Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder and the Hijacking of History 
by Benjamin Balint.
Norton, 307 pp., £23.99, April 2023, 978 0 393 86657 5
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Bruno Schulz​ was born in Drohobych in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1892. Except for small forays to Warsaw and Vienna, he hardly ever left his home town and died there at the age of fifty, shot by a Nazi officer. Schulz published just two books of stories in his lifetime: Cinnamon Shops in 1934 and The Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass in 1937. They are called stories but in fact are more like chapters of an unfinished novel. They don’t proceed in the way you might expect a story to proceed, certainly not with obvious beginnings or endings. In ‘Nimrod’, about a puppy, the prose mooches around the way a puppy might mooch, with bursts of energy but no discernible endgame: ‘Throughout August of that year I played with a splendid little puppy that had turned up one day on our kitchen floor, feeble and whimpering, still smelling of milk and infancy, with an unformed, roundish, trembling little face, its molelike paws sprawled along its sides, and with the most delicate, downy fur.’

There’s an expectation from a 19th-century European lineage of stories, the kind that Chekhov and Maupassant wrote, that if a story opens in this way then it will describe some anecdote or event involving the narrator and the puppy. Instead what follows are more pages of avid description of Nimrod until the story finishes with no finale in sight: ‘Nimrod keeps on barking, but the meaning of this barking has changed imperceptibly, has become a parody of itself – yearning, fundamentally, to express the inexpressible adequacy of this splendid project of life, full of piquancy, of unexpected little shivers and of punchlines.’ The best adjectives for Schulz’s stories are not so much intellectual as sensual. They’re sticky, fuzzy and so richly textured that they seem almost rotten. The stories move in such a private and self-sufficient way that they seem to leave no room for interpretation. It isn’t immediately clear how Schulz expects a reader to make contact.

The clue is in the stories’ ambiguous relation to reality. Schulz is very fond of the seemingly innocuous word ‘that’ (in Polish, the even more abbreviated word to): ‘throughout August of that year’, he writes in the opening of ‘Nimrod’, just as in other stories he refers to ‘that’ summer or ‘that’ winter. Through the medium of this apparently unremarkable word, Schulz’s tone hovers between that of a person talking to their closest friends and a bard recounting familiar tales. It’s as though he is always referring back to something his reader must remember – the seasons of a childhood, the ending of an epoch – but, of course, the reader has no such memories.

With this ambiguity, the surface of Schulz’s stories softens, allowing multiple meanings to emerge. Schulz’s fiction takes place in or around a nameless small town. In some ways this must be Drohobych, but it’s also an invented town, an elsewhere that Schulz makes up as he writes. There is a market square, there are shops and factories and houses, there are edgelands and marginal territories. At the same time, however generic this world may seem, there are the names of local streets: ‘Picturesque villas, the ornate houses of the rich, stood either beside the street or deep within gardens. In the spaces between them parks and the walls of orchards could be seen. From a distance the image called to mind Leszniańska Street in its lower, rarely visited regions.’ But at this distance of time and space, the reader has no way of knowing if this corresponds to any actual street – an uncertainty that is amplified by the names Schulz invented, such as his ‘Street of Crocodiles’, not a street in fact but an entire ‘district’ of ‘modern, sober forms of commercialism’. Everything exists precariously, as if by magic, and the same goes for the cast list. All Schulz needs for a story is his narrator and a father and a mother and Adela, the maid. There are other minor characters, but the basic structure is the same: a kind of magical-realist autofiction, as if Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks were rewritten on mescaline.

Schulz’s own adjective for this kind of writing was ‘mythical’, but this might give the uninitiated reader too Homeric an impression. It’s true that there are flickers of classical mythology, in his mentions of the Roman goddess Pomona or adjectives such as ‘Bacchic’, but Schulz can just as happily deploy references to Gobelins tapestries or a Talmudic repertoire: a Polish town square ‘swept clean of dust by hot winds, like a biblical desert’. He made all this sampling explicit in a note he published with The Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass: ‘a wreath of legends plaited from strands from all cultures and mythologies and transformed into a fascinating tangle of fabulation. It is worth emphasising that this fabulation, for all the wealth of its cultural elements, is strictly private and sui generis, that a wholly novel terminology is used.’

