BORN: 1892, Drohobycz, Galicia, Austria- Hungary
DIED: 1942, Drohobycz, Poland (now Ukraine)
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
The Street of Crocodiles (1934)
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937)
Schulz is considered one of twentieth-century Poland’s greatest writers, though he was hardly prolific. His reputation rests on a small body of extant work: the short- story collections Sklepy cynamonowe (The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium pod klepsydra (Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass). An amalgam of autobiography, fantasy, and philosophy, Schulz’s stories are often compared to the dreamlike works of surrealism, symbolism, and expressionism. Such comparisons notwithstanding, Schulz was not a member of any of these schools, and his work represents a significant departure from the dominant tenets of each.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Unhappy Teacher Longing to Write. Schulz was born in Drohobycz, a provincial town that became part of Poland when that country regained independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. The youngest son of a Jewish textile merchant, Schulz studied architecture for three years at Lvov Polytechnikum. While he did not attain a degree at the Polytechnikum, his proficiency in graphics later earned him a teaching post at a high school in Drohobycz. According to his biographer, Jerzy Ficowski, Schulz loathed his job and devoted his spare time to writing and drawing.
Imagination Flowing in Letter. Somewhat reclusive, Schulz rarely left his hometown and relied on correspondence for much of his communication with other writers and artists. Among his correspondents was Deborah Vogel, a poet who edited the literary journal Cuszjtar. In his letters to Vogel, Schulz included strange and fantastic narratives based on his childhood experiences. At Vogel’s suggestion, Schulz shaped these stories into his first book, The Street of Crocodiles. Published in 1934, this volume impressed the Warsaw literati and won a golden laurel from the Polish Academy of Letters. Schulz published only one more book in his lifetime, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, although he had been working on a novel titled Mesjaz (The Messiah) when he was fatally shot by a soldier in Nazi-occupied Drohobycz in 1942. The manuscript is believed to have been lost or destroyed during World War II.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Schulz's famous contemporaries include:
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): Famed Argentine author, internationally recognized as one of the most important Latin American writers and thinkers of the twentieth century.
Leopold Senghor (1906-2001): Senghor, a poet and cultural theorist of international repute, was even better known as Senegal's first (and longest-serving) president after independence from France, which he helped negotiate. Senghor remained in office from 1960 to 1980.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963): One of the most celebrated American poets of all time, Williams was associated with both modernism and imagism, and was also a practicing physician for many years.
James Joyce (1882-1941): One of the most highly regarded literary figures of the twentieth century, this Irishman is best known for his famous short stories and novels; these include Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939).
Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969): Eisenhower was the thirty-fourth president of the United States, from 1953 to 1961; prior to his presidency, he presided over the Allied forces' defeat of the Axis powers in Europe during World War II.
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953): Ruthless dictator of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953, Stalin was responsible for the murder of millions of his citizens as well as for the rapid industrialization of Russia and other member-states of the Soviet Union.
Works in Literary Context
In the thirty-two short stories that constitute his entire body of work, Schulz offered his readers an original presentation of a world whose character transcends politics, psychology, or philosophy. The vision of subtle spirituality that he created owes a great deal to a sublime imagination that reveals and evokes, through kaleidoscopic change and metaphoric language, hidden realms of reality. In addition to being a writer, Schulz was also an artist. His many drawings and sketches can thematically be divided into Drohobycz sketches, self-portraits, erotic scenes, and illustrations for his short stories. Though these works share certain elements with his fiction, the latter far surpasses them in pure imagination and originality.
Childhood and the Grotesque. The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass have been compared to the fiction of writers such as Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust. In their fiction, both Kafka and Schulz transform banal places, people, and events into highly symbolic and often grotesque narrafives. For example, in The Street of Crocodiles, the narrator tells of his father’s physical and mental deterioration through symbolic metamorphoses into a bird, a cockroach, and a crab. Many critics contend, too, that Schulz’s writing resembles Proust’s in its obsession with childhood and time. In his stories Schulz devotes much attention to the narrator’s impressions of his past and to the process of memory itself.
Oneself in the Past and One’s Dead in the Future. Unlike The Street of Crocodiles, which focuses primarily on the narrator’s peculiar father, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass deals mostly with the experiences of the narrator himself, who resides in a quasi-magical world where time and space are malleable. In this world it is possible to move through both time and space as though neither existed fully independent of one’s movement. In one episode, for instance, the narrator visits his dead father in a strange sanatorium, where the older man carries on a posthumous existence.
