Murdered promise

The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz, by Jerzy Ficowski (editor), Picador, 582pp, £50

February 12 1999 / New Statesman

To read the fiction and correspondence of Bruno Schulz, knowing that he was murdered by the Nazis, is a bit like watching footage of passengers board a plane that later crashed: you long to warn him of the dangers ahead. As a Polish-speaking Jew in a largely Catholic country and an avant-garde artist living impecuniously in the provinces of eastern Galicia, Schulz felt intensely isolated for much of his life. He worked as an art teacher in Drohobycz, supporting his extended family, and he was part of no community of artists or metropolitan networks; he seldom left his shtetl, travelling occasionally to Warsaw and once to Paris. Like Kafka, whom he translated and whose story Metamorphosis he evidently read carefully, he never married. He was not published until he was 40.

His letters are palpable with the dread of extinction, of metaphorical disappearances; he feared that his work would never find a readership. “I need a friend. I need the closeness of a kindred spirit. I want some affirmation of the inner world whose existence I postulate.” When the end came, it was quick and brutal: visiting the “Aryan” quarter of the Drohobycz ghetto on a privileged pass, in November 1942, he was stopped and shot by a bored Gestapo officer. One bullet. Gone. A great lost talent.

With Schulz died not only what the American-Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick has called one of the most “original literary imaginations of modern Europe”, but much of his unpublished literary work, including his only completed novel, The Messiah, his diaries and many of his letters. Jerzy Ficowski, editor of this book, has travelled for years in search of the scattered fragments of Schulz’s oeuvre, a tireless sleuth seeking to redeem the senselessness of his death. Ficowski, who found 200 drawings and works of graphic art on his travels through the ashen landscape of postwar central Europe, was tantalised by the notion that The Messiah may one day be discovered to take its place in the canon of 20th-century literature. Yet, in a way, the novel already exists: its presence has long been felt even in its absence - Ozick has written of its supposed discovery in her novel The Messiah of Stockholm, and the Israeli novelist David Grossman once met a Pole who claimed that Schulz had shown him the opening line of The Messiah: “Morning light rises over a city; a certain light, towers.” I wonder.

It is hard to think of a more hysterically imagined work than The Street of Crocodiles, the themed collection of stories (or episodes), published in 1934 when Schulz was 40. The verbal landscape of this fictional memoir of childhood is restlessly, at times tiresomely, inventive. The young boy-narrator’s house is dominated by the presence of his sick, bearded father, a shopkeeper who gives up work and takes to mooning around, a withered presence living on the edges of the family’s life (sometimes he disappears for days into the dark places of the house).

The narrator watches his father as “point by point, he gave up the ties joining him to the human community”. Schulz, like Kafka, is obsessed with metamorphic fantasies and by the father as monster, as the Great Magician, the Heresiarch. In the boy’s overheated imagination his father is transformed into grotesque, phantasmagoric shapes, his textile shop becomes a forest of lust and intrigue, and even innocent birds from his father’s aviary are imbued with menace.

The prose strains for metaphorical surprise: the narrator meets a woman whose “face works like the bellows of an accordion”; his father’s face dissolves into a “thoughtful net of wrinkles”; salesgirls have skin “like grey parchment”. In one scene, the father becomes, not a beetle as in Kafka, but a cockroach after the boy sees him late one night crawling naked across the floor. “He moved with the many-limbed, complicated movements of a strange ritual in which I recognised with horror an imitation of the ceremonial crawl of a cockroach.”

Schulz’s Drohobycz is an enchanted city of the imagination, a place of “make-believe streets”, and his stories are a kind of extended secular rapture: he deifies his family and fetishises the objects of daily life. Of his own style, he once wrote that he was a “parasite of metaphors . . . carried away by the first simile that comes along”. At times, his struggle to remake the world in language - his restless quest for aesthetic surprise - can result in ungainly, clotted sentences, and in moments of unintentional hilarity, as when he writes of passing cyclists in the village: “They must have felt it themselves when, hanging like spiders among the delicate machinery, straddled on their pedals like great jumping frogs, they performed duck-like movements above the wide turning wheels.” Can you imagine how such people might look?

At the end of 1938, when Bruno Schulz returned from his only foreign trip, to Paris, he announced that he despaired of ever “crossing the borders of the Polish language”. Four years later his murder seemed to have confirmed the fatalism of his declaration. And yet this magnificent Picador edition of his collected works, with its many pages of Schulz’s own tormented, sexually bizarre drawings and illustrations, as well as his essays and letters, triumphantly proves, in Philip Larkin’s line from “An Arundel Tomb”, that “Our almost instinct - almost true/ What will survive of us is love.”