The Light Waters of Amnion

Dan Jacobson

  • The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz edited by Jerzy Ficowski
    Picador, 582 pp, £50.00, December 1998, ISBN 0 330 34783 7

It is not necessarily a disadvantage for a writer to be childish and shameless. In his writing, I mean. Dante was a great genius and the master of a highly elaborated theology and cosmogony. Among the tasks to which he put his gifts was that of inventing an inferno in which he inflicted hideous punishments on persons who had thwarted and oppressed him in earlier years. If an adult sense of embarrassment or compunction had inhibited him as he went about this agreeable duty, the poem would have been much diminished. Or, to put the point the other way around, the poem would have suffered irreparably if everything elevated in it had not been mingled with its baser, more primitive elements.

Bruno Schulz was not Dante. Nor was he another Kafka (a writer whom he greatly admired). No Thomas Aquinas stood behind Schulz’s infernos and glimpses of paradise; nor is there in his work any notion of an inaccessible Law of the kind Kafka invoked with unappeasable irony. What Schulz did share with Kafka was a Father Problem. His father, like Kafka’s, was a merchant from whose influence he found it impossible to escape; not even the father’s early death (when Schulz was only 23) set him free. So what did he choose to do with the man in his fiction? Well, the narrator’s father makes an early appearance in the second of the stories published in The Street of Crocodiles. We come on him as an irritable invalid lying in bed and conning the account-books brought from his textile-shop on the floor below.

It then sometimes happened that he quietly got out of bed and ran to the corner of the room where an intimate instrument hung on the wall ... My father attached himself to it with a long rubber hose, as if with a gnarled, aching umbilical cord and, thus connected with the miserable apparatus, he became tense with concentration, his eyes darkened, and an expression of suffering, or perhaps of forbidden pleasure, spread over his pale face.

A little later he begins ‘to shrink from day to day, like a nut drying inside the shell’; he climbs on top of the pelmets and wardrobes and ‘freezes into immobility’; he indulges in a ‘childlike twittering’ or in flapping his arms and crowing like a rooster. None of this restrains him from further evacuatory extravaganzas (‘sitting clumsily on an enormous chamber pot behind a windmill of arms’), while conducting a dialogue with ‘Jehovah’ or the ‘Demiurge’ in the ‘language of thunder’: ‘In a flash of lightning I could see my father, his nightshirt unbuttoned, as, cursing terribly, he emptied with a masterful gesture the contents of his chamber pot into the darkness below.’

One cannot but read this as a child’s revenge against the all-powerful parent – exposed here, in fantasy at least, at his most intimate, vulnerable moments – especially as the child pays homage at the same time to his ‘masterfulness’. Elsewhere in the interconnected group of episodes or phantasmagoria which make up both The Street of Crocodiles and Schulz’s only other completed volume, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, the omnipresent father is shown to be as mutable and indestructible as a cartoon character. He keeps birds in the attic and threatens to become one himself (a throwaway line tells us that he has a ‘feathered cock’); later he is transformed into ‘a stuffed condor’ with a powerful beak and a naked neck. He delivers lengthy lectures on the nature of matter (‘Lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life’); he also assumes the attributes of a cockroach, a fox (‘in permanent contact with the unseen world of mouseholes, dark corners, chimney vents and dusty spaces under the floor’) and an astronomer who uses the chimney-piece to discover in the heavens ‘the clearly visible contours of an embryo ... sleeping upside down in its blissful sleep in the light waters of amnion’. He repeatedly disappears or dies, only to be resurrected as casually as he has just been done away with. During one such return he becomes engrossed in electrical experiments and succeeds in turning his brother (‘Uncle Edward’) into the chime of the front-door bell.

Other characters constantly appear and disappear, though in less radical fashion, throughout both books. They include the narrator’s ineffectual and inconsequential mother, the assistants in the store who are alternately wild and docile, various aunts, uncles, coach-drivers, clerks and suchlike, and the uncontrollable, always desirable servant girl, Adela, who keeps the father in line by threatening to tickle him. These personages are not alone in showing that they have a vitality and will of their own: everything else in the stories is inclined to do so too – plants, clouds, postage stamps, architectural columns, roadways, pieces of cloth. Extra hours, days or months appear in the calendar whenever they are needed; other periods are dismissed out of hand because they are ‘too spacious for their content’. In one episode a new galaxy (‘The Cyclist’) is discovered in the skies; in another we learn that an animal’s horn is actually the external sign of an idée fixe which the creature has been secretly nourishing; in others again, maps grow into three-dimensional landscapes under the reader’s eye and houses throw off as many rooms, staircases and galleries as they wish. And there are many, many more such fantastications.

