This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Bruno Schulz (1892 – 1942) was a Polish writer of stories that share some affinity with the work of Alfred Kubin, Franz Kafka, Leonora Carrington, and Michael Cisco, among others. He was shot dead by a Nazi officer when he ventured into an “Aryan” section of his town during World War II. A great prose stylist, Schulz created a mythical childhood in his fiction that centered on surreal, sometimes grotesque events. English-language translations include The Street of Crocodiles (1963) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1988). The title story from the latter collection, first published in 1937 and collected as part of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is the tale of a strange sojourn by the narrator in which the weird seeps through in quiet but unsettling ways. It is also available to read on this site in the translation of John Curran Davis. 101 Weird Writers is honored to present this appreciation of Schulz and his life and work, as written by regular contributor Larry Nolen.
– Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers
Some authors require more than a handful of pages or a single reading for their works to open up to readers. Early 20th century Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz is certainly one of those writers. At first, the stories contained within the Penguin edition The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories felt odd and weird, yes, but there was little emotional resonance to them. In a sense, my experience was akin to something experienced by a character in Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s 1996 short novel, Distant Star. In a key scene late in the novel, the protagonist (and authorial stand-in) Arturo Belano is reading Schulz while avoiding the attention of another character, Wieder. Belano’s differing reactions to Schulz the two times he attempts to read him sums up succinctly the shift in attitude that I myself had as I continued to read Schulz’s stories:
I opened the book, the Complete Works of Bruno Schulz translated by Juan Carlos Vidal, and I tried to read. At the end of a few pages I realized that I was not understanding anything. I was reading but the words were passing by like incomprehensible beetles, busy in an enigmatic world.
Same as myself, I discovered with alarm and lit the cigarette and tried to lose myself in the pages of my book. The words of Bruno Schulz acquired for a moment a monstrous dimension, almost unbearable. I felt that the dull eyes of Wieder were scrutinizing me and at the same time, that in the pages that I was turning (perhaps too quickly), the letters that were before beetles had turned into eyes, into the eyes of Bruno Schulz, and they were opening and closing again and again, some eyes clear like the sky, shining like the sea’s spine, which was opening and blinking, again and again, in the middle of total darkness. No, not total, in the middle of a milky darkness, like the interior of a black cloud.
At first, in stories such as “The Street of Crocodiles,” there is this sort of busy scurrying, not necessarily those of incomprehensible beetles, but rather of a similar sort, that of:
Tall dark salesgirls, each with a flaw in her beauty (appropriately for that district of remaindered goods), came and went, stood in the doorways watching to see whether the business entrusted to the experienced care of the salesman had reached a suitable point. The salesman simpered and pranced around like a transvestite. One wanted to lift up his receding chin or pinch his pale powdered cheek as with a stealthy meaningful look he discreetly pointed to the trademark on the material, a trademark of transparent symbolism.
Here the hustle and bustle of a remaindered goods store may find its parallel in Bolaño’s scurrying beetle, as each sifts through wasted, spoiled goods in search of something of value. It is alien to those looking in from the outside, yet there is a steady pace to it. It is perhaps the picture-perfect example of capitalistic banality in action. Yet there is much more to Schulz’s stories, something more sinister and frightening in its implications. The “eyes” that Bolaño describes, the ones that are ever and anon opening and blinking in a darkness that is not quite total yet still obscures vision, can be felt by readers as they come upon passages such as this, just a page further along in “The Street of Crocodiles”:
It is, as usual in that district, a gray day, and the whole scene seems at times like a photograph in an illustrated magazine, so gray, so one-dimensional are the houses, the people, and the vehicles. Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character. At times one has the impression that it is only the small section immediately before us that falls into the expected pointillistic picture of a city thoroughfare, while on either side the improvised masquerade is already disintegrating and, unable to endure, crumbles behind us into plaster and sawdust, into the storeroom of an enormous empty theater. The tenseness of an artificial pose, the assumed earnestness of a mask, an ironical pathos tremble on this façade.
This “thinness” of reality is a motif that Schulz explores frequently in his fiction. Beneath the hum-drum of an industrial society lurks another world, one in which all that activity is revealed to be a masquerade, a sometimes badly choreographed dance of characters from one crumbling cityscape to another. There is little permanency to our lives; all seems to be on the brink of dissolution. Considering that Schulz’s surviving work was largely composed during the interwar period, when the great empires had collapsed at the end of World War I and their totalitarian successors were beginning their ascent, it is tempting to point out parallels between specific stories and real-world events. After all, we are viewing Schulz’s stories across the chasm of the Holocaust, and his ultimate fate – being shot dead in the streets of his occupied hometown of Drohobycz/Drohobych on the infamous “Black Thursday” of November 1942 by a Nazi officer – certainly colors our impressions of his fictions and illustrations. Yet it would be a mistake to attribute some of the more unsettling elements of Schulz’s writing to a sort of prescient warning about the devastations of World War II, which came less than a decade after his two story collections were published. Rather, in stories such as the novella-length “Spring,” there is this sense of Schulz looking back to the age of Central and Eastern European empires for something that was lost after 1918:
The world at that time was circumscribed by Franz Josef I. On each stamp, on every coin, and on every postmark his likeness confirmed its stability and the dogma of its oneness. This was the world, and there were no other worlds besides, the effigies of the imperial and royal old man proclaimed. Everything else was make-believe, wild pretense, and usurpation. Franz Josef I rested on top of everything and checked the world in its growth.
