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A miniaturist and uncanny genius

Clive James is the author of, among other works, "Falling Toward England" and "The Silver Castle" and the forthcoming "As Of This Writing: The Essential Essays."

As a writer, a painter and a man, Bruno Schulz believed that the aim of life was to mature into childhood. With its overtones of me-speak, of getting in touch with one’s inner child, Schulz’s belief might look like yet another reason for not getting in touch with him. He didn’t write a lot, and a lot of what he did write was in a Polish difficult even for Poles; he is hard to translate. Nearly all of what he painted went missing. He is one of those creative spirits from what Philip Roth called “the other Europe,” the Europe beyond the Elbe, whose reputations tend to stay there because it is hard to airlift them out. If we add to all that the notion that he was a toy-cuddling advocate of infantilism, he could be lost to us indeed. But the truth of his mentality was anything but infantile: It was a penetrating realization that the perceptual store of our early childhood forms what he called “the iron capital” of the adult imagination.

The realization was itself realized in his two little books of short stories, “Cinnamon Shops” (otherwise known as “The Street of Crocodiles”) and “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass”: the two little books that constitute the bulk of his writing as it has come down to us, and which are enough by themselves to make him a weighty figure. Nobody quite matches him for seeing everyday objects in three dimensions and evoking them as if the fourth dimension, time, had been erased. Making a mythology from the actual, he convinces us that the actual is made from myths. Reading him, we feel as our own children must feel when we are reading them the words of Maurice Sendak while they are looking at the pictures. Colors breathe. Textures pulse. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker loom like totem poles. And it is all done in such a short span, in paragraphs worth chapters and chapters worth a book. There might have been another, longer work -- the novel usually called “The Messiah” -- but if the manuscript ever existed, it vanished, as the paintings and all other possibilities of future work vanished, along with his future. On a scale measured by his potential achievement, he died young.

In fact he had already turned 50 when he was murdered, but we are right to think of him as still beginning because it was always the way he thought of himself. So it was an untimely end, as well as a terrible one. If only it had been uniquely terrible. Alas, it was a commonplace. He was one more Jew rubbed out by the Nazis. The circumstances, in his case, were merely unusual. In the Drohobycz ghetto, a Gestapo officer with good taste, one Felix Landau, had made a pet of him so that he could paint murals. In November 1942, on a day of “wild action” -- that is, a day when the Nazis ran around shooting people at random instead of rounding them up to be shipped off in batches, as on an ordinary day -- Schulz’s protector took his eye off his human property. Landau had a jealous rival, another Gestapo officer, Karl Gunther. Landau had once shot Gunther’s pet dentist, so Gunther took the opportunity to get square. He put two bullets through Schulz’s head. If we find ourselves hoping that the first bullet did the job, it is because it is so hard to bear the idea that Schulz might have had even a split second to reach the false conclusion that his life had come to nothing.

It was a conclusion he had always been apt to reach even in normal circumstances. One of the many ironies of his life was that the Nazis made actual the torment of uncertainty in which he had lived and worked since his adolescence. Insecurity, indecisiveness and diffidence were marks of his personality. He was one of those geniuses blessed with an uncanny creative ability and cursed with an almost equally uncanny inability to do anything practical about it. From Jerzy Ficowski’s biography, this pitiably tentative personality emerges so sharply that it is likely to make us impatient, but decency and a sense of proportion demand that we should rein our impatience in: It was, after all, the condition for his inventiveness, which was the opposite of tentative and indeed looks bolder as time goes by. By extension, it would be wise not to become impatient with this biography. It has been a long time getting to us. The first version was published in 1967. This translation is of an expanded version, but it still has some of the marks of a thesis. “The attainment of the Schulzian artistic postulate led me to a state of feverish ecstasy” is not a heartening sentence to meet early on.

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Luckily there are better sentences to be met later, when we are told that Schulz’s jeweler’s glass was a kaleidoscope and that he had a way of being mathematically precise about myth. If such statements are not perfectly transparent, they are at least usefully suggestive and thus fall into the realm of true criticism. A more worrying feature is not the presence of jargon but the absence of a complete historical context. The Nazis are on parade, but the Communists are not. Introducing the book, which she translated, Theodosia Robertson tells us that Ficowski kept Schulz studies alive in Poland during the 1950s and 1960s despite “enormous obstacles,” but she doesn’t tell us what those obstacles were. More remarkably, Ficowski doesn’t tell us either. We assume that the obstacles were political. Communist Poland found it hard to be proud of the great modern Polish writers, because they would not cooperate. There were attempts to lure Witold Gombrowicz home, but they failed. Czeslaw Milosz remained resolutely unavailable, and indeed his masterly long essay “The Captive Mind” can now be seen as one of the first wedges driven between the planks of the Warsaw Pact.

