The Author Is Not Dead: Bruno Schulz



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part 7

the legend of bruno schulz


For it is through the legend that we see all the colours of the rainbow, hidden in the soul of its hero. And he who would discard ‘legendarity’ would discard the soul, leaving for his investigations only bare facts, or rather empty facts, saying nothing about themselves except merely that they happened and then passed away.
— Bolesław Leśmian

It seems that every writer who comes in contact with the stories of Bruno Schulz feels a need to get deeper into the world of Bruno Schulz. We feel an intuitive need to understand the code of him, to decipher, as if his stories were only found fragments that we have to piece together to the best our ability. But even when it seems that we have the complete story in front of us, somehow the full meaning keeps eluding us, and we struggle to get it under control, as if we were dealing with some kind of slippery creature; ancient and illusive in its form.

The great pens are silent on the subject of him, nobody quarrels with him. Yet everybody strives to understand Schulz and to bring him under control.
— Colleen M. Taylor

We are dealing with a man of the everyday, who has morphed into a kind of prophet of the soul, and we feel a near desperate need to understand him, better and more intimately than we are able to. Or at least that is how I have felt every day since I first came across his only two published works of fiction: The Street of Crocodiles and the Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. And I have read about authors who, like myself, strongly feel a need to describe the very moment they discovered Schulz and the circumstances around it, like someone telling the story of how they met their first love.

Many of us even attempt to write like him, perhaps as a way to better understand, or simply because any other style of writing now seems inauthentic after being exposed to his deep-felt, magical prose:

All colours immediately fell an octave lower, the room filled with shadows, as if it had sunk to the bottom of the sea and the light was reflected in mirrors of green water – and the heat of the day began to breathe on the blinds as they stirred slightly in their daydreams.
— Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

Am I exaggerating? Probably a bit, but it is baffling how many stories I have come across about writers who talk about Schulz as if he is some kind of mystic with a hidden message about our world. The American author Jonathan Safran Foer even tried to decipher Schulz’s prose physically, you could say, by carving out words and sentences in The Street of Crocodiles to reveal new connections and formulations hidden below. It was published earlier this year as a novel titled Tree of Codes, a fragile feeling, die-cut book by erasure.

In a small article in The Guardian, Safran Foer talks about how he had a ‘strong sensation’ that Schulz’s book must also have been the result of a similar act of exhumation and that there must have existed a yet larger book from which The Street of Crocodiles was taken:

…it is from this imagined larger book, this ultimate book, that every word ever written, spoken or thought is exhumed. The Book of Life is the Temple that our lives strive to enter, but instead only conjure. The Street of Crocodiles is not that book – not the Book – but it is one level of exhumation closer than any other book I know of.
— Jonathan Safran Foer, The Guardian

Bruno Schulz’s writings evoke feelings of something otherworldly and mystical in the reader’s mind; a spiritual truth bubbling up to the surface through his magical prose. And every time I open one of his books to a random page, it is as if I read it for the very first time; each page seems self-contained in a way, with elements of something essential that we’re all secretly drawn to, but cannot quite grasp. There is something in those sentences that we feel in our bones must be true, but it seems to evaporate into thin air as we look up to contemplate what it all means.  
Reading the stories of Schulz sometimes feels similar to gazing at a night sky full of twinkling stars: The vastness so beautiful and intriguing, but also impossible to really comprehend. And yet his stories only speak of a relatively ordinary childhood, in the confined space of the small provincial town of Drohobycz in Poland, where he grew up and lived all his life. Sometimes compared to Franz Kafka, his contemporary, and to Marcel Proust, a clear influence, he has still found a way to create what Colleen M. Taylor calls a ‘self-contained independent universe’ in one of the most comprehensive critical essays I found on the author:

…Schulz’s own art exemplifies his theory, for in it he has created a self-contained independent universe governed by immanent laws. Metamorphoses occur, objects take on lives of their own, while even physical laws are suspended. Schulz’s representation of time and space is especially unusual in that time is given physical properties: it can be stretched, expanded, shrunk; ‘Parallel tracks of time exist’; ‘Days expand to fill their contents’; grow an extra month ‘like a sixth small toe.’
— Childhood Revisited: The Writings of Bruno Schulz.

In his article, Safran Foer takes it even a bit further stating that: "the sentences (of Schulz) feel too unlikely to have been created on purpose. The language is too heightened, the images too magical and precarious, the yearnings too dire, the sense of loss too palpable — everything is too simultaneously comic and tragic."

"The sentences feel too unlikely to have been created on purpose." That is an odd thing for a writer to say. But I understand exactly what he means and it is related to something we keep getting back to in these essays about the Self in Fiction: These writers we are discussing seem all to be guided by a force inside themselves, or beyond their selves, like W.G. Sebald who ‘wakes up’ after hours of writing, and it is the connection with this inner force that seems to resonance so well with the reader, as if they too have this hidden knowledge within them, a secret knowledge that Schulz formulates beautifully in this passage:

Why, in spite of this, did I have the feeling of having been there already - a long time ago? Don’t we in fact know in advance all the landscapes we see in our life? Can anything occur that is entirely new, that in the depths of our being, we have not anticipated for a long time?
— Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

And this is a truth that is most likely stumbled upon as the writer dives down into some subconscious well of collective knowledge, where his "hand is forced" as Safran Foer puts it (or like "the angle sitting on my shoulder and whisper into my ear" as Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk felt it), and discoveries are simultaneously accidental and created on purpose, much like Schulz himself describes in the act of drawing, which I imagine would be very much similar to how he wrote:

...Blinded by the glow, my eyes full of explosions, rockets and colours, I drew. I drew in haste, in panic, horizontally, diagonally, across the printed pages. My collared pencils flew in inspiration through the columns, ran in brilliant scribbles, in breakneck zigzags, narrowing suddenly into anagrams of visions, rebuses of the bright revelations ... Oh, those bright drawings, growing as if under an alien hand. How often today I find them in dreams after so many years, at the bottom of old cupboards, dazzling and fresh as the dawn.
— Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

“… growing as if under an alien hand.” Is this not how all great literature must have been created? The story of legends rediscovered and retold through the narrow lens of an insignificant and grand personal experience.

The legend allows both the past and greatness to speak. Without the spinning of diverse little stories and tales, without the positioning of the floodlights to throw new light on what seems already to be known, reality is silent, gagged forever by shallow speech. And yet it may speak when it is touched by the special language of literature.
— Childhood Revisited: The Writings of Bruno Schulz

In the next part of this article we will talk more about this ‘silent reality, gagged forever by shallow speech’ and we will bring in another Polish Self writer, Schulz’s friend and contemporary: Witold Gombrowicz.

The "Self" article series is a hunt for authenticity and true artistic output. It investigates the thin line between fiction and non-fiction in contemporary and modern literature, from Bruno Schultz to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Authors who poured their own life history into their novels without compromise, in search for the authentic voice within themselves that resonates so clearly with their readers willing to listen.

Comment below to let me know what you think!

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A life balance artist with a determination to get the best out of both worlds while refusing to accept limitation of time and demanding social obligations. He has been a regular contributor on the magazine and his short story "The Weight of Those Flies" was published by Kingston University Press in 2016. He is currently working on his debut novel.


LiteratureAnders Wennesland