For Jerzy Ficowski it was love at first sight. Eighteen years old in 1942, in a Poland that enjoyed a tortured stability under Soviet-Nazi occupation, Ficowski, smitten by the short-story collectionSklepy cynamanowe (1934; The Street of Crocodiles, 1963), wrote a fan letter to Bruno Schulz, having no idea that in the ghetto of Drohobycz the Jewish writer was soon to be gunned down at point-blank range. When Ficowski learned of the death, “I decided to write about him myself. My decision was a kind of irrational act of reader’s gratitude.” He is being almost too modest about what would prove to be a lifelong vocation, with this present volume just the latest act of devotion. While Regions of the Great Heresy may be an uneven book, any rational reader will be grateful for it.
Almost everything that is known about Schulz today is known because of Ficowski, who started gathering the scattered remnants of the writer’s life in 1947. Unfortunately, Poland was the theater of some of the worst atrocities of World War II, especially against Jews, and almost everything of Schulz’s that was not already published was lost, including the manuscript of a legendary novel, “Mesjasz” (messiah), which has been the object of much speculation ever since.
Schulz was born in 1892, the youngest child of Jacob and Henrietta Schulz in the Galician town of Drohobycz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father was a merchant who provided a comfortable life for the family. Bruno adored his “merchant-dreamer” father who encouraged the boy’s fantasy life and who figured so predominantly in his son’s phantasmagorical writings. The years up to 1910 were a kind of paradise, but then Jacob’s ill health forced the family to move, and after that, things only became worse. By the time Jacob died in 1915, Bruno had developed his own health problems, neurotic or not, which troubled him for the rest of his life. Naturally, this complicated his attempt to establish himself as an artist, but in any case, that would have required a drive absent in his insecure and retiring nature. Not only did he fail to leave his hometown, despite repeated efforts, but in 1924 he ended up teaching in the high school from which he had graduated fourteen years before with such great promise.
Stuck in a career that he hated, Schulz lost all hope of escape as his family became ever more dependent on his meager pay as the years passed. He was convinced that teaching crushed his spirit, and he received little respect from his colleagues. Even so, he could not give it up, and had to paint, and later write, during vacations and occasional paid leaves. No wonder the past looked so alluring.
Schulz is known for his writings about that past, but art was his first vocation, and he mounted or participated in exhibitions from 1922 through to the war (when his art skills extended his life). Only a single painting survives, but there are more of his drawings, including the disturbing Xiega balwochwalcza (The Booke of Idolatry) from 1920-1921. In this self- published cycle, Schulz is usually depicted in submissive, even sadomasochistic poses, often with women whose faces are recognizable portraits of acquaintances. This is characteristic of the outwardly timid Schulz in several ways. This man who could not leave Drohobycz and let shyness isolate him almost totally, had a muted, but definite defiance. “His manner of speaking, sometimes hushed almost to a whisper, combined softness with a compelling but unobtrusive, even self-deprecating, strength of conviction.”
This spoke clearly through his art. In his illustrations, he is often shown staring at the viewer with a disconcerting directness. Then the viewer realizes that Schulz is staring at a mirror, the accustomed manner of capturing a self-portrait, but rarely with such intensity. To get at himself, the source of his creativity, he could not free his gaze from the mirror. This narcissism partly accounts for why he never left his hometown; even as he scandalized people, they held up his reflected self.
It also accounts for why he did not become a writer until he found a satisfying way, or person, to reflect his creativity back upon himself. He found the right “mirror” in Wladyslaw Riff. It is hard to follow the exact sequence of events, and this vagueness with dates is one of the problems with Ficowski’s disjointed book. Apparently they met in the mid- 1920’s in a mountain resort, both recovering from lung ailments. They started up a correspondence and, according to Ficowksi, Riff was the first “partner for undertakings of discovery.” There would be...
(The entire section is 1901 words.)