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Bruno Schulz, a Night-time teacher of drawing

A hundred and ten years ago, a boy was born into a Jewish family that lived in the town of Drohobytch, Western Ukraine. The boy was given the name of Bruno which sounds like an Italian name, and his last name was Schulz, perfectly in German tradition. The town of Drohobytch was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire then, and German was one of the languages widely used.

Bruno Schulz was destined to become a writer of great individuality and stylistic excellence, and now four cultures — Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish and Austrian — claim him as their own (\"Polish\" because Drohobytch — also spelled Drohobycz — whose origins can be traced to the early medieval times, used to be within the Polish realm; Jewish — because Drohobytch had a high percentage of Jewish population). Bruno Schulz can be ranked with such giants of the twentieth century literature as Proust, Kafka, Borges and Markes, though his name is much less known — which is unfair, to say the least.

A man from the Street of Crocodiles

The town of Drohobytch seemed to be made then entirely of blooming gardens, weeds and thistles. The local damsels quietly and sedately walked the streets, and the Hasidim in their traditional multicoloured attire — long robes and tall fur hats — ceremoniously sauntering along the same streets were a usual sight.

In one of the central streets of the town, the Street of Crocodiles, there stood a multi-roomed house, cluttered with furniture and never tidy, which harboured the Schulz family. Bruno’s father, Yakub, was the proprietor of a small shop that sold cloth; his wife, Henriyetta, was the daughter of a sawmill owner; their three children were Izidor, Hannya and Bruno, the youngest. Bruno who was a sickly, frail and dreamy child, was sent to study at the Franz-Joseph I Gymnasium, the school that gave him some knowledge and respect for the aging emperor who, for Bruno, remained for many years a sort of a beloved symbol of stability. Later, Bruno went to study at the Construction Department of the Polytechnic in Lviv and at the Department of Architecture of the Vienna University. The studies were often interrupted, like a dotted line, by the events of the First World War and Bruno’s ill health. In Vienna, Bruno had his first taste of the fading but still gloriously “decadent” Viennese culture, lit up by such luminaries as the painter Klimt and the composer Mahler; he also found himself considerably involved in the spinning wheels of Bohemian life of the Austrian capital. Bruno showed an aptitude to drawing and took lessons in painting and drawing, but failed to complete studies in any of the chosen fields of endeavour.

At one point of his life — ten years before he died — Yakub Schulz decided he had had enough of running a store, and sank into a state which could be described either as a form of insanity or an escape from the middle-class well-ordered and subdued life. The escape from reality led to estrangement and many years later Bruno Schulz made an attempt to bring pieces of that collapsed universe together in the mosaic of his writings.

Bruno’s mother was solely responsible for managing the family and house, and Bruno felt he had to earn his and family’s living by doing something that was paid for. His choice was teaching — he taught drawing at the same secondary school he had graduated from. The school, after the collapse of the empire, was renamed to better suit the Polish sensibilities and was called the King Wladislaw Jagello Gimnasium. He worked there as a teacher from 1924 until 1941, when Ukraine was invaded by Nazi Germany (by that time, the western Ukraine had been swallowed by the Soviet Union of which Ukraine was a constituent part then). He proved to be a good teacher, much liked by the students. He was said to be just, to never raise his voice, no matter what the provocation was, and he never gave his students bad marks — even to those who were absolutely helpless in art.

Bruno’s works were highly praised by professional artists and were exhibited in art galleries of Lviv, Vilnius and Krakow, though he himself did not think much of them.

Emotional tenor of Schulz’s graphic works is close to that of Capricios by Goya. The sleeping mind, the subconscious revealed, blurred distinction between the reality and imagination are characteristic features of Schulz’s art. Some art critics place Schulz among “the demonologists” — not in the sense of demon worship, of course, — and though he cannot be relegated to their midst, his works do suggest the demonic presence, the dark background in the human soul through which, not without a great effort, more human emotions come to the fore.

