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The Dream Bird Hatches from the Egg of Loneliness
by Diana Kuprel

How sad to think that at 30 Mazeppa Street, where I spent so many lovely hours, no one will be left, all of it will become mere legend. I don't know why I feel guilty towards myself, as if I had lost something and it was my own fault.

(from Bruno Schulz's letter to Anna Plockier, 19 November 1941)

(*30 Mazeppa Street was Anna's address in Boryslaw, a town in then eastern Poland, now Ukraine. She and her husband had planned to make their way to Warsaw but were killed by Ukrainian militia on 27 November 1941, a few days after she received Schulz's last letter. Schulz was killed one year later on 19 November 1942.)

Last summer, Toronto theatre-goers were treated to a performance of The Street of Crocodiles by Britain's Theatre de Complicite. The spectacle, which had played to rave reviews in London and New York before appearing at Harbourfront's Premiere Dance Theatre, was inspired by the life and work of one Bruno Schulz.

The year is 1942. Schulz is made to work for the Nazis who have occupied the eastern Polish province of Galicia where he resides. He is sorting banned books for destruction. From the pages of those books vivify images from his family's and homeland's history-like the multitude of feathered creatures which take wing from the well-studied pages of the father's ornithological textbook, or the demonstrating, multinational throngs that march along the avenues and side-streets of the stamp album into which the boy-philatelists delve. Theatre de Complicite's roots in improvisation provided the perfect theatrical medium for the poetically incantatory quality of Schulz's prose and the self-generative dynamism of his fictional worlds. And just as appropriately-for Schulz transforms his family's history into supple, metaphor-laden stories and then into mythology-the production brilliantly and seamlessly melded the biographical with the fictive towards the production of the legend of Bruno Schulz. It was not quite the coup-de-thtre this long-time admirer was hoping for, and the post-Holocaust interpretation took some disturbing liberties with Schulz's pre-Holocaust texts; nonetheless, the spectacle was an unforgettable and engaging "dance of the mind".

Director Simon McBurney commented: "We have attempted to create a peculiar theatre language, a fabric that might hold some of the scents falling from the jacket of Schulz's prose. But I must emphasize that the books, the stories, live as themselves. And if any strain of our imagination touches yours, then pick up a volume and that which we were digging for will have been found."

Now those whose imaginations were touched have the opportunity to pick up a rare volume of Bruno Schulz's complete extant works, and to dip into this "enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears." Editor Jerzy Ficowski has made it his life's work to search out and preserve the traces, and to reconstruct the genius of this writer lost in the smokes of history. The fruit of his Herculean labour is a stunning collection of prose, epistle, essays, and graphics. The volume is a wonderful introduction to, and veritable treasure-trove of, the divinely unique creative work of an oft-overlooked writer who with Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz formed the three pillars of the Polish avant-garde in the first half of the twentieth century, and whose work continues to be a source of inspiration for writers (Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Danilo Kis), theatre innovators (Simon Burney, Tadeusz Kantor), filmmakers (Wojciech Has), and animators (Jan Swankmayer) the world over.

Bruno Schulz was born in 1892 at a time when Galicia was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Jacob, was a cloth merchant who died in 1905 when Bruno was thirteen, after ten years of forced retirement. The mystique of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the mercery and fantasy worlds of the father would come to constitute integral parts of Bruno's imaginative universe. And the father would become the son's alter-ego, immortalized in prose with a masterful stroke of irony coupled with undeniable tenderness as the Great Magician, an Old Testament prophet, the Heresiarch, a Don Quixote "defending the lost cause of poetry", and, in the last stages of dementia when "point by point, [the father] gave up the ties joining him to the human community", a shrunken condor, a cockroach, and finally, some sort of crustacean in aspic about to be devoured.

