Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz
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 entire section is 2579 words.)