The Book of Bruno

01/08/2009

schulz

A small, quiet man, Polish author Bruno Schulz required little physical space to exist, and indeed seemed to prefer it that way – he left his birthplace only a handful of times.  This is a trait shared by the literature he has left behind; it is unassuming – there it sits on my bookshelf, the tiny penguin on its spine showing the whites of its eyes, wide and fixed on the edge of its narrow perch.  In his half-century of life Schulz produced two slim collections of stories, titled Cinnamon Shops (retitled The Street of Crocodiles in English translations) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.  Along with several other short pieces published in various journals, these two constitute – a vast epistolary corpus aside- the bulk of his known literature.  He worked between the shadows of two great wars.

Schulz lived in a provincial town in east Poland (now in Ukraine) called Drohobycz, where he made a living teaching art and some mathematics at a public school.  His creative talents he expressed not only through his writing, but also through drawing and painting, and it was in this visual capacity that he was to earn some degree of privilege during the Nazi occupation of Drohobycz, and, consequently, also his death.

Reading the stories of Bruno Schulz holds the same sensual delight as sampling a selection of candy: some have a sweet centre while others are filled with dark, thick creams and still others possess the solid kernel of a truthful core; whatever your preference, they are all a wonder and delight to taste.          His stories are hewn from the raw material of his childhood and his prose is steeped in the wide-eyed wonder and grand palette of a child’s imagination.  Schulz used as the foundations of his work the events and experiences of his early life and sculpted from them the myths that, he believes, form our reality.

In his sparkling language, Schulz not only reveals the poetic potential of all things, but goes one better: he mythologizes everything and in doing so grants to the quotidian paraphernalia of domestic life a cosmogony; he raises mundane activities to events of historical significance.

Motifs abound in his work: the dominant woman, birds both in natural and phantasmagorical flocks, labyrinths, the cotton geography of the sky, time.  But it is the motif of the Book that is most dominant in his work, especially in the story “The Book”, which appears in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.  It was Schulz’s belief that the world is constructed from endlessly repeating myths, experienced by each of us, retold by our lives.  As these myths are constantly being rewritten, the world, and our experience of it, can be seen as a palimpsest – the faded script of the past coexisting with the fresh ink of the present.  Everything has its place in this Book of our days and it is our first Reading of the Book, our first experiences of the world, that is the most truthful one we can ever have.

It is this philosophy that anchors Schulz’s artistic goal: to achieve once again that true and honest Reading of the world, to recapture our experiential virginity, to ‘mature into childhood’.  In our first years of life the people that we meet, the families we are born into, exist as archetypes – our father is all fathers, our doctor all doctors, our teacher all teachers – until we learn to pick singular stars from the galaxy of people around us.  In Schulz’s work, relatives and residents of Drohobycz ossify into archetypes and become constellations in his own personal zodiac.

Bruno Schulz lived in a world of frustration.  Much of his time was spent teaching and preparing lessons, or caring for sick relatives.  Frequent applications for paid leave were rejected time and again.  The little time that he did have to write was further reduced when the shadow that had been spreading across Europe finally reached Drohobycz in September, 1939: the arrival of German military forces.  It was not long before Schulz was hired by a Gestapo officer named Felix Landau to paint portraits of him, and to decorate the walls of the bedroom of his young son with fey sprites and fairy-tale scenes.  When he was not working for Landau, Schulz was often hired by the Soviet officialdom to produce artworks for propaganda, or to adorn civil establishments.  He was writing nothing, but still, time, as it does, marched onward.  It was undoubtedly this totalitarian march of time, this irreversible flow that led to the peculiar chronology found in Schulz’s work.

Like non-Euclidean geometry, Schulz postulated a new time paradigm, one in which time is liable to decompose without ‘unceasing cultivation, meticulous care, and a continuous regulation and correction of its excesses,’ where it can slow and pause of its own volition, where the past can coexist with the present; a toffee temporality, malleable and soft.  It is a time populated by supernumerary months and feathered with forking branches that may be revisited and explored.  It is a place where the past is not irrevocable and what once was can be again.  In his creation of a ‘Schulzian’ time, Schulz was able to establish a new, submissive, chronology; a phenomenon that allowed him to manipulate time in a way that was simply not possible in his own physical reality.

On November 19, 1942, in an apparent act of retaliation, Gestapo officer Karl Günther put a gun to Bruno Schulz’s head and shot him dead in the street.  It was one death among hundreds, and was one of possibly several personal murders amongst the larger slaughter of that day, called Black Thursday.  Like one child having smashed the toy of another, Günther, so the tale goes, ran to Felix Landau and said “You killed my Jew, now I have killed yours,” – Landau having killed a Jewish dentist under Günther’s protection not long before.

In his story “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” (in the volume of the same name) the narrator, Joseph (Bruno), travels by train to visit his sick father in a nearby sanatorium.  Having already died in Joseph’s hometown, in the sanatorium it is

“‘a matter of simple relativity.  Here your father’s death, the death that has already struck him in your country, has not occurred yet.’

‘In that case,’ I said, ‘my father must be on his deathbed or about to die.’

‘You don’t understand me’ […] ‘Here we reactivate time past, with all its possibilities, therefore also including the possibility of recovery.'”

Imagine!  The possibility of ‘reactivating time past’; the chance to save from destruction all of Schulz’s work, including the manuscript of his novel Messiah; the chance to reopen the Book of Bruno that was closed with the shattering report of two bullets; to prevent, even, the Holocaust from having ever happened.  There is no limit to how far back we might go, how deeply we may dig – through the soil of the years and down into the roots of time, to our mythic bedrock, to the original myths of which our lives are but versions, as Bruno did through his fiction.

What a wonderful thing that would be.

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