Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A fencing master of imagination

The Street of Crocodiles is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories (or novel, depending on who you talk to) originally published in 1934 under the title Cinnamon Shops, set in the small town of Drohobycz in southern Poland, where Bruno Schulz, its author, lived his entire life. The collection quickly won the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Letters. Schulz died in 1942, at the age of 50, gunned down in the street by an SS agent. No one knows where he was buried. An unfinished manuscript titled The Messiah that he was known to be working on was either destroyed or lost.

The description "semi-autobiographical short stories" seems a misnomer. "My soul sings of metamorphoses," Ovid tells us; Schulz's does as well. An uncle can become an electric bell. A calendar can "grow a thirteenth freak month," one that is "a hunchback month, a half-wilted shoot, more tentative than real." A father can transform into a cockroach, one that merges completely with the "crazy black zigzag of lightning" that pours from the cracks and chinks in the floor; a bird; a miracle worker, a "fencing master of imagination," and a grand heretic pontificating on the need for a second race of men "in the shape and semblance of a tailor's dummy." In short, the surreal permeates this more mythologized than remembered year of childhood, waging war, as the father did, as Schulz himself does, "against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled" their lives and their town. Banality is the true evil, the commercial Street of Crocodiles, for Schulz's characters. The cinnamon shops, as a counterpoint, represent the exotic, the extraordinary, the fantastic.

Schulz wrote in a letter to a friend: "It seems to me that the world, life, is important for me solely as material for artistic creation. The moment I cannot utilize life creatively--it becomes either terrible and dangerous, or morally vapid for me."

As someone who constantly found faces and creatures in linoleum patterns and knotty pine paneling while growing up, I delighted in passages such as this:

"Who knows," he said, "how many suffering, crippled, fragmentary forms of life there are, such as the artificially created life of chests and tables quickly nailed together, crucified timbers, silent martyrs to cruel human inventiveness. The terrible transplantation of incompatible and hostile race of wood, their merging into one misbegotten personality.

"How much ancient suffering is there in the varnished grain, in the veins and knots of our old familiar wardrobes? Who would recognize in them the old features, smiles, and glances, almost planed and polished out of all recognition?"

and I marvelled at the mind who could create a character who would glorify matter and creativity in such a provocative, perverse manner:

"Deprived of all initiative, indulgently acquiescent, pliable like a woman, submissive to every impulse, it is a territory outside any law, open to all kinds of charlatans and dilettanti, a domain of abuses and of dubious demiurgical manipulations. Matter is the most passive and most defenseless essence in cosmos. Anyone can mold it and shape it; it obeys everybody. All attempts at organizing matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve. There is no evil in reducing life to other and newer forms. Homicide is not a sin. It is sometimes a necessary violence on resistant and ossified forms of existence which have ceased to be amusing. In the interests of an important and fascinating experiment, it can even become meritorious. Here is the starting point of a new apologia for sadism."

(Also interesting in light of that passage is knowing that Schulz, who made his living as an art teacher in a high school, often drew himself in positions of submission and humiliation with women.)

This is a book read for its poetic language and imagery. I'm looking forward to reading Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, which continues the story of Schulz's family, and then returning to Street of Crocodiles; I don't believe I can possibly grasp all that Schulz intended on a first (or second attempt); it's much too rich.

I was cautiously happy to discover that The Drawing of Bruno Schulz was in our library (I say cautiously because I was afraid the masochism alluded to in articles about Schulz might be a little more than I could stomach--that didn't prove to be the case).

I learned that Schulz made a series of drawings to illustrate Cinnamon Shops and considered placing woodcuts within the text as was done in the early 19th century, but the collection was published without embellishment to keep production costs down. Schulz glued his original drawings into a copy of the book and presented it to his friend, the Polish novelist Zofia Nalkowska, who had first brought Cinnamon Shops to the publisher's attention. Unfortunately, this copy of Cinnamon Shops was destroyed. Schulz's pen and ink drawings were included in Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass when it was published three years later; stories and illustrations from the work were published in magazines as well.

