Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2579

A once-powerful nation that has been overrun, several times partitioned out of existence, and, during World War II, very nearly erased from the face of the earth altogether—its schools closed, its language forbidden, its culture destroyed, its capital razed, its population systematically murdered—Poland has learned to guard its history jealously,...

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A once-powerful nation that has been overrun, several times partitioned out of existence, and, during World War II, very nearly erased from the face of the earth altogether—its schools closed, its language forbidden, its culture destroyed, its capital razed, its population systematically murdered—Poland has learned to guard its history jealously, seeking to recover and preserve its past in order to perpetuate the essence of its own fragile being. Not surprisingly, the Romantic strain is especially strong in Polish life, in its arts (Adam Mickiewicz and Frédéric Chopin, for example) as well as its politics (Lech Walesa and Father Jerzy Popieluszko). It takes the form of a noble if often doomed idealism that cannot be separated from the sense of devotion to the past, to a figurative as well as literal remembering. Such devotion, such painstaking reconstruction of the past, helps to explain the intensity and persistence of Jerzy Ficowski’s efforts to track down, edit, and publish the works of Bruno Schulz, yet another of those Polish writers who have largely been overlooked outside Eastern Europe. Hailed in 1933 by Stanisaw Witkiewicz as a truly major Polish writer, Schulz published only two collections of short fiction, Sklepy cynamonowe (1933; The Street of Crocodiles, 1963; also as Cinnamon Shops) and Sanatorium pod klepsydr (1937; The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass 1978), before being murdered by a Nazi in 1942 in the streets of Drohobycz, the provincial town in which he had spent his entire life.

Summarily shot for being outside the Jewish ghetto, he was left in the street until, under cover of darkness, friends removed his body to the Jewish cemetery for burial; after the war, no one could remember which grave was his. His literary remains fared no better, scattered and for the most part destroyed during the Nazi occupation. Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz: With Selected Prose is therefore necessarily a slender volume as well as an immense labor of love, an act of deep devotion. Its substance is similarly deep, far deeper than its slender size seems to suggest. Ficowski includes a generous selection of Schulz’s drawings, nearly all Schulz’s surviving letters, a number of his reviews and essays, and, perhaps best of all, three previously untranslated and uncollected prose narratives that are as good as, maybe better than, any of the works in the two published collections and that again make clear that when dealing with Schulz’s imaginative writing, traditional designations such as “short story” prove woefully inadequate. The loss of nearly all Schulz’s letters written before the publication of his first book, Cinnamon Shops, is especially regrettable, for as Schulz himself explains in a later letter, it was into his correspondence that he put all of his early literary energy, having no other outlet. In fact, it was a correspondent, Debora Vogel, who encouraged Schulz to pursue the narrative possibilities of the long literary postscripts he began appending to his letters. Unfortunately, none of his letters to Vogel survives, nor do those he wrote to Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz, Thomas Mann, his patroness Zofia Nakowska, or his fiancée, Józefina Szeliska.

These omissions would normally make one wary of making any sweeping claims about Schulz’s life and aesthetics, but, extensive as the omissions are and disheartening as it surely is not to have the early letter versions of the Cinnamon Shops stories, such claims can be made, for Schulz’s life and art remained remarkably consistent—as consistent, it seems, as his outward existence was uneventful. He spent nearly all of his adult life teaching drawing and crafts in the local high school. It was work he chose yet came to despise as soon as he realized that teaching was not the profession he had hoped it would be but instead a form of manual labor that did not permit him time to devote himself to the drawing in which he was trained and to which his artistic sensibility was far better suited. “Every day I leave that scene brutalized and soiled inside, filled with distaste for myself and so violently drained of energy that several hours are not enough to restore it.” Dissatisfaction drove Schulz to consider his options. One was to take a leave of absence, but this course required his applying for a government grant. When, after much delay and even greater anxiety on Schulz’s part, the grant was approved, Schulz wrote a letter of thanks to the ministry’s section chief that evidences precisely the kind of self-abasement that characterizes the male figures in Schulz’s sadomasochistic drawings. The grant did not solve Schulz’s problems; only death or the imagination to which he longed to devote himself could do that. By April, 1936, he saw that the grant was running out, and with it the time to write and draw, and so he once again had to contemplate his impossible financial situation—low pay combined with burden-some family responsibilities, all complicated by the threat of staff cutbacks and chronic ill health. There is something so overwhelming yet, in a way, trivial, about Schulz’s predicament (and his response to it) as to be almost comical, as if he were condemned to suffer the endless frustrations and pratfalls typical of silent film comedy or of the fiction of Franz Kafka which Schulz admired so much.