Meanwhile, these miniature myths are told in sentences whose syntax is often unwinding and Latinate, matched by Schulz’s occasional use of recondite terms (‘auricles’). His preference is always for richness, a deluxe taste most visible in the metaphors that are everywhere in Schulz’s stories, at once homely and narcotic: ‘The yellow winter days arrived, filled with boredom. A threadbare tablecloth, too short and pocked with holes, covered the rust-coloured earth … The days hardened from cold and boredom like last year’s loaves of bread. They were cut open with dull knives, without appetite, with a lazy somnolence.’

The way Schulz’s narrator sums up the Street of Crocodiles could serve as a description for the entire theatrical scenery of his fictional world, where nothing is fully real: ‘Our language does not possess definitions that can, as it were, apportion a degree of reality, define its density. Let us put it bluntly: the fatal flaw of this quarter is that nothing in it is ever realised, nothing reaches its definitivum.’ The stories obey dreamlike and impossible transitions, digressing from an errand to a lost path to a schoolroom to a simile, so that entering a story by Schulz is in some ways like entering the escalator system of a giant shopping centre, with unexpected bridges and sudden distortions of perspective.

What this means is that the stories aren’t in fact myths so much as experiments in giving the Mitteleuropean bric-à-brac – the mannequins and organ-grinders and carriages and patented machines and absent fathers – the kind of encoded significance that kabbalistic Tzaddiks found in ancient Midrashic texts. Not that kabbala is really Schulz’s preference. His models for the Tzaddik are gloriously mundane: the precocious child, whose store of images and memories overflows with inexplicable meaning; and the masochist or foot fetishist, worshipping the way a woman stretches out a slippered foot ‘like a serpent’s tongue’.

Schulz was a well-known visual artist before he began publishing his stories. His paintings and drawings are lurid, expressionist and often beautiful, but they seem stuck on portraying a certain obsessive scene: a man being trampled or ridden or gently humiliated by a woman, naked or in stockings or in a corset with a whip. In one story he describes a concealed second-hand bookshop, selling ‘a collection of highly ambiguous publications and private editions. The attentive sales clerk opens up additional stockrooms that are filled to the ceiling with books, prints and photographs. These vignettes, these prints, exceed our most daring dreams a hundred times over. We have never sensed such culminations of depravity, such sophistication of debauchery.’ One of these books was produced by Schulz himself: his ‘Booke of Idolatry’, a sequence of semi-pornographic cliché-verres depicting variously elegant scenes of S&M, which he printed and then bound into booklets to give to friends.

It feels important to remember these gleeful images when considering some of Schulz’s more grandiose proposals. (His inventions, he once observed, tend towards ‘aberration, persiflage, buffoonery and self-irony’.) He often mentions a theory of the book, the ultimate book or mythical genealogy that will give the universe its absolute explanation. But this book is only ever glimpsed in fleeting moments, somehow concealed in much more comical and ordinary disguises: an ornithological textbook, an old calendar, a stamp album, a mail-order catalogue, or simply used as scrap to wrap food, so that only the classified ads at the back are left – adverts for ‘a Miss Magda Wang’, whose ‘speciality is breaking the strongest character’. Reading this junk dominatrix advert, Schulz writes, it ‘felt as if the directions of moral designations had strangely slipped away, and that we were here in a different climate in which the compass of emotions worked the other way around’.

It’s therefore uncertain how these teeming stories might represent anything like an identity, especially a national identity. Schulz’s fiction operates in a world where ordinary border control is ignored, if not irrelevant. But this is the conundrum which Benjamin Balint has now tried to resolve. In 2o18 he published a history of the trial in Israel over the legal status of Kafka’s manuscripts. In Balint’s analysis, the trial became an allegory of Kafka’s Jewishness, and the story he has to tell about Schulz is another case study from what’s beginning to look like an ongoing investigation into the way a prewar cosmopolitan Jewish diaspora can be assimilated to a postwar Israeli nationalist model. For both Kafka and Schulz, the possibility seems remote. ‘It looks as though Schulz could barely identify himself with reality, let alone with the Jews,’ Philip Roth once observed to Isaac Bashevis Singer. He was using the terms of a famous joke of disavowal in Kafka’s diaries: ‘What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.’

