Monday, March 4, 2019

Bruno and his Friend, the Future: The Collected Stories

Bruno Schulz, self-portrait, 1922.

Review of Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz, a new translation by Madeline Levine, released by Northwestern University Press.

Schulz (1892-1942) had very few friends. The future was one of them.

I suppose I first encountered the brilliant, mesmerizing, disturbing and delightful writing of the Polish genius Bruno Schulz on the installment plan. First, sometime as a teenager in the '60s while also bumping into the similarly magical writing of his contemporary and Czech counterpart Franz Kafka; second, by coming upon a 1977 article by Cynthia Ozick in The New York Times; third, by finding a dusty old bilingual English-Polish copy of two of his most famous collections, The Street of  Crocodiles (1934) and the fantastically titled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1935) in a used bookstore in about 1980; fourth, by watching a strange little 21-minute stop-action animated film by the Brothers Quay, loosely based on the aura and mood of Street of Crocodiles, in 1986; and fifth, when this new translation by Madeline Levine of his collected fiction was released late last year by Northwestern University Press.

Each time the encounter has been revelatory, but not until this recent complete representation of his unique talents did I garner the full impact of his accomplishment. Some of the best writers are, of course, like that: we read them astonished in our youth, amazed in middle age and gobsmacked in later life. Joyce’s Ulysses can be like that for some, Mann’s The Magic Mountain was also like that for me, and indeed, so it has been with my almost lifelong fascination with Schulz, a lonely and strange writer whose only friends seems to have been Us.

By which I mean that he would remain largely unknown and underappreciated until a present time arrived in which his true visionary status could be fully comprehended. Today, for instance. When I first encountered that earlier translation of Bruno (the 1963 work of  Celina Wieniewska called The Street of  Crocodiles, Complete Fiction) I was just as splendidly stunned as I was when I first encountered the writing of Franz Kafka, Robert Walser and Robert Musil, fellow East Europeans with whom he shares a considerable vibe.

The second-hand bookshop that yielded the earlier translation of Schulz, like the Quay Brothers film (they also magically interpreted a spooky Walser story called "Institute Benjamenta") made me feel like I had entered a supernatural world that was capable of completely clarifying the quotidian one we all are forced to inhabit on a daily basis. Using poetry as an antidote. Now, this new Madeleine Levine translation of his collected stories has arrived, not to supplant or diminish the Wieniewska version,     exactly (though it’s better), but rather to expand and enhance our understanding of a truly amazing presence amongst us.

It’s not that I’m saying I understand Polish and therefore think the new translation from Northwestern University Press is somehow superior; I totally depend on the poetry of translators to offer me glimpses into the charmingly dreamy worlds of Kafka, Walser or Schulz. I’m only saying that the experience of reading this new Bruno collection is something special that adds a unique set of spices to the already tantalizing flavours of the first one. In other words, it recaptures my awareness in a deep and wondrous manner.

D.M. Wright characterized it quite succinctly in The New Inquiry recently, in which he cited an observation about the difference between Wieniewska’s “insufficient and inadequate” versions and Levine’s new ones: “By naturalizing Schulz’s prose, Wieniewska aimed to ease the burden on English readers. But the choice risks obscuring what is distinctive in the work. While Wieniewska contorted Schulz to accommodate him in English, Levine deforms English to accommodate it to Schulz.” Exactly!

For those readers out there who may not know his hermetic, minimalist dreamscapes, perhaps a brief introduction via the same person who first initiated me into his world back in 1977, the great American novelist Cynthia Ozick. Seventy-seven years ago, Bruno Schulz, a 50-year-old high school art teacher, artist and writer who was characterized by Ozick as being “in command of one of the most original literary imaginations of modern Europe,” was gunned down by a Jew-hating contingent of SS men in the streets of an insignificant provincial town in eastern Galicia.

