A secret history: The fiction of Bruno Schulz

Bruno Schulz was a contemporary of Franz Kafka (he authored a translation of The Trial) and was likewise from Poland, and his slight literary output – confined to two collections of short stories and a lost manuscript ñ is often compared to Kafka’s. The Gestapo murdered Schulz in the streets of Prague a scant five years after his first collection was published, whereupon the Nazis (and later the Communists) suppressed the author’s work, which after its initial international acclaim quickly grew obscure. While he shares a certain poetic surreal sensibility with Kafka, there has never been an author like Schulz, and the tragedy of his death is compounded by the tragedy of his anonymity.

In Schulz’s own words, his stories “attempt at eliciting the history of a certain family, a certain house in a provincial city – not from documents, events, a study of character or of people’s destinies – but by a search for the mythical sense, the essential core of that history Ö That dusky, allusive atmosphere, that aura that thickens around any family history, can only occasionally disclose to a poet it’s second, mythical face: an alternative, a depth in which the secret history of blood and race is hidden.”

Schulz approached autobiography as an invitation to art, and in his short stories about his childhood he tells fables of almost hallucinogenic intensity. In “Birds,” as an example, Schulz tells of “Father” (his recurring and most eccentric character), who collects eggs of rare birds and stores them in his attic. Soon, the eggs begin hatching and fill the house. Father’s obsessiveness grows along with his aviary. He plots marriages for the birds and dances among them, flapping his arms and letting out long whistling calls. Soon, he’s disappeared among them, with nothing but the sounds of beating wings and crowing coming from the rooms which house the birds.

Eventually this behavior becomes too much for Father’s cleaning woman, who throws open the windows to the rooms and beats at the birds with a broom to drive them out.

The story climaxes with these words: “My father, waving his arms in panic, tried to lift himself into the air with his feathered flock.” Here is a end so strange as to only have parallels in folk literature, but rendered with remarkable artistry and sympathy. These stories aren’t simple inventories of grotesqueries; Schulz’s stories ache and groan with his characters. Schulz’s influence is slight nowadays, but instantly identifiable – think of City of Lost Children, a French film that plays like a fairy tale told by Schulz, or the remarkable animated adaptation of Street of Crocodiles by the Brothers Cray. Like their source, these films seek out the hidden mythologies of childhood memories, and like Schulz they balance great beauty against great pain. As do the best writers, Schulz explodes the possibilities of writing, finding language not only for things we’d thought beyond language but also for things we never knew existed.

The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, Bruno Schultz, Viking Press, 1997.