This image of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz Josef, represents the stable counterforce to the unfolding narrative of “Spring.” It also can be seen as one enduring metaphor that permeates many of Schulz’s fictions. The weird, shifting, unstable phenomena in his fictions can be seen as antagonists almost, divisive forces that had split a multinational empire into smaller, often mutually hostile nation-states. Certainly “Spring” is based in part upon an actual visit of the old emperor to Drohobycz some years before World War I, and many of the impressions discovered within find their roots in Schulz’s own reactions to that historic visit to a provincial backwater town. An argument can be made that in the intervening decades, the old empire came to represent for Schulz stability in a sea of chaotic change. Certainly the images of the cities and the townspeople in Schulz’s fiction and illustrations resemble much more those of the late 19th century than interwar 20th century Polish society. Consider this illustration that he drew for “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass”:
The attire, the traveling bag, cane, and train resemble more closely something from the 1890s than the 1930s. Even the illustration style that Schulz chose feels separated from Modernist techniques that were prevalent during the 1930s. This all creates a feel in “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” of a time that has already been lost, spurring a sense of yearning to return to the past that accentuates the narrative’s sense of confusion.
“Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” is perhaps Schulz’s strangest, most disturbing fiction. Here his illustrations and words complement each other most fully.
Schulz’s mixture of distinctive humans, with their detailed and oversized heads, contrasted with faint background images creates a sense of irreality, of something that could exist and may be encountered, but yet ultimately is not as substantial as the people that move among it:
The whole landscape, somber and grave, seemed almost imperceptibly to float, to shift slightly like a sky full of billowing, stealthily moving clouds. The fluid strips and bands of forest seemed to rustle and grow with rustling like a tide that swells gradually toward the shore. The rising white road wound itself dramatically through the darkness of that woody terrain. I broke a twig from a roadside tree. The leaves were dark, almost black. It was a strangely charged blackness, deep and benevolent, like restful sleep. All the different shades of gray in the landscape derived from that one color. It was the color of a cloudy summer dusk in our part of the country, when the landscape has become saturated with water after a long period of rain and exudes a feeling of self-denial, a resigned and ultimate numbness that does not need the consolation of color.
The sanatorium toward which the narrator travels is in another country. It is a place where his father has not yet died, where he is alive despite the shadow of that death in his own country casting a pall over him. Here Schulz sets up a situation in which reality can be seen as malleable, where as the sanatorium caregiver says, “we reactivate time past, with all its possibilities, therefore also including the possibility of a recovery.” This malleability, however, comes at a dreadful cost, as the narrator discovers to his chagrin as he ventures out from the sanatorium into the streets below. There, life such as that of his father’s is conditional upon the whims and beliefs of the beholder; the slightest doubt risks destroying everything. Control is illusory, and virtues that might have otherwise been steadfastly maintained have been abandoned here.
This is a sort of anti-sanatorium, where instead of the convalescing spending their time in isolation in order to become well, the locale has come to undermine their sense of place of time. It is the initiator of change rather than the conservator of a former state of being. The patients are here left to fend for themselves in a world that is careening out of their control or even their ability to understand it:
Conditions in the Sanatorium are becoming daily more insufferable. It has to be admitted that we have fallen into a trap. Since my arrival, when a semblance of hospitable care was displayed for the newcomer, the management of the Sanatorium has not taken the trouble to give us even the illusion of any kind of professional supervision. We are simply left to our own devices. Nobody caters to our needs. I have noticed, for instance, that the wires of the electric bells have been cut just behind the doors and lead nowhere. There is no service. The corridors are dark and silent by day and by night. I have a strong suspicion that we are the only guests in this Sanatorium and that the mysterious or discreet looks with which the chambermaid closes the doors of the rooms on entering or leaving are simply mystification.
As the story progresses, time slips out of the hands of the narrator and events grow more monstrous and terrifying, with soldiers marching in and dog-men appearing in the streets. The weird here has manifested as something anti-order, anti-peace. In it, the dissolution of states at the end of World War I can be discerned in symbolic form, as the old order has collapsed and something new and chaotic has emerged to take its place. Yeats in “Easter, 1916” might have proclaimed that a “terrible beauty is born,” but for Schulz there is more the sense of monstrosities being birthed. Whether or not he is correct is still being argued 70 years after his death; the haunting images in his fictions and illustrations still lurk around us even today.