The letters provide less a record of Schulz’s outward life than of his psychological obsessions. “Morbidly shy” and suffering from a monumental inferiority complex, Schulz used writing, especially letter writing, the way other, less inwardly turned individuals use social contacts. He sought from his correspondents the validation and encouragement of his talent that he did not and could not get in his native Drohobycz. The need was desperate enough that in at least one case, his extensive correspondence with Zenow Waniewski, Schulz actually appears to have been unable to break off a correspondence he seems unwilling to continue (or, rather, to have Waniewski continue). Similarly, he could contemplate and even crave leaving Drohobycz for Lwów or Warsaw (providing someone else would find him work and accommodations), but he never did leave the town that was the source of his flights of imagination and the chief obstacle to his achieving wider recognition. Possessor of a startlingly original imagination, he lacked self-discipline and was appallingly, even pathologically indecisive. To a degree, Schulz’s psychological makeup, as well as his self-criticism, seems to have been conditioned by his reading of Sigmund Freud. In a letter to Stefan Szuman, he confides his “truest and profoundest” dream, from age seven; he cuts off his penis with a knife and then must face not only the horror of his act but knowledge that it is irrevocable and that the guilt and punishment are eternal. The most terrifying feature of the dream may well be the form that punishment takes: The child is confined in a glass retort and subject to the disapproving stares of all who pass by. Given such a dream, Schulz had good reason to want to stay in Drohobycz—that is to say, he had good psychological reasons not to cut himself off irrevocably from his small, provincial world—and equally good reason to turn away from others and inward toward the imagination.

Schulz’s withdrawal is further characterized by an obsessive desire for purity (or, alternately, a fear of contamination), which may be read as a desire to be self-contained, utterly self-sufficient. The feeling of being “brutalized and soiled” by his contact with his students and colleagues (quoted above) evidences this obsession quite directly; it is more subtly present in the revulsion he experiences upon seeing his work parodied (even if involuntarily) or in reading that he has been linked with Gombrowicz (whose fiction Schulz greatly admired). Schulz is surely right to distinguish between his own highly interiorized stories and Gombrowicz’s far more sociologically oriented work, but his act implies a certain compulsion, an obsessive need to establish his own territory, to ensure its purity, and to exert an absolute control over it. All this is perversely (but in Schulz’s case also consistently) coupled with an equally obsessive desire to undervalue himself and his works (including the paintings and drawings he sold for far less than they were worth). This obsession leads to an impasse, to his inability to write or draw at all, and the reason for this failure, Schulz often points out, is Schulz himself. By a pscyhological sleight of wits, Schulz the Romantic transforms himself into a Polish Kafka, railing against the fate he claims to deserve.

In the letters, self-criticism often slips into self-loathing, and self-loathing in turn into self-defense. Someone’s failure to reply to a letter often led Schulz to ask if he had perhaps disappointed his correspondent in some way but then to berate that person for remaining silent, to demand that the other not only write but write frequently, and to write despite the fact that Schulz would not do the same. He felt similarly ambivalent about his writing—protective yet doubtful. Uncertain about its merit, he needed others to validate its worth for him—and to validate his own worth as well, though he was sure, some of the time at least, that what a life, his or anyone’s, invariably added up to was zero. Schulz was, however, not so much manic-depressive as aesthetic-depressive. His life was divided into bouts of work separated by long periods of depression—or, to put it in a slightly different way, long periods of reality (in Schulz’s mind the two were very nearly synonymous). Work—writing and drawing—was his happiness and sole salvation, the one sure remedy for the malaise of prosaic everyday existence. Work was also what he could only rarely bring himself to do, largely because his fear of being controlled in any way caused him to attempt to exert absolute control over the conditions in which he was able or willing to work. The preconditions he set for himself were impossible and intolerable: absolute quiet and therefore absolute isolation. Such dedication borders on absurdity and leads one to wonder whether anyone has ever led a more Kafkaesque life than Schulz, the man responsible for introducing Kafka to Polish readers. Not only did Schulz lead such a life, but he also led it so originally, as if by some strange time warp he was Kafka’s precursor and the model for Gregor Samsa, Joseph K., and all the other Schulz-like characters in Kafka’s “pseudo-realistic” stories and novels. The Kafkaesque Schulz would not leave Drohobycz to be with his fiancée in Warsaw, but he would frequently write to friends in that city about their failure to attend to her needs, particularly her desire for companionship. As he exclaimed in a letter to Romana Halpern, Józefina was not only his salvation but the very basis of his continued existence as a writer and artist. “By her love she has redeemed me, who was nearly lost and marooned in a remote no-man’s-land, a barren underworld of fantasy. She brought me back to life and the earthly realm. . . . I must have Józefina’s . . . closeness and connection with me assured in order even to function. That is the zero level from which I rise on the scale of fantasy.” She redeems him from fantasy in order that he can return to it, but not in actuality, for what Schulz describes here is not what he has but what he has lost: Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, Józefina has just broken off their engagement.

