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2017-07-14

Bruno Schulz – on the 125th anniversary of birth

Looking at the biography and works of Bruno Schulz – today, on the 125th anniversary of his birth and almost on the eve of the 75th anniversary of his death – we notice some amazing things. First and foremost, there is probably no other writer who entered the canon of Polish literature while making a debut only in his forties, and no other prose-writer who deserved to be called “great” after publishing only two volumes of short stories comprising together just over 300 pages. Moreover, Schulz appeared on the literary scene as a fully mature and completely original author – it is almost impossible to identify the precursors of his talent or masters he could have modelled on.

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Bruno Schulz as a secondary-school graduate or student, photo: National Digital Archives   

Bruno Schulz was born on 12th July 1892 in Drohobych, in a family of Galician Jews. There is no consensus among scholars as to whether the writer was an atheist or not. But we know for sure the religion was not an important issue at his family home, and that the writer himself left the Jewish community when he was preparing to marry a Catholic, Józefina Szelińska (finally, the marriage was not concluded). After completing the secondary school, he began studies at the Lviv University of Technology (he planned to be an architect), but never graduated. For a dozen years, he made his living as a teacher of drawing and, although he did not like this job, he could never afford to give it up and devote himself exclusively to writing. He made his first creative attempts in the early 1920s, starting not with literature, but visual arts. The most remarkable part of Schulz’s iconic works – interesting but not outstanding, according to experts – is the cycle Xięga bałwochwalcza (The Book of Idolatry), created with a relatively difficult and time-consuming cliché-verre technique and dealing with erotic themes: its common theme is a dominance of beautiful and haughty women over humiliated and somewhat caricatured men. He started to write in the following years, probably in the late 1920s. His first volume of prose, Sklepy cynamonowe (Cinnamon Shops), was published in December 1933. The second and last one, entitled Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą (Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass), saw the light of day four years later.

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Panorama of Drohobych, 1932, photo: National Digital Archives   

Schulz's writings remain a separate phenomenon, eluding classifications diligently developed by critics and literary historians. In fact, they specified the stream it belongs to – a poetic model of prose. Although other writers, such as Tadeusz Miciński and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, published works assigned to this stream earlier, we cannot talk about any influence in this case, because they used different methods from those proposed in Sklepy and Sanatorium. True, while reading certain passages of Schulz's stories, the reader may make associations with Marcel Proust (elaborate phrases that precisely express sensual experience), and although some motifs may bring into mind the work of Franz Kafka (grotesque body transformations), apart from potential similarities we immediately notice even more significant differences: the world of imagination and the art of Drohobych writer set their own, different laws.

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Jacob (father) at breakfast, illustration to Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, before 1936, Museum of Literature in Warsaw   

The most important one is the law of reversibility: there are no fixed boundaries between a man and an animal, between subject and object, between life and death. Schulz himself wrote about it as follows:

Cinnamon Shops offers a certain recipe for reality, posits a certain special kind of substance. The substance of that reality exists in a state of constant fermentation, germination, hidden life. It contains no dead, hard, limited objects. Everything diffuses beyond its borders, remains in a given shape only momentarily, leaving this shape behind at the first opportunity. A principle of sorts appears in the habits, the modes of existence of this reality: universal masquerade. Reality takes on certain shapes merely for the sake of appearance, as a joke or form of play. One person is a human, another is a cockroach, but shape does not penetrate essence, is only a role adopted for the moment, an outer skin soon to be shed”.

[Bruno Schulz do St. I. Witkiewicza, in: Schulz, B., Opowiadania. Wybór esejów i listów, 2nd edition, revised and supplemented, J. Jarzębski (ed.), Wrocław 1998, p. 477].

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Schulz and the pupils of the Drohobych middle-school in the room of drawing models, 1926, photo: National Digital Archives   

Another important rule we could call the law of musicality: in many stories, it is neither presented events nor elaborated oneiric poetic images that come to the fore, but the linguistic form, the sound of phrases, the repetition of phones, the melody of speech. Lastly, the third regularity refers to the incomplete, non-integral nature of everything that exists in the world represented. That is why the Age of Genius childhood both happened and did not happen, and even when the narrator tells us about finding a part of the Book, the Authentic (symbolizing the Scripture of Nature, the full understanding of the world once accessible), then it turns out that inside we can only find an information about a woman suffering from poor hair growth and about a "master of black magic”, a charlatan, Mr. Bosco from Milan. "There are things than cannot ever occur with any precision. They are too big and too magnificent to be contained in mere facts. They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to lose their integrity in the frailty of realization” (Book, ibid., p. 128).

Schulz died in Drohobych ghetto on 19th November 1942, shot by a Gestapo officer. We do not know the place of his burial. But we can be sure that his work has not lost anything of its integrity and perfection of realization.

Dr Michał Bandura

References:

  • Schulz, B., Opowiadania. Wybór esejów i listów, 2nd edition, revised and supplemented, J. Jarzębski (ed.), Wrocław 1998, p. 477.
  • Gondowicz, J., Schulz (1892-1942), Warszawa 2006.
  • Jarzębski, J., Wstęp, in: Schulz, B., Opowiadania. Wybór esejów i listów, 2nd edition, revised and supplemented, J. Jarzębski (ed.), Wrocław 1998, p. 477.
  • Słownik schulzowski, 2nd edition, W. Bolecki, J. Jarzębski, and S. Rosiek (eds.), Gdańsk 2006.