It’s true that Schulz was born into a Jewish family. His father was a merchant in the textile trade. In Drohobych they lived above the family shop on a corner of the market square. The surrounding area was oil country, and in the forty years after Schulz’s birth the town went through a series of identity crises. During the First World War, Russian troops entered the town and destroyed it, burning down the family shop and home. Schulz managed to escape and ended up in Vienna, before returning home in August 1918. At that point, Drohobych was technically part of the West Ukrainian Republic. Between 1919 and 1939 it became part of an independent Poland and it was during this period that Schulz developed his art. The only language he ever wrote in was Polish. According to his friend Witold Gombrowicz, Schulz was ‘the most European writer, with the right to take his place amongst the greatest intellectual and artistic aristocracy of Europe’, and surely this is much more accurate than Bashevis Singer’s extraordinary statement to Roth that Schulz would have been a better writer had he written in Yiddish, like Singer.

And yet in some ways your identity will exist in proportion to the level at which it’s attacked. Around the beginning of the 20th century, if you were Jewish and living in the Austro-Hungarian empire, you were unlikely to have the luxury of an uncontested neutrality. Among other Jewish people there were accusations of too much assimilation or not enough, depending on your class or religious belief; too much interest in Zionism, or not enough. Among the goyish neighbours it was simpler: you were Jewish because they said so. The question – both then and now – is how seriously to take this attribution. Certainly, to grow up Jewish in the Austro-Hungarian Empire could do strange things to your idea of belonging. There were three variables – of race, of language and of nationality – and these could overlap in contradictory and changing ways.

So it was with Schulz. All identities for him were fleeting. ‘I am a public employee, an Austrian, a Jew, a Pole – all in the space of an afternoon.’ He went to synagogue just once a year, on Yom Kippur, to keep his father company. Even in the late 1930s, as the Nazi threat grew, Schulz’s observation of politics was part of his general theory of mutation and myth: ‘Political programmes are only the rationalised surface, an internal index of the deep transformations taking place in the depths of collective consciousness … they ferment in the mythical depths where the longings, raptures, ideals, and forms of the collective imagination are born.’ His universe was based on a meticulous principle of mutation – ‘This migration of forms is the essence of life’ – and therefore of non-identity. Even interior decoration was porous. ‘The core of furnishings, their substance, must already be loose, degenerate and susceptible to extreme temptations,’ the father argues in a ‘Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies’.

‘In some sense,’ Schulz once wrote, ‘we derive a profound satisfaction from the loosening of the web of reality; we feel an interest in witnessing the bankruptcy of reality.’ If that’s your metaphysical position, any allegiance to a general community seems unlikely. However, this was obviously complicated by what happened in Drohobych during the war. On 1 August 1941 Galicia became part of the Nazi General Government, and Schulz was subsumed in the system of Nazi race classification. By November all exits from Drohobych were forbidden, and at the end of that month all 12,000 Jewish inhabitants of the town were forced to leave their houses and move into a ghetto.

At first Schulz was given a parodic job as a librarian: sorting through the books and art collections looted from Jewish homes, making decisions on what should be kept. Deportations to Belzec began in March 1942. At this point, in the unbearable description of his friend Izydor Friedman, ‘he completely broke down and changed beyond recognition. He ceased to be an artist and thinker. He thought only about food.’ What kept him alive was the patronage of a Nazi psychopath called Felix Landau, who became his protector and humiliator – Schulz was the underman to his overman, his ‘personal Jew’. The beautifully sadistic women in carriages who peopled Schulz’s fantasies became a literally sadistic man in a carriage with a gun.