Ozick lamented that in English there was virtually no biographical information to be had concerning Schulz. All of Schulz’s letters, and two-thirds of the very small body of his finished work – two novels, one novella – remain untranslated back then. She called it inaccessible to American readers who needed it and named it “a powerful omission.” Indeed it was, but now at least there is a new translation, the Levine approach, which, to my delight, “deforms English” in a manner totally in keeping with allowing our language to support and carry forward Schulz’s magnetic and visionary ideas.

An image from Street of Crocodiles, a film by The Brothers Quay, 1986.

As she encapsulated it so well for me in the 1977 New York Times piece
It may turn out, in the wake of “The Street of Crocodiles,” that Schulz can stand naturally – or unnaturally – among those writers who break our eyes with torches, and end by demonstrating the remarkable uses of a purposeful dark.

In this dark the familiar looms freakish. As in Kafka, the malevolent is deadpan; its loveliness of form is what we notice. At the heart of the malevolent – also the repugnant, the pitiless – crouches the father: Schulz's own father, since there is an inviolable autobiographical glaze that paints over every distortion.

But parallel with it, engorging it, is a running flame of amazing imagery  – altogether exact and meticulous – which alters everything. The wallpaper becomes a “pullulating jungle . . . filled with whispers, lisping and hissing.” Father “sitting clumsily on an enormous china chamber-pot” turns into a prophet of “the terrible Demiurge,” howling with “the divine anger of saintly men.” Father shrinks, hides in closets, climbs the curtains and perches there like a baleful stuffed vulture, disappears “for many days into some distant corner of the house.”

Schulz's language is dense with disappearances, losses, metamorphoses. The dry goods shop is flooded by a “cosmogony of cloth.” Crowded streets become “an ultra‐barrel of myth.” The calendar takes on a 13th month. Rooms in houses are forgotten, misplaced. A bicycle ascends into the Zodiac. Even death is somehow indefinite; a murk, a confusion. Father “could not merge with any reality and was therefore condemned to float eternally on the periphery of life, in half real regions, on the margins of existence.

The shock of Schulz's images brings us the authentic bedevilment of the Europe we are heir to. Schulz's life was cut short. His work [was] a small packet . . . [and] some of the packet was lost in the human ash heap. As for the little that remains: let us set it beside Kafka and the others and see how it measures up for truth‐telling. 
Truth-telling indeed. Several other literary observers have had similar “first encounters” with the shimmering mirages of Bruno. David Grossman, writing in the New Yorker in 2009 in an essay called “The Age of Genius: The Legend of Bruno Schulz,” observed perfectly that “he rarely left his home town, but his works contain an entire universe.” Grossman also offered up one of my favourite childhood stories of the brilliant but hermetic Schulz, a story that never leaves you once you’ve heard it:
Once, when Schulz was a boy, on a melancholy evening his mother, Henrietta, walked into his room and found him feeding grains of sugar to the last houseflies to have survived the cold autumn.
“Bruno,” she asked, “why are you doing that?”
“So they will have strength for the winter."
Bruno “creates an entire universe, a private mythology of one family . . . written in a language that brims with life, a language that is itself the main character of the stories and is the only dimension in which they could exist.” A language, I might add, that Madeleine Levine has delivered to us by re-shaping our English in order to make them fit in.

Bruno Schulz in 1935  (Forum/Lebrecht).

Grossman closed his tribute in a marvelous manner, one that I can only echo wholeheartedly: “Every time I open his books, I am amazed to discover how this writer, a single human being, created an alternate dimension of reality, and how he continues to grow, even now, so many years after his death, to feed us grains of sugarand crumbs of bread – so that we may somehow make it through the cold endless winter.”

