REGIONS OF THE GREAT HERESY

Bruno Schulz

A Biographical Portrait

By Jerzy Ficowski

Translated from the Polish

And edited by Theodosia Robertson

Norton. 255 pp. $25.95

"My father," writes Bruno Schulz in a story about autumn, "was the first to explain the secondary, derivative character of that late season, which is nothing other than the result of our climate having been poisoned by the miasmas exuded by degenerate specimens of baroque art crowded in our museums."

Fall is caused by baroque art -- who couldn't smile? This might be a sentence from an absurdist sketch by Donald Barthelme. However, Schulz (1892-1942) -- one of Poland's greatest writers of the 20th century -- goes on in an increasingly Gothic vein:

"That museum art, rotting in boredom and oblivion and shut in without an outlet, ferments like old preserves, oversugars our climate, and is the cause of this beautiful malarial fever, this extraordinary delirium, to which our prolonged fall is so agonizingly prone. For beauty is a disease, as my father maintained; it is the result of a mysterious infection, a dark forerunner of decomposition, which rises from the depth of perfection and is saluted by perfection with sighs of the deepest bliss."

Reading the entire passage over, one shudders slightly at the reference to degenerate art -- the label by which the Nazis condemned so much "Jewish" painting and music -- and then pauses over this Poe-esque praise of fevers and delirium and infections and decomposition and the bliss and beauty of illness. What kind of imagination is at work here?

Jerzy Ficowski's Regions of the Great Heresy -- the title denominates the imaginative realm that Schulz created -- isn't so much a biography of the Polish-Jewish writer as a dossier. The book includes a long introduction by translator Theodosia Robertson, Ficowski's ground-breaking biographical discoveries about Schulz with added chapters on the fate of his manuscripts and artwork, a detailed chronology (which supplies an orderly presentation of the life, as well as factual details not included in the main text), an appendix of important letters, and an abundance of explanatory and bibliographical endnotes. The result is a must-buy for Schulz admirers, but more casual readers expecting a conventional biography may be put off by Ficowski's sometimes florid pages of commentary.

Bruno Schulz published only two collections of tenuously linked stories in a pathetically abbreviated life: the 1934 Cinnamon Shops (titled The Street of Crocodiles in America) and the 1937 Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Both might be loosely thought of as magic-realist evocations of his hometown of Drohobycz, where everything -- furniture, the dead, tailor's dummies, the seasons, dreams, birds -- pulsates with frenetic, unnatural vitality. Schulz himself maintained that he hoped to recreate the mysterious, sometimes surreal world that we actually perceive as children. So a few torn pages of advertising from a magazine or a child's stamp album open up entire universes -- quite literally. The hero of many of these tales, Schulz's father, dies and is reborn again and again, sometimes shriveling up into dusty nothingness, at other times metamorphosing into a crustacean, and once, after his apparent demise, being restored to a kind of etiolated half-life by a sanatorium that controls time:

"You know as well as I," admits its director, "that from the point of view of your home, from the perspective of your own country, your father is dead. This cannot be entirely remedied. That death throws a certain shadow on his existence here."

Loose plots may be unearthed in a few of the stories, but narrative precision isn't really what Schulz cares about: He is a poet of metaphorical wildness. Descriptions of nature and the seasons, philosophical arias, crazed situations are yoked together to create dark carnivals, exhibits of bizarrerie. Wild animals, we learn, sport horns "to introduce an element of strangeness into their lives"; the citizens of Drohobycz go about listening to "the distant hum of the stars." As the contemporary Polish poet Adam Zagajewski has said, Schulz possesses "the wondrous ability to transmute the commonplace into the bewitching":

"Enormous, heavy butterflies coupling in amorous frolics appeared. The clumsy, vibrating fluttering continued for a moment in the dull air. The butterflies flew past, as if racing one another, then rejoined their partners, dealing out in flight like cards whole packs of colorful shimmers."

Schulz's work sometimes recalls the feverish dream-visions of Ge{acute}rard de Nerval (in Les Filles du Feu) or the late supernatural tales of Maupassant. In "The Gale," Schulz writes, "There began the black parliaments of saucepans, those verbose and inconclusive meetings, those gurglings of bottles, those stammerings of flagons. Until one night the regiments of saucepans and bottles rose under the empty roofs and marched in a great bulging mass against the city," This could be the genesis of Maupassant's haunting short story "Who Knows?" -- or a scene from a chilling picture book or noirish Disney cartoon.

