(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Very high claims have been made for Bruno Schulz’s work ever since Stanisaw Witkiewicz wrote enthusiastically about Cinnamon Shops; Schulz’s reputation as a twentieth century Polish writer has been consistently high. Czesaw Miosz, in his History of Polish Literature (1983), stressed Schulz’s humor, intuition, and the metaphorical richness of his language, confirming that “today, Schulz is regarded as one of the most important prose writers between the two wars.” Isaac Bashevis Singer has called him “one of the most remarkable writers who ever lived,” and Cynthia Ozick has written that Schulz had “one of the most original imaginations in modern Europe.” The Yugoslav writer Danilo Ki has said, “Schulz is my god.” These are very high evaluations. On what are they based?

The twentieth century has witnessed a number of literary movements that have claimed to have a special relation to reality, or a hold upon it: surrealism and hyperrealism, ultraism, expressionism. In theory or in practice, the movements attempted to combine the individual and the world around him in a new synthesis, to combine in a single outlook both subject and object in all their breadth. In practice, and with a minimum of theory or dubious abstraction, Schulz seemed to achieve that synthesis. It is true that Schulz developed a theory of the mythical transformation of the everyday world that he described in his correspondence and in his essay “Mityzacja rzeczywistoci” (mythization of reality), but of infinitely greater importance was the artistic synthesis itself, displayed above all in his book Cinnamon Shops.

Cinnamon Shops

The basic cast of characters is simple. The narrator is a boy—and the man he came to be—describing events using the first-person pronoun. His father Jacob is perhaps the most important character, owner of the dry-goods shop which is the major source of torment as well as the basis for the livelihood of the family. The mother is of far lesser importance; Adela, a practical, sensuous servant, dominates the family. In addition there are shop assistants, diverse relatives, the huge, amorphous presence of the house with its many rooms, and the town. Although the father is an unusual character, the basic situation is ordinary. Even boredom is taken into account, taking up the time that becomes a major ingredient of the book.

One of Schulz’s major innovations is his use of a child narrator and adult narrator merged into a single viewpoint. Ever since the nineteenth century, a traditional device of European and American fiction has been an observing narrator through whose consciousness and senses the events of the novel were filtered. This consciousness was different from that of the author; the narrative consciousness was aware of some things the author might know but unaware of others. Usually the narration did not completely coincide with this consciousness, because if it did it would be too chaotic and disorderly, private and undirected. Instead, this consciousness—what might be called a fictional construct—was located just outside the point of view of the narrative consciousness, in the middle distance. In Cinnamon Shops, the young boy provides this narrative consciousness, but only partly. It is difficult to pinpoint the boy’s age, which might be anywhere between five and twelve. This ambiguity builds on the important presence of the house and rooms, which have accumulated the associations stored up over many years. More important, the childhood consciousness is overlaid by that of an adult and artist. The book was written by an author already approaching forty. The narration is a highly synthetic—and successful—mix of different developmental stages. The density of the sense of reality is thicker, more solid and opaque, than that available to most observers confined to a single moment in space and time. Because of the book’s subtle artistry, this often goes unrecognized by the reader. Yet the resurrection of the shop, and the reconstruction of childhood with all its emotional riches, took place only after the father and the business had long disappeared.

For Schulz, this is not linear. Whether time is “really” linear is for the individual reader to judge. It might be that time’s linearity is a tradition which our culture has found convenient, that it is a fictional construct that is difficult to judge objectively. Certainly Schulz’s synthetic time provides the reader with a shock of recognition; it is strikingly real, or realistic.


In “Pan,” Schulz evokes intense, midsummer heat before presenting the young narrator’s encounter with a vagabond:It was there that I saw him first and for the only time in my life, at a noon-hour crazy with heat. It was at a moment when time, demented and wild, breaks away from the treadmill of events and like an escaping vagabond, runs shouting across the fields. Then the summer grows out of control, spreads at all points all over space with a wild impetus, doubling and trebling itself into an unknown, lunatic dimension.

“The Night of the Great Season”

In the title story, the reader is told,Amidst sleepy talk, time passed unnoticed. It ran by unevenly, as if making knots in the passage of hours, swallowing somewhere whole empty periods. Without transition, our whole gang found ourselves on the way home long after midnight.

Schulz constantly calls calendar time into question. The story “Noc wielkiego sezonu” (“The Night of the Great Season”) begins, “in a run of normal uneventful...

(The entire section is 2306 words.)