Speaking Volumes

By | Nov 29, 2011
2011 March-April


I first encountered the work of Bruno Schulz in the early ’90s, a little more than half a century after his death. After a post-collegiate year in Prague, I had moved to New York because it seemed like the only logical place for an aspiring writer to live. I hadn’t attended graduate school and didn’t know any published writers personally or have any connections to the literary world. I simply wanted, with every fiber of my being, to be a writer. I encountered Schulz by accident, when I watched a Brothers Quay film adapted from his short story, “Street of Crocodiles.” Mesmerized, I tracked down Schulz’s work the next day and was never the same.

Schulz, a Polish-Jewish writer, created two collections of startlingly strange and beautiful short stories before his death in 1942. A lifelong resident of the small town of Drogobych, he was a quiet man who taught drawing at the local high school and, in his off-hours, drew pictures and wrote stories. His subjects included his father, his father’s tailor shop, his family’s housekeeper and the ways of his small town. But Schulz’s stories are not mundane provincial fiction. They are imbued with forces that carry the reader beyond the realm of the everyday into a sensual plane of heightened awareness. Longing, scorn, shame and wonder function as points on a carnal compass that guides the reader through Schulz’s fantastical world. Here is summer: “Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.” And here is the drab landscape of his father’s shop, transformed into a place of magic by a tailor’s dummy: “Standing motionless in her corner, she supervised the girls’ advances and wooings as they knelt before her, fitting fragments of a dress marked with white basting thread. They waited with attention and patience on the silent idol, which was difficult to please.” This prose was the opposite of the self-conscious, ironic stuff I was finding in the “New Releases” section of the library. This was someone for whom writing was a form of transport, a way to leave the everyday behind and enter the boundless realm of imagination.

Schulz gave me hope. If a guy like him—who didn’t get out much, who was shy, rarely traveled and conducted most of his friendships through the mail—could conjure such a vivid and utterly unique universe, I felt as if I had half a chance. I was living in a windowless, 8×10 drywall cubicle at the time and working as assistant to a literary agent, but each morning before walking across town to my job, I would sit down to write. For those few hours, I would escape the smell of the rancid Chinese food from the decrepit restaurant downstairs and the sound of my roommates fighting in the cubicle next door. I would lose track of what day it was, what time it was and what I’d had for breakfast. I became a citizen of a place of my own making.

I think it’s that sense of dual citizenship that has made Schulz such a public favorite among writers such as David Grossman and Nicole Krauss—who have both written novels paying homage to him—and a private icon for writers like me and so many of my friends. Reading him, more than reading most authors, provides the transport that writers are always striving for. Although being Jewish doesn’t directly figure in Schulz’s work, I think it would be fair to say that the fervency of his written world, his palpable hunger for a wilder, more grandiose version of his proscribed existence was at least partly informed by what it was like to be a Jew when and where he happened to be one. To be a writer is to inhabit a margin. Whether inborn or imposed, that margin provides a crucial perch from which to view the world.

After Germany invaded Soviet-occupied Poland in 1941, Schulz came under the protection of a Gestapo officer named Landau. Schulz painted portraits and murals for Landau in exchange for food and the designation of “necessary Jew,” a label that was supposed to protect him from transports to the camps. On November 19, 1942, Schulz was killed by a rival Gestapo officer looking to get even with Landau for having shot his own “necessary Jew” not long before. Although Schulz was known to have finished four new stories and to be working on a novel at the time of his murder, these writings have never been found. We are left only with his letters to friends and colleagues and the stories published before his death.

Although I mourn the stories and the novel I will never read, Schulz’s extant work is a powerful source of inspiration. Schulz affirms my view that vibrant, inspired writing—writing that communicates uniquely, honestly, clearly and passionately—will ultimately find its readers. I’ve been reading Schulz for 15 years, and he has the same effect on me now as he did when I read him for the first time: He makes me want to write.

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