Schulz possessed an intensely visual imagination, and it's little wonder that he taught art (to schoolchildren) for much of his life. Yet if his writing can be disorienting, his surviving prints and paintings -- some used as illustrations for his stories -- are far more disturbing. Bulbous heads on emaciated, twisted bodies call to mind photographs of concentration camp survivors, even though Schulz drew these images long before World War II. Other prints depict Blue-Angel like temptresses or indifferent nudes with the faces of 12-year-olds, usually being worshipped by cringing, rodentine males, at least one of whom always resembles Schulz. The focus of this fetishistic masochism is usually the woman's foot or leg. As Stanislaw Witkiewicz -- another great Polish author of the 1930s, best known for his novel Insatiability -- neatly observed: Schulz's "graphics are poems of pedal atrocity."

Schulz's work first came to the English-speaking world's attention in the 1960s, and he was initially regarded as another Kafka. Why not? He had written intensely strange stories -- in one the father (rather than the son) is metamorphosed into a cockroach -- and he was skinny, Jewish, sickly, the author of an incomplete masterpiece (The Messiah, now probably lost), obsessed with his father, etc., etc. But in this biographical portrait, Jerzy Ficowski, Schulz's great champion -- somewhat analogous, paradoxically, to Kafka's friend Max Brod -- staunchly contrasts the two writers:

"Schulz was a builder of a reality-asylum that was a marvelous 'intensification of the taste of the world'; Kafka was an inhabitant and propagator of a world of terror, an ascetic hermit awaiting a miracle of justice that never came. Schulz was a metaphysician garbed in all the wealth of color; Kafka was a mystic in a hair shirt of worldly denials. Schulz was a creator and ruler of compensatory Myth, Kafka was the Sisyphean seeker of the Absolute. Schulz, the lavish creator of mundane Olympians, produced a metaphysics of an animate reality, while Kafka became the bookkeeper of the all-enveloping Abyss."

Ficowski can occasionally be even more highflown than this, but what he says in his ornate, rhetorical fashion is certainly true of Schulz (the characterization of Kafka is debatable). He also points out that Jozefina Szelinska, not Schulz, translated The Trial into Polish: The writer simply let his then-fiance{acute}e "borrow" his better-known name.

Schulz spent most of his life in Drohobycz, so he relied on correspondence as a mode of creation as well as communication. In letters to writer Debora Vogel, he worked up the stories later collected in Cinnamon Shops. That book's critical success brought him the esteem of Witkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz, among other notable Polish intellectuals. Schulz even composed a highly abstract article on the latter's famous novel Ferdydurke. But this timid, hunched-over introvert required long periods of quiet and time to create anything -- -while the need to support his relatives via his day job as a teacher kept him busy and exhausted. As a result, the later Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass consists mainly of stories written before those of Cinnamon Shops. No one knows for sure how much he completed of The Messiah.

Once the Nazis invaded Poland, Schulz found himself interned, then pressed into service as an artist by a local Nazi commandant named Landau, who enjoyed shooting people from his bedroom window. Increasingly frail, Schulz finally decided to escape from Drohobycz with false papers -- but a few hours before his departure, the local Nazis went on a rampage in reaction to a potshot at one of their own. Hundreds of Polish Jews were killed. A rival to Landau stalked Schulz, then shot him twice in the head, purely to spite the other Nazi.

None of Bruno Schulz's stories is about the Holocaust. Philip Roth once wrote that "Schulz could barely identify himself with reality, let alone with the Jews." And yet his pages are often elegiac and despairing, as if he had glimpsed the future horrors; the grayish dead dwell among the fanatical and the grotesque. But he leavens the horror with those lovely descriptions (of nature, of the dog Nimrod, of shop windows) and a self-mocking, deadpan humor -- "One day my brother, on his return from school, brought the improbable and yet true news of the imminent end of the world" -- and teasing hints at still hidden mysteries: "Every night I attend extremely important meetings at the Wax Figures Exhibition, meetings that must remain secret for the time being."

Were it not for the nearly 50 years of research and effort by Jerzy Ficowski, Bruno Schulz might well have been forgotten. Now he is unforgettable, though his imaginings remain elusive, tentative and, as Ficowski writes, "too big and magnificent to be contained in mere facts. They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to lose their integrity in the frailty of realization." *

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost com. His online chats about books take place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

Bruno Schulz, ca. 1936