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)

1 comment:

Kagemusha said...

Great illustrations!