Of Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, Emil Breiter observes that ‘‘[Schulz] tears the mask off the world by depriving it of the principle of causality, both temporal and spatial. In the apparent chaos that rules in ‘supernumerary time’ or in illusory space, the writer preserves such discipline in reasoning, shaping, and observation that one would think he existed in the clearest of realms, one perfectly ordered and free from contradictions.’’ This ‘‘tearing the mask off the world,’’ however, should not be mistaken for a refusal of some reality principle. Rather, Schulz is tracing out what it might mean to understand the world not simply as a function of some external and eternal set of natural laws, but also as something that comes into being for us depending on where we stand.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Schulz was an author who treated normal reality as fantastical. This practice situates his work within the broad-reaching genre of magic realism. Here are a few other texts that are magic realist in orientation, being set in the world we know but asking us to believe that it follows a set of rules different from those we are used to:
The Tin Drum (1959), a novel by Gunter Grass. This German author's postwar novel about Oskar Matzerath— ostensibly an autobiography written from memory while its narrator (though not its actual author) is in a mental hospital—traces the life of a boy who not only remembers his own birth but who also deliberately stopped growing at the age of three and whose screams shatter glass.
Paradise (1998), a novel by Toni Morrison. This novel explores the history and tensions of the fictional town of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black town near which a women's commune has recently been established in an old convent. In following the lives and deaths of the women from this convent, Morrison makes use of several realitybending elements of magic realism.
The Satanic Verses (1988), a novel by Salman Rushdie. This much-maligned novel earned Rushdie a fatwa, or edict of death, from the Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran at the time of the book' publication. The novel centers on two Indian Muslim actors who survive the midair explosion of a hijacked airplane, and afterwards transform: one into an angel, and one into the devil.
Works in Critical Context
Bruno Schulz is widely considered one of twentieth-century Poland’s greatest prose stylists, though his body of work was small indeed. The two volumes of short stories he published have generated and played host to a broad range of criticism from essayists around the world. In the Boston Review, Benjamin Paloff writes, ‘‘Schulz’s stories, phantasmagoric portraits of small-town life during the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire, are told in a lush, lyrical prose that is widely credited with reinvigorating the Polish literary language of the 1930s.’’ Further, Schulz’s biographer Jerzy Ficowski writes in his definitive study, Regions of the Great Heresy, ‘‘In a small provincial town, Bruno Schulz, a modest drawing teacher, undertook the lonely creation of a new world. He created a personal and disquieting bible: two collections of stories in which the object of worship is the secret essence of things which transcend their own limitations—the magic of creation.’’ In short, Schulz was profoundly concerned with reality, but it was reality’s essence—creation and invention themselves—not its external appearance, that concerned him. And what could be more at the heart of reality than, as Schulz himself put it in the story ‘‘The Book,’’ ‘‘this sense of things beyond name whose first taste on the tip of the tongue exceeds the capacity of our admiration’’?
Responses to Literature
1. Why do so many authors, poets, dramatists, and others work so hard to offer visions of the world that are not ‘‘reality’’ as we know it but that readers will nonetheless find plausible? Why do you think readers identify with these visions? Structure your answer as an essay responding to the structure and elements of fiction in one or more of Schulz’s stories, analyzing both Schulz’s rationale for his craft and your own response to it.
2. One theme that frequently arises in Schulz’s work is the relationship of a child with his or her father. Compare and contrast three of Schulz’s short stories with regard to the way they treat relationships with parents. What overall trends do you see in Schulz’s treatment of this theme?
3. Research the short story as a genre, considering at least two prominent definitions. Compare and contrast two of Schulz’s short stories with regard to what a short story ‘‘should be’’ or ‘‘really is.’’ In what ways does Schulz’s work confirm and/or challenge the definitions with which you are working? Are there ways in which his writing asks you to rethink these definitions? If so, how would you redefine the short story in a way that accounts for his work?
4. Consider the processes of disintegration that Schulz describes in his short stories. What trends do you see in his descriptions? Look closely at word choice and sentence structure, at the elements of language that Schulz mobilizes to evoke a fuller sense of loss and disarray. Do you also see opposing tendencies in the same stories? What do these stories communicate, overall, with respect to the themes of loss and disintegration?
Banks, Brian R. Muse & Messiah: The Life, Imagination and Legacy of Bruno Schulz. Cornwall, U.K.: Exposure Publishing, 2006.
Brown, Russell E. Myth and Relatives: Seven Essays on Bruno Schulz. Munich: Verlag Otto Sagner, 1991.
Ficowski, Jerzy. Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, a Biographical Portrait. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
Ficowski, Jerzy, ed. The Drawings of Bruno Schulz. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1990.
Goslicki-Baur, Elisabeth. Die Prosa von Bruno Schulz. Bern: Herbert Lang/Franldurt: Peter Lang, 1975.
Kitowska-Lysiak, Malgorzata, ed. Bruno Schulz. In Memoriam. Lublin, Poland: Wydawnictwo Fis, 1992.
Lewis, Henri. Bruno Schulz ou Les strategies messianiques. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1989.
Stala, Krysztof. On the Margins of Reality: The Paradoxes of Representation in Bruno Schulz’s Fiction. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1993.
Wyskiel, Wojciech. Inna twarz Hioba: Problematyka alienacyjna w dziele Brunona Schulza. Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1980.