Schulz began mailing manuscripts, letters, engravings and drawings from the ghetto in Drohobycz to others elsewhere Poland who he considered under less threat from the Nazis mere months before he was killed. Most of the work that survived has been gathered at the Museum of Literature in Warsaw. Much was undoubtedly destroyed, but there's still a possibility that some of his lost material will still be recovered.

Below are two illustrations from Sanatorium:

Father Jacob, at times dead or transformed into a cockroach in The Street of Crocodiles, is alive (or in limbo) in Sanatorium, as are the other main characters. Here he is, flying over a table, in a story called "Eddie."

And here's Joseph, the narrator, with his father in a sketch for the story "Spring." The automobile-telescope that's on the cover of the most recent edition of The Street of Crocodiles --the one I believe most of us have--is also from Sanatorium.

My apologies for such a choppy post--I hab a cold and wondered for awhile if I'd manage one at all.

(Cross posted at pages turned)

The Street of Crocodiles

I have very mixed feelings about this book; at times I hated it and at others I laughed or admired the writing or felt I could appreciate what Schulz was doing. Sometimes I was horrified by it.

It’s a series of short stories, sort of — I think of the chapters as being on the boundary line between stories and sketches. Some of them actually told a story with a plot, while others were more descriptive, without much, or any, narrative. They are about a young boy’s family and his city; I think we are safe in assuming that the main character is at least partly based on Schulz himself.

These stories are often fantastical. They might start off in a realistic mode, but most of them eventually veer off into the dream-like and the impossible. I wasn’t expecting this, and so I spent a lot of time figuring out what Schulz was doing and how I supposed to approach his stories. I found the reading experience to be disorienting — which isn’t a bad thing, really, although it wasn’t purely pleasure, either. As I was describing the stories to the Hobgoblin, he asked if they might be called “magical realism,” and I thought not, because to me magical realism is more about describing the fantastical or the magical as though it were real — to treat it matter-of-factly — when what Schulz does is the opposite; he takes the real and makes it strange and otherworldly.

My favorite chapters were the ones that had more narrative, such as “Birds” or “Cinnamon Shops.” The more descriptive chapters drove me crazy; I felt like I was drowning in Schulz’s incredibly dense language. As I look over the book trying to find a passage to show you what I mean, I realize that this isn’t bad writing really, not bad in the sense that Schulz loses control of it and his meaning gets away from him. Here’s an example:

Once Adela took me to the old woman’s house. It was early in the morning when we entered the small blue-walled room, with its mud floor, lying in a patch of bright yellow sunlight in the still of the morning broken only by the frighteningly loud ticking of a cottage clock on the wall. In a straw-filled chest lay the foolish Maria, white as a wafer and motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn. And, as if taking advantage of her sleep, the silence talked, the yellow, bright, evil silence delivered its monologue, argued, and loudly spoke its vulgar maniacal soliloquy. Maria’s time — the time imprisoned in her soul — had left her and — terribly real — filled the room, vociferous and hellish in the bright silence of the morning, rising from the noisy mill of the clock like a cloud of bad flour, powdery flour, the stupid flour of madmen.

I’m fine with the passage for the first two sentences, and even the third, although I do wonder what kind of “chest” Maria is lying in. I like the description of her as “white as a wafer and motionless like a glove.” Then we get the silence talking, and I feel like we’re entering into deeper waters, but I like the idea of silence talking, and even arguing and being loud. The last sentence begins to lose me, though — Maria’s time is filling the room? I sort of get it, if I stretch a bit. I like the image of the cloud of flour filling the room, but why the “stupid flour of madmen”? This book is full of language you can struggle with for a long time, if you want. Or, I suppose, you can refuse to struggle with it and just let it wash over you.

