This week at Weirdfictionreview.com is largely devoted to Bruno Schulz, the great Polish writer and artist whose life was tragically cut short when he was shot dead by the Nazis. Schulz’s work, collected in The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, has a dreamlike quality that shares affinities with the work of Kafka, but seems distinctly more subtle, drifty, and complex, at least in English translation. In a sense, he is the Proust of the Weird. As translator John Davis notes in our interview with him, Schulz found the fantastical in the mundane details of the world: the numinous surrounds us. so that there is no difference, and no barrier, between the fantastical and the real. This gives his stories a faintly haunted quality, in that the weird exists not just in the sometimes strange happenings, but in the very fabric of the prose itself, in each sentence. It is a subtle form of the weird, and means that even in a literature like the weird that focuses on a sense of “unease,” Schulz exists in the interstices.
As might be expected, interpretations of Schulz’s fiction in film have had mixed results. If your meaning exists in the precision of description of image or person, and in the sentence, how can a dramatized version on the screen really capture that essence? The film version of “Sanatorium” above, from 1973, features some striking cinematography – and we’ve used two screenshots on our main page – but must substitute its own meaning for Schulz’s in a way that erases Schulz’s meaning – more so than is often the case in the translation from prose to film. It’s entirely possible that Schulz is unfilmable.
The Brothers Quay have also attempted to capture Schulz on the screen, although it might be more accurate to say that they have used Schulz to explore their own obsessions. While their Street of Crocodiles is compelling and a genuine work of art, it does not, for me, capture the essence of Schulz’s fiction. It emphasizes instead a heightened dread and twitchy anxiety that is at odds with the nostalgia in Schulz’s work. It is actually more Kafka-esque than Schulz-ifarian, so to speak. Schulz’s fiction is much more delicate, its strength, its muscularity manifesting in subtle ways, much as a very slender sword may prove less breakable than a blade that, to the eye, would seem to be superior.
In terms of translations, readers of our The Weird compendium will have the opportunity to compare that version, taken from the book publication, and the newer translation by Davis posted this week on WFR.com. Are the differences as severe as the difference between the two films mentioned above? Probably not, but we still believe the exercise should prove enlightening.