The best-known series of his graphic works, known as The Book of Idolatry, drew both praise and criticism. He was even accused of pornographic leanings. The medium of some works was the black pencil, and others were executed in a rarely used technique called cliche verre, in which the drawing is scratched into the dark surface of photographic paper that was exposed to light.

Influences of Freud and Sacher-Masoch (1836–1895) can be traced in many of his pictures. The subject of most of them is the voluntary subservience of the man to the woman who is put on a pedestal of divinity. For Schulz the Woman is always the queen, ruling men from her throne (the bed is also interpreted as throne); she is imperturbable, inaccessible to the men caught in the erotic agony; among the men prostrate at her feet in humble submission, we invariably see someone who bears the likeness of Schulz himself.

The senator who saw the offending pictures at an exhibition in the town of Truskavets, had the exhibition closed, and the whole scandal could have suggested to Bruno that was really no good as an artist. Luckily for posterity, he did not stop painting and drawing. His rather extensive legacy includes frescoes, drawings and prints. Art historians are of the opinion that Bruno was a very talented artist but for me he is primarily a very talented writer, or even a genius.

We know that at least once Bruno Schulz intended to get married. He fell in love with Juzefina Zelinska who was a teacher of literature at the school where Schulz taught. But she was a Catholic and marriage would be possible only if he converted to Catholicism. He made the first step — he disassociated himself from the Jewish community of Drohobytch which was not an easy thing to do for an Orthodox Jew like Schulz. For one reason or other, he failed to take the second step — to go to Silesia and marry the woman he was engaged to be married, and after four years of romancing, they split up.

In the 1930s, Bruno Schulz met a person, Zofia Nalkowska, a Polish writer, who became a sort of Maecenas for him and helped him publish some of his short stories. She also introduced him to several Polish writers of considerable prominence who became his close friends. It can be said that Schulz achieved a measure of literary fame. He was even elected a member of the Polish Union of Writers. His books were to be translated into Italian and German — but the Soviets, after the partition of Poland of 1939, invaded the western parts of Ukraine (which had been under Polish dominant then) and Drohobytch was one of the Ukrainian towns that suddenly — virtually overnight — became Soviet. Schulz and his stories could hardly fit the general line of “socialist realism” adopted by the Soviets (one of the literary critics, Vanda Vasylevska, upon reading Schulz’s stories exclaimed with contempt: “We don’t need any Prousts in our literature!), and the prospects of getting his works published either in the Soviet Ukraine or abroad were nil.

A few months later, when “the holiday of the Great October Socialist Revolution” was to be celebrated for the first time in Drohobytch, he was commissioned — or rather told — to paint a huge portrait of Stalin that was to be exhibited on the facade of the City Hall during “the parade of happy citizenry” rejoicing over “the glorious event of 1917.” He did what he had been told to do, and the portrait, done in gouache (probably for the lack of more durable paints) was brought to the City Hall. For some reason it was not suspended above the entrance as the original intention must have been but leaned against the wall next to the entrance. Soon, birds, mostly jackdaws and crows, found the top bar of the frame a convenient place to alight on and watch the humans engage in an incomprehensible act of filing past and shouting something in ecstasy. The hyped-up mood of the crowd must have passed on to the birds which in their excitement began copiously dropping their loads onto the divine visage. The weather made its own contribution by dumping loads of rain water on the paraders and the onlookers, and, of course, on the portrait as well. Schulz, who was watching the rigmarole from a safe place, remarked sardonically to a disciple: “Our portrait has definitely acquired some post-impressionistic charm, but if it is ruined altogether, I, for once, will not be sorry to see my work disintegrate.”

Worse times were to follow — in July of 1941 the Nazis who seemed to be on their way to a speedy victory over the Soviet Union, arrived in Drohobytch. One of the first things they did was to set up the ghetto for the local Jews. Schulz was made to inventory the art treasures — the German spoils of war. An officer from the local Gestapo, Felix Landau, a former carpenter, commissioned — or rather ordered — Schulz to paint the interior of his children’s nursery, and later the interiors of the Gestapo headquarters.