Landau happened to see some of Schulz’s pictures, which he admired. He forced Schulz to paint his portrait, along with portraits of girlfriends of Gestapo officers and murals in the SS casino and riding hall. Accounts of Landau’s atrocities – shooting Jewish children in the street, shooting at Jewish people working in his garden from the balcony of his villa – would seem exaggerated were it not for his own descriptions of mass killings in his journals. Landau’s last demand of Schulz was that he paint a series of murals based on the Grimms’ fairy tales for his children’s playroom. By November, Schulz had resolved to try to escape, using false papers sent to him by friends. The date he fixed on was 19 November 1942. That morning a Jewish pharmacist, panicking at a routine check, shot a Gestapo guard in the finger. In retaliation Gestapo officers were given a day to shoot any Jew they happened to encounter on the streets. Between 160 and 230 Jewish men, women and children were killed. One of them was Schulz.

A strange afterlife began. Following the war, Drohobych became part of the USSR. Neither Schulz’s writing nor his art suited the ideals of Socialist Realism in Soviet Ukraine or Soviet Poland (both of which were also marked by a tradition of antisemitism). He wasn’t mentioned in textbooks, or was mentioned only to be dismissed: his name and talent were preserved only in the émigré journals of Gombrowicz and other resistance sources. Then, in 1967, the Polish literary critic Jerzy Ficowski wrote Regions of the Great Heresy, a book that reconstructed Schulz’s biography while also offering a reading of his work as radically original.

Around the same time, Celina Wieniewska translated Cinnamon Shops into English. When it was republished in 1977 as part of Philip Roth’s ‘Writers from the Other Europe’ series it finally led to an Anglo-American appreciation of Schulz. A year later, Wieniewska published a translation of The Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass. Both translations are fluent and elegant, but they simplify where Schulz was dementedly complex. In 2018, Madeline Levine produced a new translation that attempts to ‘get closer to the texture of Schulz’s prose by stretching English syntax to make it accommodate the sinuosity of Schulz’s sentences rather than reining them in’.

Across Europe Schulz gradually acquired a reputation that matched his grand talent, but the terrible manner of his death meant that he was given a halo. The expert in the artifice of myth-making became a myth himself, centred around two absences: Messiah, the novel he had been working on when he died, the manuscript of which has never been found; and the mass of his paintings that were lost or dispersed, including the final murals on the walls of Landau’s children’s playroom.

Ficowski tried to find these final murals without success. Then, in February 2001, ten years after Ukraine gained its independence from the USSR, two documentary filmmakers from Hamburg – Benjamin Geissler and his stepfather, Christian Geissler – located them in the kitchen of a first-floor apartment at 14 Tarnowski Street, in a building still known as Villa Landau. The apartment had been occupied for 44 years by an elderly couple, Nadezhda and Nikolai Kaluzhni, who had been resettled there from elsewhere in Ukraine as part of the process of Sovietisation.

This apartment now became a microcosm of postwar ideology. The Geisslers’ motivation for finding the murals was a kind of desperate guilt. Christian Geissler’s father had been a convinced Nazi: in locating this last document of Schulz’s suffering, his hope was somehow to atone for a family’s sins. It wasn’t clear, however, who could be said to own these images. The Geisslers informed the mayor of Drohobych, Oleksy Radziyevsky, along with the minister of culture for Ukraine, the undersecretary of state in the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and the German secretary of culture. They also contacted Yad Vashem, Israel’s museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, and a team of art conservators, Ukrainian and Polish, came to assess the murals’ condition. Plans were discussed as to how they could be preserved in place, perhaps converting the apartment into a ‘Reunion and Reconciliation Centre and Bruno Schulz Memorial Museum’.

The idea of instituting a museum to Schulz inside the former home of his Nazi tormentor, and evicting a Ukrainian couple in their seventies in the process, was not unproblematic. Still, what happened next was no less outlandish. As the museum’s funding was being worked out, Yad Vashem struck a private deal. Three months after the murals’ discovery, three representatives from the museum, acting on the orders of Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem and a veteran of the IDF, arrived at the apartment. With the consent of Nikolai Kaluzhni, they chiselled almost all of Schulz’s paintings off the wall, detaching five scenes along with the underlying plaster.

