schulz, but I am definitely going to have to check out this book. And look into the other books that he has written. Thanks for the post!

  24. Pingback: The Second Pass
  25. Wow – I was just reading about The Tree of Codes and then came across your review of The Street of Crocodiles – which seems essential reading now and definitely to be read before tackling the Foer, which does intrigue me enormously. Thanks for this post – I’m definitely tracking down the book. Would have loved to see that theatre piece too. Sounds amazing.

  26. The Wojciech Has film “The Hourglass Sanitorium” is worth seeing, based as it is on “Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourgass” scroll down for a description. It can be obtained here quite cheaply…

    The Brothers Quay are working on a full length live action film also based on “Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourgass”.

    This…. is a good site devoted to Schulz.

  27. Thanks for the info, James (sorry for the delay in your comment going up; the spam filter quarantined it because of the link. It doesn’t know Viagra from Wojciech Has).

    There’s also a reliably fine assessment of Schulz from Chris Power here.

  28. Linda, it is interesting that you believe that a writer belongs first to his/her language and then to his/her readers. For me, it seems as though a writer belongs first to him or herself and that writing is, in fact, a way of exploring questions of identity. I expect that this difference of opinion is, in part, responsible for the Structuralist notion that the author is dead!

  29. A delayed second comment: I’m just reading Cynthia Ozick’s excellent ‘The Messiah of Stockholm’, which is about two possibly deluded people, both of whom claim to be Bruno Schulz’s children, and one of whom also claims to have the manuscript of his lost third book, ‘The Messiah’. John, you might also enjoy it because the central character is a book reviewer accused of being too much interested in Central European fiction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s