"Jacob, start trading! Jacob, start selling!" they called and the chant, repeated over and over again, became rhythmical, transforming itself into the melody of a chorus, sung by them all. My father saw that resistance would be useless, jumped down from his ledge, and moved with a shout towards the barricades of cloth. Grown tall with fury, his head swollen into a purple fist, he rushed like a fighting prophet on the ramparts of cloth and began to storm against them. He leaned with his whole strength against the enormous bales... The bales overturned, unfolding in the air like enormous flags, the shelves exploded with bursts of draperies, with waterfalls of fabrics as if touched by the wand of Moses... Against that background my father wandered among the folds and valleys of a fantastic Canaan. He strode about, his hands spread out prophetically to touch the clouds, and shaped the land with strokes of inspiration. ("The Night of the Great Season")

As a young man, Schulz aspired to be artist. He gave up this dream in order to teach art in a local high school to support his family; the visual arts, however, would continue to play a prominent role-in terms of their influence on the theme, the style, and the favoured imagery of his prose, and in terms of his very survival.

Schulz continued to live at his parents' home in sleepy, provincial Drohobycz until his death, writing and publishing his short stories during the interwar period, and rarely venturing beyond the environs of this "village, forgotten in the depth of time, peopled by creatures chained forever to their tiny destinies" ("The Book"). While he was engaged for a period, he never quite got up the nerve to actually marry the girl. (And it is biographical facts such as these that have often provoked critics to compare Schulz with that other perpetually engaged, self-flagellating, Jewish writer in a minor language, Franz Kafka.) Essentially, Schulz, Ficowski explains, was a solitary, introverted figure whose preferred form of interpersonal contact was of the mediated, epistolary kind; through letters-which he treated as an art form and which often served as a testing ground for his prose work-he could "alleviate his isolation without having it disturbed by any outside presence".

Approaching the city square one day, we noticed an extraordinary commotion. Crowds of people filled the streets. We heard the incredible news that the enemy army had entered the town.

In consternation, people exchanged alarmist and contradictory news that was hard to credit. A war not preceded by diplomatic activity? A war amid blissful peace? A war against whom and for what reason? We were told that the enemy incursion gave heart to a group of discontented townspeople, who have come out in the open, armed, to terrorize the peaceful inhabitants. We noticed, in fact, a group of these activists, in black civilian clothing with white straps across their breasts, advancing in silence, their guns at the ready. The crowd fell back onto the pavements, as they marched by, flashing from under their hats ironical dark looks, in which there was a touch of superiority, a glimmer of malicious and perverse enjoyment, as if they could hardly stop themselves from bursting into laughter. Some of them were recognized by the crowd, but the exclamations of relief were at once stilled by the sight of rifle barrels. They passed by, not challenging anybody. All the streets filled at once with a frightened, grimly silent crowd. A dull hubbub floated over the city. We seemed to hear a distant rumble of artillery and the rattle of gun carriages. ("Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass")

When the Second World War broke out, Drohobycz endured two years of Soviet occupation before the Germans began their onslaught on the U.S.S.R. in June of 1941. Schulz was taken under the wing of a Gestapo officer, one Felix Landau from Vienna, who was fascinated by his drawings. The Polish Underground provided Schulz with false documents, but he never had a chance to use his "Aryan" papers. On 19 November 1942, during an operation against the Drohobycz Jews remembered by survivors as Black Thursday, Schulz was recognized and shot (out of spite?) by a Gestapo officer who was Landau's rival. A friend buried him at night in the Jewish cemetery. The exact location of his grave is unknown.

Schulz's extant works include just two slim volumes of short stories, Cinnamon Shops (1934, published in English as The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937), a novella entitled Comet, and a couple of other short prose pieces. Only a small fraction of the masses of letters he wrote between 1934 and 1941 survived to be reproduced here, but among those that did are some items of substance for scholars, including the complete correspondences with Tadeusz Breza and Romana Halpern, selections from a lengthy correspondence with Zenon Wasniewski, and his epistolary disquisitions on literary theory, such as his polemical, "open" letter to Gombrowicz. The volume also includes essays in which he expounds on his own literary theories about form and matter, brings his larger aesthetic concerns into focus, and offers some of the most penetrating and profound exegeses ever written on writers like Witkiewicz, Maria Kuncewicz, and Kafka. The manuscripts of two novels, entitled The Messiah (the inspiration for Cynthia Ozick's The Messiah of Stockholm) and Die Heimkehr, have been lost. (A typescript of Die Heimkehr was sent to Thomas Mann, next to Rilke the literary deity most venerated by Schulz, with whom he had been corresponding before the war; however, searches have failed to turn up any trace.)