By contrast with the unbounded imaginative licence of his work, the author’s life was a quiet, sombre, constrained affair. Nevertheless it ended in circumstances more nightmarish and yet (at that time) more commonplace than anything he could ever have dreamed of. In the ‘Afterword’ to this volume by Jerzy Ficowski we are told that Schulz, the third child of a Jewish family, was born in 1892 in the small Polish town of Drohobycz. His father, who had drifted away from the religious orthodoxy of his parents, was a dealer in textiles. The languages used in the household were Polish and German; Schulz attended the local high school, where he distinguished himself in Polish, drawing and mathematics. He made two abortive attempts to study architecture at the Lvov Polytechnic, and then another, equally unsuccessful, in Vienna. Thereafter he settled down in his home town, lived with his mother and an ailing sister, got a job as a teacher of drawing and crafts, and wrote and drew in his spare time. What he felt about his day-job can be judged from a letter written to a literary friend:

I’m still in Drohobycz, in the school where the gang go right on playing fast and loose with my nerves. For you must realise that my nerves have been stretched thin like a net over the entire handicrafts centre, have crept along the floor, smothered the walls like tapestry and covered the [work]shops with a dense web. This phenomenon is known to science as telekinesis, and ... makes everything that happens in the shops ... seem to happen directly on my skin as well.

His dreams of escape, of marriage, even of managing to get a sustained spell of paid leave from the school, came to nothing. (However desperately he may have wanted to transform the circumstances of his life, one can’t help feeling that his wish not to do so was always marginally stronger.) He exhibited his pictures in various Polish cities without success. It says a great deal, however, for the sophistication and openness of Warsaw’s literary circles of the day that the merits of so unconventional a book as The Street of Crocodiles (1934) were recognised immediately: it received admiring notices and was awarded a major prize. Three years later it was followed by Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, which was published with Schulz’s illustrations to the text. These are reproduced in the present compendious volume, as are all his extant drawings and etchings. The book-illustrations are dreamier and less tormented than the ‘independent’ productions, which are generally realist-expressionist in manner and much given to representations of slightly built, large-headed males in abject postures (worshipping a slipper, peering hopelessly over the bottom of a bed, preparing to be whipped), while groups of nude or semi-nude females gaze at them, or away from them, with an air of haughty boredom. In very different mood, there is also a portfolio of affectionate impressions of the town’s Hasidic Jews.

Two years after Sanatorium was published, the Germans invaded Poland. Initially Drohobycz fell into that part of the country which was occupied by the Soviet Union, so it was not until June 1941 that the town was taken over by the Nazis. Though Schulz’s work had yet to be published abroad, his reputation in Poland was sufficiently well established for the Polish Government in Exile (in London) to request the local underground movement to issue him with ‘forged Aryan papers’, in an attempt to secure his safety. That plan, like so much else in Schulz’s life, came to nothing. What happened subsequendy is best described in his editor’s fierce words:

An official of the Gestapo, one Felix Landau from Vienna, a murderer of many Jews, boasted that he had a Jewish artist-slave whom he kept alive on a slice of bread and a bowl of soup. That is how art, the vocation of Schulz’s life, prolonged his existence for over a year ... On 19 November 1942, during an operation against the Drohobycz Jews ... Schulz was shot in the head by a Gestapo officer named Karl Günther.

‘The exact location of his grave,’ Ficowski continues, ‘is unknown.’ The book does, however, contain a photograph of the spot in Drohobycz where he was murdered. It shows a couple of shops with flats above, on a suburban street like any other, in a Central European town like any other. The larger of the shops sells kosmetsky and perfumerje. Above its window hangs an elegant wrought-iron balcony.