Another of my fellow Bruno admirers, Joe Fletcher, rhapsodized in a manner similar to my own sentiments when he referred to “The Nightmarish Dream Logic” of the Schulz masterwork, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, in Brooklyn Arts Press, from Literary Hub, 2018:
Schulz’s mythical worlds are spun out of the locus of his native Drohobycz, in what is now Ukraine, where he spent the majority of his life, with the exception of a brief stint in Vienna for school, a handful of trips to Warsaw, and a three-week stay in Paris. Lonely, awkwardly shy, suffering from depression, he never married; with his meager teacher’s salary, he struggled to care for his sick sister and her son after his older brother’s death, and despite achieving some renown after the publication of The Street of Crocodiles in 1934, his connection with the literary circles of his day was largely through correspondence.

Schulz’s world is permeated with foreboding, an intuition of an unnameable violence, fruit rotting deep in the shadows of a thicket.
Schulz’s artificial and baroque Edens achieve their vitality through a dream logic that always threatens to veer into nightmare. The stories are charged not by the machinations of plot, which are always subsidiary, but by this tension in his lush descriptive prose. The dreamworld bubbles through the lapidary quotidian surface of his tales. He was an admirer of Kafka, whose The Trial he translated into Polish, and whose writing he described in a passage that could be applied to his own work: "Kafka sees the realistic surface of existence with unusual precision, he knows by heart . . . its code of gestures, all the external mechanics of events and situations, how they dovetail and interlace, but these to him are but a loose epidermis without roots, which he lifts off like a delicate membrane and fits onto his transcendental world, grafts onto his reality." This is a realm that John Barth once described as “heartfelt ineptitude,” the feeling that one is not quite capable of pulling off the feats which one’s talents make possible.

Likewise, I’m encouraged by another convert to the cult of Bruno, Nadeem Aslam, who wrote in The Independent back in 2013, about “The Book of a Lifetime” (The Street of Crocodiles). “One of the most memorable moments in my lifetime is opening this book for the first time. A university student standing in a secondhand bookshop, I remember reading the first page and my heart beginning to beat faster, as though – suddenly, somehow – I was holding a handful of precious jewels. A minute later, I bought the book, for fifty pence, and I still own the copy. Sometimes I think that my outlook on life is a direct result of this magnificent book, the physical world transformed through the use of words. It’s almost as if a colour would be missing from the spectrum had Schulz not been alive once.”

"Pilgrims" by Bruno Schulz, 1922.

Quite apart from my joy at discovering someone even more than, or at least as, over the top in their rhapsodizing ekphrasis as I myself am and was in my own Bruno revelations, it is the utmost accuracy in Aslam’s characterization that most pleases and reassures me. Neither of us is, in fact, exaggerating even in the slightest what the experience of reading Schulz is like. It has multiple pleasures, as I’ve suggested at the outset: the first joy of bumping into his extraordinary being in the world, and then the secondary joys of reading and rereading him twice, three times, over again later in our lives.

Aslam also ended his rhapsody in exemplary fashion: “Though I love the sentences of Schulz for their metaphysics and their moments of philosophy, it’s Schulz’s attention to the world he once lived in that makes me love him more than any other writer – this world, the one you and I now live in.” I second that emotion. And for readers who will encounter Bruno for the first time in this new Levine translation (oh how I envy you, discovering his sentences for the very first time; I wish I could do that again) I invite you to also do some slight research on the other skill that Schulz demonstrated in a way almost as unknown, or at least as obscure, as his odd poetic prose.

I am referring to the fact that in addition to his work as an art teacher, which he did to make a living and care for his family and his wife’s sick brother and the neighbourhood strays, he was also a preternaturally gifted artist in his own right, producing strange and evocative drawings that accompany, or at least run parallel to, his stories. And it is these drawings, so powerful yet subtle, so weirdly beautiful and compellingly human, which I believe actually inspired the Brothers Quay to produce their masterful cinematic interpretation of his Street. His series called “Pilgrims,” from his Book of Idolatry, are breathtaking glimpses into an infernal and gorgeous region just beyond our fingertips. They are the maps behind his stories.

But first, wrap your fingers around a copy of these collected stories. Soon.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book was Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. He is currently trying to complete a book on the life and work of Yoko Ono.

No comments:

Post a Comment