Finally, those distinctive, dream-like drawings which managed to survive their "diaspora" in the Drohobycz-Lww region (of which he writes, regretting, in "The Age of Genius", "I allowed the neighbours to rummage about and plunder these stacks of drawings. They carried away whole sheaves of them. In what houses did they finally land, which rubbish heaps did they fill?") and the war are reproduced in this volume. While some of the figurative compositions are illustrations for his stories of the 1930s, others, tinged with fetishistic and masochistic motifs, seem to be the prologue to his earlier Book of Idolatry, the theme of which was the veneration of the woman-idol by a totally submissive man-slave. The inclusion of these drawings is valuable in that they provide a picture of a way of life which no longer exists, a highly charged, visual interpretation of the prose works themselves, and, with their sharp erotic undertones, direct insight into the oddly perverse imaginary world of this unusual man. In particular, they bring to the fore the sado-masochistic element which tends to circulate around the female figure who sexually dominates over and humiliates the admiring, desiring male hordes:

Just as my father pronounced the word `dummy', Adela looked at her wristwatch and exchanged a knowing look with Polda. She then moved her chair forward and, without getting up from it, lifted her dress to reveal her foot tightly covered in black silk, and then stretched it out stiffly like a serpent's head.

She sat thus throughout that scene, upright, her large eyes shining from atropine, fluttering, while Polda and Pauline sat at her sides. All three looked at Father with wide-open eyes. My father coughed nervously, fell silent and suddenly became very red in the face. Within a minute the lines of his face, so expressive and vibrant a moment before, became still and his expression became humble.

He-the inspired Heresiarch, just emerging from the clouds of exaltation-suddenly collapsed and folded up...

Adela's outstretched slipper trembled slightly and shone like a serpent's tongue. My father rose slowly, still looking down, took a step forwards like an automatom, and fell to his knees. The lamp hissed in the silence of the room, eloquent looks ran up and down in the thicket of wallpaper patterns, whispers of venomous tongues floated in the air, zigzags of thought... ("Tailors' Dummies")

Despite the relative paucity of his artistic output, whose thinness is made more obvious by being contained between the covers of one volume, Schulz has provoked comparisons with such luminaries in world literature as Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, in addition to Kafka.

As the quoted excerpts hint at, the stories themselves are exquisite, brilliant, shimmering works of art that remain open to myriad interpretations. Theorists of surrealism, psychoanalysis, magic realism, the grotesque, the avant-garde, and Jewish thought have all found here a fertile compost. The author appears self-reflexively to predict this potential for a multiplicity of interpretive angles to his texts:

One can read [spring] in a thousand different ways, interpret it blindly, spell it out at will, happy to be able to decipher anything at all amid the misleading divinations of birds. The text can be read forward or backward, lose its sense and find it again in many versions, in a thousand alternatives. Because the text of spring is marked by hints, ellipses, lines dotted on an empty azure, and because the gaps between the syllables are filled by the frivolous guesses and surmises of birds, my story, like that text, will follow many different tracks and will be punctuated by springlike dashes, sighs and dots. ("Spring")

Wisely, Ficowski has gone with the best extant translation, by Celina Wienewska. Wienewska does a superb job in rendering the striking sensuality of the metaphors, conveying the gently ironic tone that is present throughout, and approximating the poetic rhythms of the original. The translation is highly successful and, to her credit, does not read like a translation in the least. There are places where I wish she would have been more faithful to the original at the risk of making the phrasing translation-like, for unlike English, Polish is a highly elastic language, and this is what Schulz capitalizes on in the construction of his own fictional world. However, this is a minor point and should not dissuade potential readers. Here is but one example of the characteristic lyricism:

On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun-the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious black morellos that smelled so much better than they tasted; apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids-the raw material of meals with a yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild and rustic smell. ("August")

Each of two collections is made up of thirteen stories that together form a well-integrated literary unit, the theme of which is the return to childhood. In their entirety, they constitute a "spiritual genealogy" in which Schulz, in a fashion somewhat like Proust, somewhat like Mann, would uncover his own family's history through a retrieval of mythical archetypes contained in the realm of childhood symbols:

On my more modest scale I have attempted to uncover my own private mythology, my own "stories", my own mythic family tree. Just as the ancients traced their ancestry from mythical unions with gods, so I undertook to establish for myself some mythical generation of forebears, a fictitious family from which I trace my true descent.

