Bruno Schulz has sustained a premier yet often unrecognized position in the mythology of twentieth-century literature, famously inspiring authors and artists from Philip Roth to the Brothers Quay despite the fact that, since his mainstream English introduction in 1977, only his first publication has been consistently available. Thirty years later, Penguin Classics has released a new edition titled The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, which includes the title book, three literary sketches, and Schulz’s second collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, with his original drawings.
In Schulz’s dreamlike stories, the provincial—that which is banal, in-between, unnoticed—becomes the universe itself. Schulz takes images or scenes ignored by many but primary to him, and purposefully confounds them with pleonastic descriptions, complicated explanations, and philosophized word-dances. In his “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies,” Schulz writes,
[Father] was fascinated by doubtful problematic forms, like the ectoplasm of a medium, by pseudomatter, the cataleptic emanations of the brain which in some instances spread from the mouth of the person in a trance over the whole table, filled the whole room, a floating, rarified tissue, an astral dough, on the borderline between body and soul.
Schulz obliterates objects and ideas not through nihilistic declarations, but by patiently obscuring them, pasting on one multi-colored feather after another.
Bruno Schulz was born in 1892 in Drohobycz, a small but bustling town now renowned for being both his birthplace and the place where, fifty years later, an occupying Nazi officer shot him in the head and left him lying in the street. Though he was a Jew in a town with a large Orthodox community, he is celebrated as a Polish writer. His earliest stories are traced back to the 1920s, and the elaborate letters that he began to send to Deborah Vogel in 1930 were published in 1934 under the title Cinnamon Shops (renamed The Street of Crocodiles in English). A provincial prince, Schulz lacked direct contact with the goings-on of the artistic and literary center of Warsaw, but held a high opinion of his own work and its right to literary attention.
Schulz’s surviving sketches are icons ingrained in Poland’s collective unconscious, though he didn’t finish his architecture studies, taught himself fine art, and got a job teaching drawing at a local high school with difficulty. His drawings—large heads atop conical bodies, etched backgrounds contrasted with subtly caricaturized facial expressions—expose a visual aspect of his artistic eye that carries over into his literary preoccupation, illustrating not any single part of a story, but the overall awkward manner that he composes into his scenes and characters.
In the three years of recognition between his two major publications, Schulz lost some of the humility that made The Street of Crocodiles so magnificently bittersweet. The assertiveness of Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, though, affords a proliferation of theoretical and existential meditations. The earlier tone, confidentially addressing a single intimate, gains historical and cultural awareness, and metamorphoses into a consciously performative act directed at us—his awed and anticipative audience.