The imagination that was Schulz’s truest reality and only real salvation (and torment) derived its strength from the depth of loneliness and insecurity that compelled him to devise an alternative to the drabness of the modern commercial world that had already infected Drohobycz and, too, from the childhood that Schulz sought not so much to return to as create in all the illusory vividness of a dream. He rejected the spiritually flattened world of reality and realism, and he chose in their place legend and myth. “The legend is the organ by which greatness is apprehended,” whereas “psychology implies the mediocrity of the average, faith in uniformity, the gray commonwealth of the ant. . . . The laws of greatness cannot be reconciled with the modalities of daily thought.” Neither can Schulz’s fiction be reconciled with “the modalities of daily thought.” In his work conventional realism is not a transparent means but a point of departure that leads in two directions: up toward a pure, nearly metaphysical, utterly abstract, and wondrously dense lyricism, and down (or rather in) toward the “matrix” of all words and all reality in what Schulz calls myth.

The writer’s task, then, is not to represent the world but to transform and redeem it, as Schulz does so brilliantly in story after story and perhaps most strangely and evocatively in the prose narrative “The Republic of Dreams,” which begins:Here on the Warsaw pavement in these days of tumult, heat and dazzle I retreat in my mind to the remote city of my dreams, I let my vision rise to command that low, sprawling, polymorphic countryside. . . . How to express this in words? Where other towns developed into economies, evolved into statistics, quantified themselves—ours regressed into essence. . . . Here events are not ephemeral surface phantoms; they have roots sunk into the deep of things and penetrate the essence. Here decisions take place every moment, laying down precedents once and for all. Everything that happens here happens once and is irrevocable. This is why such weightiness, such heavy emphasis, such sadness inheres in what takes place.

Schulz’s language is as excessive, as opulent, as extravagant, as hallucinatory as that of Gabriel Garia Márquez. It does not mirror; it makes. It quite literally creates a world, at once primal and transcendental. Nevertheless, it may have been the literally creative aspect of his writing that led Schulz to doubt and despair—to question whether anything at all existed beyond words. “I need a friend,” one letter begins;I need the closeness of a kindred spirit. I long for some outside confirmation of the inner world whose existence I postulate. To cling to it by sheer faith alone, to lug it along with me in spite of everything, is a toil and torment of Atlas. Sometimes it seems to me, even with all the strain of heaving, that I have nothing on my shoulders. I’d like to drop that weight onto someone else’s shoulders for a while, straighten the crook in my neck and take a look at what I’ve been carrying.

Shortly before his death, Schulz had the opportunity to leave Drohobycz (ironically, for Warsaw), and he entrusted all of his papers (including correspondence) to a Catholic living outside the ghetto. Schulz never did leave, and his papers never have been found. Thanks, however, to the efforts of his indefatigable editor, Ficowski, and to the excellent translation prepared by Walter Arndt and Victoria Nelson, more of this remarkable writer’s work has become available to English-language readers, who will have the opportunity to dwell not on the pathology and torment of Schulz’s life and mind but instead on Schulz’s genius for transforming the tragicomedy that was his life into what is unquestionably among the strangest and finest fiction of the twentieth or any other century.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, September 1, 1988, p. 1390.

Library Journal. CXIII, November 1, 1988, p. 96.

The New Republic. CC, January 2, 1989, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, October 30, 1988, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, September 2, 1988, p. 91.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, December 18, 1988, p. 4.

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