The sections that describe the father were the most powerful; it was these sections that horrified me. He goes back and forth between sanity and insanity, and during his insane times, he does things like keeping a flock of birds in the attic and crawling across the floor like a cockroach. And the family can’t really do anything about it. They often act as though he’s not there, as though there weren’t a completely insane man living in their midst. I wonder if some of the book’s mixing of fantasy and reality is the boy’s response to his father’s madness; in the world the boy lives in, how is he supposed to distinguish what is real and what is not? What does he have to hold on to that’s solid and certain?

The Street of Crocodiles

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Where to begin in writing about The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz? It is a beautiful and amazing book filled with joy and sorrow, mystery and wonder. It is poetry disguised as prose. It is imagination changing the everyday into something more.

The book is composed of stories told by a boy about his family and life. The central character in the boy's life is his father, a merchant who sells fabric that, in the story of "The Night of the Great Season," turns into a natural landscape as shoppers call for, unroll, and drape fabric on themselves and around the shop. The father, we are given to believe, is also not quite sane. He disappears for days in some part of the house and no one misses him until he turns up looking smaller, and then they all realize he's been gone. But oh, how I love this father character who discourses on the genesis and rights of tailors' dummies and raises exotic birds in the attic. Everyone thinks him daft, but the boy later comes to realize something else:
Only now do I understand the lonely hero who alone had waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city. Without any support, without recognition on our part, that strangest of men was defending the lost cause of poetry. He was like a magic mill, into the hoppers of which the bran of empty hours poured, to re-emerge flowering in all the colors and scents of Oriental spices. But, used to the splendid showmanship of that metaphysical conjurer, we were inclined to underrate the value of his sovereign magic, which saved us from the lethargy of empty days and nights.
Magic and poetry fill this book. And always there is the father who is engaged in an argument with God:
But at night these voices rose with greater passion. The demands were made more clearly and more loudly, and we heard him talk to God, as if begging for something or fighting against someone who made insistent claims and issued orders.
This argument might have something to do with creative will:
For too long the perfection of his creation has paralyzed our own creative instinct. We don't wish to compete with him. We have no ambition to emulate him. We wish to be creators in our own, lower sphere; we want to have the privilege of creation, we want creative delights, we want--in one word--Demiurgy.
As the father's curiosity and experiments and ideas get wilder and wilder, the family reaches a point when they can't take it any longer:
It was not because there was no grain of truth in Father's discoveries. But truth is not a decisive factor for the success of an idea. Our metaphysical hunger is limited and can be satisfied quickly. Father was just standing on the threshold of new revelations when we, the ranks of his adherents and followers began to succumb to discouragement and anarchy...we were fed up with miracles and wished to return to the old, familiar, solid prose of eternal order. and Father understood this. He understood that he had gone too far, and put a rein on the flights of his fancies.
One of the many things I loved so much about this book is the fantastic descriptions and events that suddenly take flight from mundane reality. One of my favorite of these is in the story "The Gale" where the wind as it gathers up its forces and fury is partly described thus:
There, in those charred, many-raftered forests of attics, darkness began to degenerate and ferment wildly. There began the black parliaments of saucepans, those verbose and inconclusive meetings, those gurglings of bottles, those stammerings of flagons. Until one night the regiments of saucepans and bottles rose under the empty roofs and marched in a great bulging mass against the city.
Brilliant writing, this. You will guaranteed find nothing even vaguely approximating a cliche in this book.

I feel as though I have quoted too much, but I couldn't help myself. I read this book for the latest Slaves of Golconda discussion. You can read what the other Slaves thought in one convenient location, and either eavesdrop at the forum at metaxucafe or, better yet, give your two-cents worth.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Bruno Schulz: Three Self-Portraits

A reminder that we'll begin discussing Schulz' The Street of Crocodiles on Wednesday.

ca. 1919

ca. 1920

ca. 1920

(Artwork taken from The Drawings of Bruno Schulz, edited by Jerzy Ficowski, and published by Northwestern University Press.)