Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass Analysis

Bruno Schulz

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Schulz is a consciously symbolic writer. As he stated in another story, “Spring,” “Most things are interconnected, most threads lead to the same reel.” Any detail in the universe may be relevant to any puzzling question in the universe.

The most visible symbol in “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” is the color black. It is found everywhere: on the mysterious train, in clothing, leaves, beards, the telescope, and the eyes of the terrible dog. There is a crescendo of black, enhancing the impact of the last three scenes: the outbreak of war (the black uniforms), the unchaining of the dog-man (black eyes and beard), and Joseph’s end (a beggar in a black hat). In a similar manner, other recurring images also help to unify the story’s tone and structure.

Schulz also practices a technique of extended and vivid metaphor that is uniquely his, and he hints at his other craft (he was a painter and art teacher):I broke a twig from a roadside tree. The leaves were dark, almost black. It was a strangely charged blackness, deep and benevolent, like restful sleep. All the different shades of gray in the landscape derived from that one color. It was the color of a cloudy summer dusk in our part of the country, when the landscape has become saturated with water after a long period of rain and exudes a feeling of self-denial, a resigned and ultimate numbness that does not need the consolation of color.

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In addition to his two short story collections, Bruno Schulz also wrote a novella, The Comet, and made a translation of Kafka’s The Trial. His novel The Messiah, on which he was said to be working at the time of his death, completes his literary production; but the novel apparently no longer exists. His stories were reissued in Poland in 1957 and were likewise translated into French and German.

A native and lifelong resident of Drogobych in the southeastern part of the country, now a part of Russia, Schulz was Jewish and family oriented, as the stories in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass reveal. A teacher of drawing and handicrafts in the boys’ college of the provincial city, he lived with his family and became financially responsible for his widowed sister and other relatives. When World War II came, his town was occupied by the Germans who were advancing toward Russia. Schulz was shot down in the street by a Gestapo officer in 1942. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery which has also disappeared.

In the translator’s Preface, we find these words of Schulz to describe this collection:An attempt at eliciting the history of a certain family, a certain house in a provincial city—not from documents, events, a study of character or of people’s destinies—but by a search for the mythical sense, the essential core of that history. . . . These mythical elements are inherent in the region of early childish fantasies, intuitions, fears and anticipations characteristic of the dawn of life.

These thirteen stories are, in a sense, autobiographical—a poetic effort to recreate and record a lifetime of impressions and experiences, sensitively observed. The collection is the chronicle of the narrator’s discovery of life’s meaning. The arrangement of the stories according to the seasons of the year suggests the parallel seasons of man’s life. In the earlier stories there is youthful awakening, followed by summer maturity, fall decadence, and winter’s illness, confinement, retirement, and death.

“The Book” is the first story and acts as the introduction to the collection. The Book belonged to the narrator’s father, Jacob, but by the time the narrator came to know it, only a few of the final pages remained. On its blank pages, his father had pasted decals. For Joseph, the son, the Book had taken on elements of the fantastic and miraculous and represented for him a goal, the search for the Authentic. Joseph comments: “Ordinary books are like meteors. Each of them has only one moment, a moment when it soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame. For that single moment we love them ever after, although they soon turn to ashes.” He will draw together events and stages of his life and, from them, re-create piece by piece what he calls “The Age of Genius” of our life.

“The Age of Genius” is the title of the second story. With the winter thaw, the genius of Joseph comes alive. It is expressed in piles of luminous drawings which are an attempt to store up the flood of riches occasioned by the return of sunlight. The animals, faces, and landscapes he has created...

(The entire section is 1302 words.)