Schulz’s Polish friends procured false documents for him to get him of Drohobytch’s ghetto and to a safer place. Zofia Nalkowska arranged for a Polish officer, disguised as a German officer, to go to Drohobytch and escort Schulz to safety, but the escort arrived too late — Schulz had been shot dead on November 19 1942 by a German officer, Karl Gunter.

Bruno Schulz, who was on his way to a soup kitchen, found himself in the midst of a massacre when the Germans began indiscriminately killing the Jews of the ghetto (the day on which this “action” — one of so terrifyingly many — designed “to settle the Jewish question once and for all” was later referred to as The Wild Thursday). A Gestapo officer shot Schulz who had walked too close to the scene of the massacre. He was buried in a mass grave at the outskirts of Drohobytch.

There is a story which still lives in Drobohytch — one of the local legends about Bruno Schulz — that runs like this: witnesses claim that Bruno did not die instantly, and as he was lying on the ground, his life ebbing away, several pigeons ventured to come close to the dying man. He, using his last remaining strength fished bread crumbs out of his coat’s pocket and fed them to the grateful pigeons. And then he died.

Story teller and letter writer

Literary fame did come to Schulz, but years after his death. The literary critics put him into the same category with such authors as Kafka, Borges and Markes.

Schulz has elevated the provincial town of Drohobytch to the level of a magic place, turning the thistles and tangles of blooms of the provincial Drohobytch into the paradisiacal scenery; similarly, Markes has turned the Latin America of his day into a mysterious land with its own laws — different from the ones that functioned in the everyday reality. Magic realism was the term awarded such literature by literary critics. “Magic” is all right but I do not think the word “realism” applies here. It is myths that such writers create, penetrating to the very core of things. In a letter to a friend, Bruno Schulz wrote: “Poetry is a short circuit between words, the momentary resurrection of primordial myths. There is not a single idea among the ones that we make use of that is not derived from ancient mythology. All of our ideas are transformed and transfigured myths, which are adjusted to our needs. The original intention of the spirit is to tell fairy tales, to create ’stories.’ The process of creating myths in this universe has not come to an end yet.”

In the world of English-language literature there are two authors — James Joyce and John Updike — who were also immersed in the magic stream of the poetic mythology, drawing their inspiration from the reinvented world of antiquity.

Updike wrote an article about Schulz, probably the best one of its kind, in which he, apart from praising Schulz as an extremely powerful literary phenomenon, compares him to the French author Marcel Proust; both draw inspiration from the inexhaustible source of their respective childhoods, both are keen on details, carefully and copiously presented; both have magnifying glasses for eyes, but Schulz’s prose is even more fanciful and elaborate than Proust’s.

Another thing which is worth mentioning since it throws some light upon Schulz’s creativity — a considerable part of what had been created by Schulz in literature was written by him as letters and mailed as letters to friends. It was only later that these epistolary creations were brought together to form “novels” or rather collections of short stories.

Kafka and Schulz

Comparative studies can reveal similarities between Schulz and a number of other outstanding literary figures, but one figure seems to stand closer than all the others. It is Franz Kafka (1883–1924).

Both were “the children” of the dying Austrian-Hungarian Empire (though Schulz reached the peak of his creativity at the time when the Empire had long ceased to exist). Kafka wrote that “If a writer wants to stay sane, he should spend all of his time at his writing desk,” but he never stopped working as a petty clerk at an office and never devoted himself entirely to writing.

Schulz never left his native Drohobytch except for a short pilgrimage to Paris, and never wanted to, though his Polish friends kept inviting him to come to the capital city of Warsaw. We do not know what would have happened to Schulz as an author, had he broken the umbilical cord that connected him to such a backwater place as Drohobytch. It was out of the provincial reality that he created his literary myths.