In a way these "stories" are real, represent my way of living, my personal fate. The overriding motif of this fate is profound loneliness, isolation from the stuff of daily life.

Loneliness is the catalyst that makes reality ferment, precipitates its surface layer of figures and colours. ("An Essay for S.I. Witkiewicz")

The stories are narrated by the child, Joseph, who takes on the role of chronicler of his father's fantastical activities as the latter wages "war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city": the father imports exotic birds' eggs from all over the world and sets up an aviary in his attic, while he himself in his obsession is gradually transformed into one of his own feathered creatures; to an audience of sexy seamstresses, he expounds on a heretical doctrine, an apologia for sadism, a programme of a Second Demiurgy which would be the basis of a second Genesis; he inhabits a parallel universe in a sanatorium where they "reactivate time past, with all its possibilities, therefore including the possibility of recovery", so that he can carry on a vital life, at work and at play, even as he lays dying or dead in the "real" country ("Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass").

The Schulzian world is populated by a whole host of odd characters, many of whom are slightly defective. There is Adela, the house servant, who dominates over the household and deliciously torments the men around her with her blatant sexuality. And Shloma, the recidivist, who has a fetish for Adela's high-heeled shoes, which he steals away under his coat the moment he is released from jail. And Rudolph, Joseph's playmate and confidant, who shares in his great dynastic adventures. And Bianca, his adolescent love interest, whom he fantasizes as being the offspring of his beloved Archduke Maximilian. And the old-age pensioner who goes back to school. And Cousin Emil, who shows the young Joseph dirty pictures as he masturbates. And Touya, the idiot-girl with "small eyes and damp gums with yellow teeth under snoutlike fleshy lips", who in fury metamorphoses into a pagan idol from whose lungs "comes forth a hoarse animal scream".

The world that young Joseph inhabits, then, is a mythicized world of potencies, powers, and gods, and wherein the boundaries between the human and the animal and the vegetal are permeable and interpenetrable. Breaking from ordinary consciousness, he retrogresses to the "dawn of childhood, at the first daybreak of life" ("The Book"), to the world-building stage of rampant imagination. At this stage, trivial items constituting quotidian existence, the provincial inertia and paralysis, the idle time of boredom and somnolence, are transcended and transformed into sacrum: cosmic events rivalling the processes of Nature, dynastic affairs, and the coming of the Savior. In "The Book", for example, the "last pages [of the catalogue-cum-almanac], the unofficial supplement, the tradesmen's entrance full of refuse and trash" activate the narrator's imagination to fashion entire villages and to animate the curious creatures who inhabit them, such as Magda Wang, a specialist in "dressage" and breaking the characters of men, and Anna Csillag who becomes the apostle of hairiness with her potions.

In his prose work, Schulz presents a unique re-envisagement of the world, and explicitly demonstrates the inherent plasticity of literature to provide a panorama of the possible. In the return to childhood, to that playful stage where the imagination runs rampant over the manifold of particulars, Schulz delves into the world-building power of mythical consciousness by which he is able to participate in the poetic creation of a dynamically metamorphic world. Mythical consciousness functions as Schulz's prestidigitator, animating worlds through a dialectic of presence and absence: landscapes spring up, transform themselves, and dissolve at the shake of a hand; static representations of nations on stamps breathe living geographies, whose sceneries pass quickly across the stage of the sky; the winter world dissolves in puddles as the spring thaw sets in. Space is activated by "illegal time" and the reader is transported into the excesses, crazes, and miracles that make up that youthful period known as The Age of Genius.

And perhaps, in the final stock-taking, it is this valorization of the possible that is precisely what Schulz has to offer his readers today and to what we should attend, for "no dream, no matter how absurd and preposterous, is wasted in the universe. A dream contains a hunger for reality, a striving which compels reality, which grows imperceptibly into a claim and a postulate, a promissory note that calls for compensation" ("Republic of Dreams"). 

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