Schulz, being safely dead, might have been more pliant, but there was something subversive about him. Any graduate of the Polish film and acting schools in the 1970s can tell you what it was. “What we got from him,” says a Polish actress of my acquaintance, “was luxury.” She didn’t mean the high life. She meant the way he brought out the riches of the ordinary life he led in the few hundred square yards of Drohobycz that he knew intimately and almost never left. He brought out the quality of things: things to eat, chairs to sit on, curtains of different weaves, the cart rattling out of the dark. And he brought out the diversity of people, all observed minutely as individuals, sometimes elevated to the status of mythical beings but never classified as types or members of a class. He was about as far from socialist realism as you could get. In preserving and furthering Schulz’s reputation, Ficowski was plowing a lonely furrow. Active in the intellectual movement that helped prepare the advent of Solidarity, he himself was an underground writer from 1977 onward. He is amply qualified to tell the story of the Communist state’s attitude to his touchy subject, but he doesn’t.

Perhaps he is worn out from trying to ride two horses at once. After it turned out that a few of Schulz’s murals had survived after all, Ficowski was on the spot, and understandably put out, when agents of Yad Vashem intervened to pack up some of the most precious fragments and ship them to Israel. A cultural version of the Raid on Entebbe, the caper raised not only a scandal but also a false question: Had Schulz been a Pole or a Jew? Ficowski, surely rightly, wants Schulz to be both but runs a danger of tipping the balance if he puts too much emphasis on the possibility that his country might have been, in the recent past, a bad host to the writer’s memory. It isn’t now, of course, but the recent past refuses to lie down and die, and for the less recent past, that goes double. Doomed to the margins in an anti-Semitic culture, weren’t the Jews oppressed even before the Nazis got there? Wasn’t Schulz a born victim?

He probably was, but not in the historical sense. Frustratingly missing in the area already noted, Ficowski’s sense of history is present and correct where it matters most: He sees the Drohobycz shtetl of Schulz’s childhood as a creative incubator and not just as a trap. Drohobycz was in the old Galicia, so Schulz was born and raised under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Until the Russians moved in and made it part of Ukraine, his hometown was part of a civilization. For Jews, that civilization certainly had its difficulties, but the coming nightmare kept nobody awake because it seemed unthinkable. Jews had a future. Schulz’s helpless fatalism has to be sought in his personality, and it is too much to assume that his personality was determined by his circumstances or else we would have to say that his talent was too. The fatalism and the talent went together.

Part of the fatalism was a counterproductive propensity to be a good man at every moment, with never a thought for his own long-term interests. The boy who was caught by his mother feeding flies so that they would be safe for the winter grew to be the man who would give all he had to a beggar. He gave everything of himself, as if there were no tomorrow. (There wasn’t, of course, but not even Adolf Hitler was sure of that yet.) As an art teacher, he would enthrall his pupils with his chalk-talk stories, caring for them far beyond the demands of the job and consuming the time he might have spent on his own art. He was consumed by the moment in the same way that his attention was consumed by an object. It was a miracle that he got anything at all drawn or written. He always needed someone else to discover him because he had no energy left over with which to discover himself.

“Cinnamon Shops” began in his letters to a friend, Debora Vogel. Without her, the book might never have happened. Women looked after him because he so obviously needed to be mothered. In his artwork, the dominatrix was omnipresent, and the figure most like him was usually on its knees. (All the women were real: When he drew them nude, their husbands recognized them and raised a ruckus.) His life was like that. The trap was in his mind. To call him a Jewish historic victim is to diminish him, the Jews and history itself, which shrivels to a cartoon if read through hindsight, thereby encouraging the hopeless notion that the Jews of Europe were born only in order to die. But they were born in order to live: hence the tragedy.

Even with his tremendous powers of hesitation, Schulz managed to become a member of the Polish Academy of Letters. By the time of his real entrapment, he was famous enough for other literary notables to attempt a rescue. He might have gotten away, but typically he was unable to face the choice. The choice might have come down to the impossible decisions involved in packing a bag: socks first or a spare sweater? He was like that. By giving us the man in all his frailty, Ficowski has helped to explain the artist in all his strength, but for the full measure of that strength we need to see those brilliant little books.

Theodosia Robertson promises us a new translation of them, done by herself: Apparently the full etymological depth of the prose will be brought out. Some excerpts from her work in progress can be read in this volume. Since too much incorporated scholarship could only put the text further out of reach, one is glad to note that the extracts do not look very different from the same passages in Celina Wieniewska’s established renditions, most attractively available in “The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz” that was published in London by Picador in 1998. Recklessly lavish in its production standards, the book cost a whopping 50 pounds sterling at the time, and it was a commercial flop. I got my copy in a remainder shop for a pittance, and no doubt it can be picked up reasonably cheaply on the Web. Edited by Ficowski and prefaced by novelist David Grossman at his most eloquent, it is a truly beautiful book, appropriate to its subject in everything but its physical dimensions.

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Essentially a miniaturist writer, Schulz looks a bit lost in so monumental a volume, but there is an upside: There is room to reproduce his marvelous graphic work at its full value, and the book would be worth having if only for its color reproduction of the single easel painting we know exists. Painted in 1920, it is called “Encounter: a young Jew and two women in an alley.” From that one page alone, you can see that Schulz had absorbed the whole tradition of European painting and would undoubtedly have added to it if his pictures had survived. Luckily the wave of history that rolled over images found it harder to wipe out words, and Bruno Schulz the writer is always with us. He is just a bit hard to get at. This biography helps.


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