BRUNO SCHULZ:
THE STREET OF CROCODILES

"He was small, unattractive and sickly, with a thin angular body and brown, deep-set eyes in a pale triangular face. He taught art at a secondary school for boys at Drogobych in southeastern Poland, where he spent most of his life. He had few friends outside his native city. In his leisure hours--of which there were probably many--he made drawings and wrote endlessly, nobody quite knew what."

Here is how the translator of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles begins her preface. We later learn from her that Schulz's early work was promoted by a Warsaw novelist, Zofia Nalkowska; that he published a collection of drawings, a novella, and another collection of stories entitled Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass. We are told that the manuscript of his unfinished novel The Messiah, on which he'd been working at the time of his death, has never been found. (This missing manuscript, incidentally, is at the center of a nearly breathtaking mystery by Cynthia Ozick called The Messiah of Stockholm.) We also learn that Schulz was murdered in 1942 by a Nazi officer who recognized him when he was walking in Drogobych's "Aryan" quarter and thus outside the ghetto to which he'd been confined as a Jew.

In The Street of Crocodiles Schulz reworks his memories of childhood into an intertwined series of prose pieces that display more the elements of an intensely lyrical memoir than a series of "stories." But no: these pages may actually make for the founding texts of a kind of "mythology." This, at least, is how Jerzy Ficowski, Schulz's best-known Polish admirer, presents Schulz in his own introduction to the book. The notion of a personal memoir dignified to the level of a "mythology" does not seem out of place. In the pages of this memoir every object and person touched by the writer's pen is charged and animated by an almost hieratic rhetoric. The cornerstone of Schulz's rhetoric here, its foundational trope, is clearly personification. But it is personification of a very particular sort. Can we speak of a Schulzian personification?

As regards the physical setting of the narrative, namely the Polish city of Drogobych, in no other writer can one read of a place in which objects are so charged with the winks, grimaces and winces of human personality. Attics gape in horror, then retreat; chair backs carved in relief dominate conversations with an interminable babble; building facades wait stoically or--as in the Americanized district of town--stare blankly upon dull afternoons whose greyness is so complete as to begin caving in upon itself through inertia.

If the narrator of these tales cannot help anthropomorphizing the objects of the world he evokes, what shall we say of the father figure he creates, the father he "remembers"? The father portrayed by Schulz is this work's protagonist, if any there is. But he is a protagonist whose relations to the narrator, as son, are beyond idiosyncratic. Specifically, the father here seems a kind of maddened embodiment of the philosophical and theological implications of Schulz's own poetics. This, in the context of modern literature, of the modern writer's memoir, is to my knowledge unprecedented.

Over dozens of fantastical pages, situated here and there across the book, the father is evoked as a kind of prophet or heresiarch, a man "stricken with the fire of God." And yet he appears also as an ineffectual idiot, repeatedly outfaced by the servant girl hired to work in his own house, the girl Adela. The narrator is right to speak of a heresiarch here because the father actually has a "doctrine" he tries to expound to those around him. The doctrine developed by this cloth-merchant-turned-prophet supplements Schulz's poetics in interesting ways--ways difficult to quite pin down.

Called in one place "the Great Heresy," the doctrine concerns more than anything the relations between matter and identity, or matter and spirit; it concerns the question of creation, insofar as creation is the imposition of function or identity upon pliable matter. And yet for Schulz matter is not exactly pliable: it carries its own internal strivings.

Presented in the form of lectures given by the father to two seamstresses, the doctrine at one point seems to be a kind of kabbalistic libertinage, as in the following:

"The Demiurge," said my father, "has had no monopoly of creation, for creation is the privilege of all spirits. Matter has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality, and, at the same time, a seductive power of temptation which invites us to create as well. In the depth of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions build up, attempts at form appear. The whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself.

"....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."

My father never tired of glorifying this extraordinary element--matter.

The creative violence extolled in this passage is contradicted soon afterwards, however, when the lecturing father speaks of the suffering entailed in creation. He is speaking of dummies, mannequins, and circus decorations, and of what they suffer:

Do you understand the power of form, of expression, of pretense, the arbitrary tyranny imposed on a helpless block, and ruling it like its own, tyrannical, despotic soul? You give a head of canvas and oakum an expression of anger and leave it with it, with the convulsion, the tension enclosed once and for all, with a blind fury for which there is no outlet. The crowd laughs at the parody. Weep, ladies, over your own fate, when you see the misery of imprisoned matter, of tortured matter which does not know what it is and why it is, nor where the gesture may lead that has been imposed on it forever.

This discourse developed by the father in his lectures is evidently fraught with the Jewish mythos of the Golem. If it represents Schulz seriously pondering the theological issues of the legend of the Golem, or if it rather represents a kind of fanciful dabbling in such questions, a dabbling mainly undertaken to develop the character of the narrator's father--I am not really qualified to judge. It would seem to me that the father in this text does have some import in relation to the writer's own work, his own idea of his work's importance, but again, the father’s is encountered obliquely, we see it through the distortion of a circus mirror, and it cannot be systematized.

Of interest in terms of Schulz the writer is the uniqueness of this evocation of the father. In the context of modern European letters, I know of no portrait of the writer's father that is so sympathetic. The father, as I've indicated, seems even an embodiment of Schulz's own creative concerns, a quixotic alter-ego. This portrayal is particularly idiosyncratic when one places Schulz next to Kafka, a writer who shares much with him, but who, of course, had no such sympathetic relation with his own father. One may think also of that generation of Viennese Jewish writers centered around Karl Kraus, a generation for whom the figure of the father represented only bourgeois stuffiness and deceit. It may be that the unique aura of Schulz's work arises in great measure precisely from his sympathy with the father's generation and with the people who dominated his childhood. And it may also be that this unique aura is what inspired Cynthia Ozick to write her own narration of the father in The Messiah of Stockholm, where it is Schulz's legacy as father that is taken up.

I mentioned Ozick's Messiah fleetingly here. Nonetheless, this novel will be permanently linked in my mind with my first reading of Schulz. It is only over the past couple weeks that I read The Street of Crocodiles, followed immediately by Ozick's novel. Such a cursory reading doesn't give me quite the background to write anything like an authoritative essay on either writer. Even so, I've written this brief response, fueled perhaps by the thrill induced by a first reading. These two works, read in sequence, make for the kind of unique experience on which all serious readers thrive: the experience of two styles and worlds very different from each other, yet circling around the same places, the same problems, the same collection of names lost and remembered. Do Schulz and Ozick's other works have such power? One is encouraged to find out.

Eric Mader-Lin
December, 1999

On REGIONS OF THE GREAT HERESY, Jerzy Ficowski's biography

 

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