Every aspect of the history of Central and Eastern European Jewry is now overshadowed or occluded by our knowledge of the fate that eventually befell it. So it is not surprising that attempts have been made to read Schulz’s work in a proleptic or teleological spirit: to treat it, in other words, as if it is bound to contain coded intimations, even warnings, of the great catastrophe which was to engulf the community he belonged to. The implication is that the more of these the critic can educe, the more ‘important’ the work must obviously be. Thus the ingenious adaptation of The Street of Crocodiles by Théâtre de Complicité, which was recently staged at the National Theatre and then in the West End, begins and ends with the ominous sound of an army marching on the theatre itself; at the climax to the play Adela, the servant girl, raises a revolver and fires it point blank (à la Karl Günther) at the temple of the hero/author. Since at least one well-known American critic (Cynthia Ozick) has referred offhandedly to Adela as a ‘proto-Nazi’, why should she not be put to dramatic use in this way?

In fact, there are no marching feet in the stories; and the Adela who appears in them belongs not to the Third Reich but to the generations of indispensable fictional servant girls who precede her. She is a flighty, cheeky, bossy, sexy, ‘slim-legged’ young woman, alternately idle and hard-working, whose sinister powers extend no further than the forefinger with which she threatens to tickle the narrator’s preposterously protean father. We see her ‘warm from sleep and with unkempt hair ... grinding coffee in a mill which she pressed to her white bosom’; or pursued about the house by the skylarking shop assistants from below; or returning from market laden with cherries and apricots ‘in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons’; or plucking chickens and putting a shine on the furniture; or spending her days in front of a mirror ‘endlessly making up and leaving everywhere tufts of combed-out hair, brushes, odd slippers and discarded corsets’.

Some Nazi! The attempt to impute significance to Schulz’s stories by way of events which had yet to happen when he was writing them is demeaning, a way of being cheaply wise about them; the effect is to make the stories less poignant and distinctive than they actually are. One of their most touching features, indeed, is their innocence: the author’s absorbed, claustrophobic preoccupation with the scenes and people he knew all too well, and from which he could escape only by means of the daringly irresponsible transformations he put them through in his fiction. Something analogous can be said about the letters which are reprinted here. Briefly or at length, with more or less intimacy, they discuss his teaching, his friendships, his depressions, the bits of travelling he did, the books he was reading, the books he was trying to write, his (disappointed) hopes of having his work translated into French or Italian, and other such matters. Not until after Hitler’s invasion of Austria do threats from the outside world (‘these shattering historical events’) irrupt into his consciousness; and even then he appears to push them aside – in all likelihood with some effort – surprisingly soon.

Fatally innocent though Schulz may have been in some respects, he was also a literary sophisticate, and had clearly read writers like E.T.A. Hoffman, Gogol and Kafka with the closest attention. Dostoevsky, too, whose story ‘The Crocodile’ describes the embarrassment for all involved when a St Petersburg man-about-town is swallowed by a crocodile and then, from within the beast’s belly, threatens to sue its owner for damages. (I suspect that that crocodile had a hand or claw in the title Schulz gave to his first book.) Nothing would be easier than to make an anthology of striking descriptions and flights of fancy from this volume to illustrate both the gluttonous nature of Schulz’s sensibility and the sharp recoil of his wit:

The rust-coloured earth was covered with a threadbare, meagre tablecloth of snow full of holes ... The chimney-sweeps could not get rid of the crows which in the evening covered the branches of the trees around the church with living black leaves, then took off, fluttering, and came back, each clinging to its own place on its own branch, only to fly away at dawn, in large flocks, like gusts of soot, flakes of dirt, undulating and fantastic, blackening with their insistent cawing the musty yellow streaks of light. The days hardened with cold and boredom, like last year’s loaves of bread.

But in the end those qualities, dazzling though they are, are not enough. Paradoxically, the compulsive fecundity of his imagination is the undoing of much of the work as well as the source of it all. Since the universe (i.e. Drohobycz) he is constantly describing and transmuting has no rules, it has no narratives either: the incidents in any one chapter could be transposed to any other with little or no loss. The result is that they forfeit the distinctiveness that only a specific context has the power to give them, and we are too often left with detachable, anthologisable moments of freakish disturbance and sinister serenity. This is less true of The Street of Crocodiles than it is of Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, where physical and mental transmutations follow each other breathlessly, as if in a fever, and the more they spin out of the author’s control the more adjectives and adverbs he throws after them. In past years John Updike and Isaac Bashevis Singer, among others, have made large claims on Schulz’s behalf. While his imaginative vigour is indeed comparable with that of his great European predecessors, his work lacks their ruthless logic, the stern, paternal fastidiousness to which they exposed their mental offspring.