By **Sam Kerbel**
Two years ago, Israeli author David Grossman spoke at the 92nd Street Y about the relatively obscure Polish writer Bruno Schulz (a version of the address later appeared in The New Yorker). Grossman, who re-imagined Schulz’s life in his beautiful novel See Under: Love (1986), marveled at how Schulz’s prose is “written in a language that brims with life, a language that is itself the main character of the stories and is the only dimension in which they could possibly exist.” For Grossman, Schulz’s writing contains a feverish vivacity that cannot be found elsewhere: “On every page, life was raging, exploding with vitality, suddenly worthy of its name; it was taking place on all layers of consciousness and subconsciousness, in dreams, in illusions, and in nightmares.”
Despite critical acclaim from writers like Grossman, Schulz has been unfairly walled out of the “canon” of global modernist literature. Perhaps his small corpus of writing, which lags behind those of other literary giants like James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust, has put him at a disadvantage. Besides some drawings, essays, and short stories, Schulz published only two novels: The Street of Crocodiles (1934) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). An unfinished novel called The Messiah and other works have since been lost.
Although scholarly writing about Schulz has increased over the last few decades, he remains largely known through fictional reincarnations in books like See Under: Love and Cynthia Ozick’s novel The Messiah of Stockholm (1988). Most recently, Jonathan Safran Foer’s die-cut novel Tree of Codes (2010) carves words directly out of The Street of Crocodiles, turning Schulz’s work into a new story altogether.
Yet these fantastical re-imaginings offer little justice to the wonder of Schulz’s life and work. The story of Schulz’s death has warranted legendary status in itself. Confined to the ghetto of his hometown Drohobycz during World War Two, Schulz was protected by a Nazi officer, Felix Landau, who greatly admired his artwork. Unfortunately for Schulz, Landau killed the “personal Jew” of a rival Nazi officer, Karl Günther, and in an act of retributive justice Günther killed the unsuspecting Schulz in cold blood. According to Schulz’s biographer, the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski, over one hundred other Jews were killed that day.
While modern renderings of Schulz’s life and work are certainly moving, I cannot help but wonder if the real story more aptly suits the fantasticality of Schulz’s prose. As Grossman so eloquently said, few writers can rival Schulz’s creative energy. His protagonist, Joseph, possesses a vivid childhood imagination that presents the world from a fresh and exhilarating perspective. In The Street of Crocodiles, Joseph envisions his insomniac neighbor as “a bather swimming against the current” who “kneaded [his bed] and molded it with his body like an enormous bowl of dough.” He later describes the faces of local salesgirls as “gray parchment, marked with the dark greasy pigment spots of brunettes, their shiny dark eyes shooting out sudden zigzag cockroachy looks.” On a night stroll through town, he marvels at how the “colored map of the heavens expanded into an immense dome, on which there loomed fantastic lands, oceans and seas, marked with the lines of stellar currents and eddies, with the brilliant streaks of heavenly geography. The air became light to breathe and shimmered like silver gauze.”
Nothing in Joseph’s universe remains static; it undergoes a constant process of transformation. Frightening at times, uplifting at others, the liminal, dreamlike spaces of Schulz’s fiction are rare amongst even our most imaginative artists. They deserve more notice.
Copyright 2011 Sam Kerbel
Sam Kerbel is an editorial intern at Guernica.