Schulz was sceptical about the literary quality of his creations — and Kafka told his friend Max Brod to destroy all the works that would remain in his desk after his death (Kafka must have known he would die when still relatively young). Brod did not do what he had been requested to do and largely it was thanks to his efforts that Kafka was recognized as a genius of world literature. Schulz was uncertain whether his literary works are any good. This uncertainty is particularly evident in a letter to the prominent German writer Thomas Mann, to whom he sent his short novel Homebound, written in German (Mann, a mythmaker in his own right, was a god-like figure for Schulz). Both Kafka and Schulz explore the world around them, using vehicles of the irrational and metaphoric. Realistic details are incorporated into the structures which are completely divorced from what is usually described as “reality.”

The Jewishness of Kafka and Schulz is a separate subject and here we can only say that it must have contributed to the estrangement of both from the realities of life around them. “Germany declared war on Russia. After lunch I went to the swimming pool,” Kafka wrote in his diary. In Schulz’s novel, The Sanatorium under the Sign of Hourglass, we find an attitude to war in some measure similar to that of Kafka.

There are also some affinities in the attitudes of Kafka and Schulz to women. Schulz wrote to a friend: “You are afraid that marriage can rip me out of the atmosphere conducive to writing. To be honest, I also thought of this danger. What if my loneliness was the sole source of my inspiration and cohabitation with a woman will destroy the loneliness and the source into the bargain? But on the other hand — do people not remain lonely even in marriage? And yet — so many poets exchange their loneliness for the life together with a woman! As a human being I’m afraid of being alone, I’m afraid of the bareness of a useless life of solitude. That is why I want to escape into marriage.”

Schulz as a carpenter

Alfred Schreyer, a former pupil of Bruno Schulz, shared his reminiscences with the author of this article.

“I used to regularly meet Bruno Schulz when I was on my way to school. Though I had not been introduced to him, I felt obliged to take off my cap in greeting and nod my head politely. Physically, there was hardly anything in him that would attract immediate attention, there was something birdlike in the manner he walked, but one felt spiritual energy emanating from him…

Schulz was said to be slightly gaga, but at school, where all the teachers are usually given nicknames, he had none that would stick to him. He was an extremely just person, and I know of the only one case when he flew off the handle. A pupil who made a particular nasty remark, provoked his ire, and though, as a teacher Schulz was allowed — or even instructed — to punish the offending pupil by birching, all he did was to grab the register and strike the boy’s back with it — once. It was so out of character for Schulz that the incident was sort of a sensation in the school…

He could handle well the tools of a carpenter with a consummate skill. He taught us in class how to use planes, files and other tools. I learnt these skills so well that years later when I found myself in a concentration camp, these skills helped me survive.

We often asked him in class to tell us fairy tales. He would clear his workbench off wood shavings, sit down on it and begin telling his stories. They were actually fairy tales, all of them improvised as he went along, and we were so reluctant to leave the classroom if the bell announcing the end of the lesson would catch us in the middle of his stories.”

Fairy tales are indeed of a key importance for understanding the phenomenon of Bruno Schulz. In one of his letters he explained why he loved fairy tales so much: “If only I could really return to my childhood, even by circumnavigating the obvious obstacles, I’d be so happy to live through it once again, fully and deeply. It would be the greatest thing, a monumental achievement which would bring closer the epoch of geniuses and messiahs of whose approach we are so often told and promised by all the mythologies of the world. My dream is to become worthy enough to be transported to childhood.”

In one of the letters to Romana Galpern, Schulz wrote: “Once, when I woke up I felt submerged in the despair — I felt the life was swooshing by, and I could not catch and keep a single item out of this torrent. If this kind of despair lasted it would drive me insane. If this despair comes to say with me forever, there’ll be no time left to live. There is no worse misfortune than the failure to exhaust your life to the bottom.”

Schulz lived to die at fifty. In his last mural he painted a carriage drawn by wild horses (it was a vision that stayed with Schulz all his life). In this mural he painted himself as holding the reins — but failing to hold fast. Crossing the threshold of death, he entered both the heavenly eternity and the earthly immortality.

By Sasha Denisova

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