Kaluzhni later claimed that he had made his decision independently of the local authorities, but there were rumours of bribes of up to $900,000 to Drohobych officials. From this point on the heist became disquietingly official. Ukrainian police (also allegedly bribed) escorted the truck carrying the murals to the Polish border, where Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Shevach Weiss, used his diplomatic immunity to take them across the frontier. The stolen paintings were then flown to Israel, where they were stored in the Yad Vashem basement for eight years while arguments over their ownership continued. They were finally put on show in 2009, after an agreement was reached to consider them ‘on loan’ from Ukraine.

‘To which nation or country or cartography does Schulz belong?’ Balint asks. ‘Does Schulz’s legacy belong to Poland, Ukraine, Israel or to cultural heritage as such? … Was “Operation Schulz” a clandestine rescue – a homecoming to a home Schulz could not have envisioned – or a usurpation? An emancipation or a theft?’ The problem with this series of questions is that Schulz’s own sense of his Jewishness was so attenuated. It’s true that some elements of his thinking seem to borrow structures from Jewish tradition, especially kabbalistic traditions of a book that if interpreted correctly will reveal extraordinary wisdom, and of a messiah who will initiate a new world of meaning. But this book is always mislaid or overlooked, just as Schulz’s idea of a messiah was of someone who might be sighted in a nearby village. The structures are perverted into something deeply personal and strange.

Schulz’s story has now become, Balint writes, ‘a telling example of the Shoah as seen through the self-aggrandising ideological prisms of “official” memory’. Balint would like the story of what happened to Schulz’s murals to become so richly ambiguous that the reader wonders if a theft may really be a kind of homecoming. The problem with this isn’t that Poland or Ukraine have any major claim on Schulz’s identity, given that neither existed in their current state when Schulz was alive. It’s not even that the arguments used by Yad Vashem are so obviously weak: that Schulz was a ‘Jewish artist’, because he was killed as a Jew, and that therefore ‘the correct and most suitable place’ to house the drawings he sketched during the Holocaust is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. (At no point in Schulz’s life would he have defined himself as a Jewish artist, and to let the conditions of his murder define his work is wilfully tendentious.)

No, the problems are much more mundane. The first is that the theft happened while discussions were ongoing about the best way to preserve the murals, discussions in which Yad Vashem was openly involved. The heist – without any legal justification – foreclosed a process of complex political thinking. The second is that these paintings aren’t really expressions of Schulz’s art. They are documents of his appalling suffering. Made under duress, and now damaged and discoloured, they can’t easily be used – in the way Balint used Kafka’s literary manuscripts – to stand for Schulz’s work as a whole.

Still, any book that allows us to think again about the problem of Jewish Mitteleuropa should be celebrated. A harmful way of thinking about Jewishness has often reverberated in the postwar period – combining contemporary nationalist fervour with nostalgia for the shtetl, a sort of revenge kitsch. Cynthia Ozick, writing to Balint about the murals, insisted that ‘Europe has never deserved, and never will deserve, the presence of Jews, or the work of their hands and their minds.’ The productions of Schulz and an entire constellation of Jewish writers in Central Europe are much more subtle and varied than this kind of statement allows.

In the summer of 1938, Schulz reviewed Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke with erudite delight. With this book, he wrote, the reader was in the presence of ‘a new and revolutionary novelistic method and form, in sum, of a fundamental discovery: the annexation of a new territory of spiritual phenomena, a domain which up to now had been utterly ignored’. According to Schulz, Gombrowicz had escorted the reader out of the salon and into ‘the kitchen of our self’: fantastical and shameful. Many years later, in 1961, after receiving the first French translation of stories by Schulz (Traité des mannequins), Gombrowicz – who had been an exile in Argentina, and was then living in the South of France – wrote a corresponding appreciation of Schulz. He concluded that they ‘were effectively conspirators. We devoted ourselves to experiments with a certain explosive called Form. Not form in its ordinary sense – for us it was about “creating form”, “producing” it, and “through this production of form, to create oneself”.’ ‘We were both,’ he concluded, ‘completely alone before Form.’ Their dialogue is a much more fitting memorial to Schulz than some paintings done for a psychopath’s children.

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