Okay, so I’m cheating (again) here. Technically Street of Crocodiles is a ‘novelistic collection of short stories’ and technically I want to include all four chapters about tailor’s dummies. But anyway. I’ve always been a sucker for descriptions of dysfunctional family dynamics, and this particular depiction of a household is like nothing else. Described by Schulz himself as a “genealogy of the spirit”, he manufactures myth from the plain and obvious, weaving place and atmosphere so vividly and yet allowing everything to bleed together and feel utterly insubstantial and unclear.
In ‘Tailors’ Dummies’ the largely invisible narrator’s father is parading around the family house, indulging in increasingly eccentric flights of intellectual and imaginative fancy.
The affair of the birds was the last colourful and splendid counteroffensive of fantasy which my father, that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defenseworks of a sterile and empty winter. Only now do I understand the lonely hero who alone had waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city.
I can’t coherently do justice to what follows, so I won’t even try. Other than to say it’s sublime.
Originally published in Poland in Sklepy cynamonowe, 1934. First published in English in Cinammon Shops, and later reissued as Street of Crocodiles, Penguin 20th Century Classic, 1992
Why has modern Polish literature made such a speciality of liminal forms in which humans and machines, consciousness and object, uneasily meet? Jewish mysticism and its secular branches surely supply part of the answer. The alchemical and Kabbalistic life of things pervades the stories of small-town surrealism in Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, dominated as they are by the mysterious father-figure who acts like a heretically creative demiurge. Here, inanimate objects strut and glow with an existential confidence denied to cowed humanity. The father’s “treatise” on mannequins tells us that “lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life”.
First published 1934; collected in The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2008
Schulz’s prose is alive. There’s a winter storm at the heart of this story, and in the attics, the narrator tells us, darkness degenerates and ferments wildly. The young man and his family take shelter in their home as the wind builds labyrinthine spirals outside:
From that maze it shot out along galleries of rooms, raced amid claps of thunder through long corridors and then allowed all those imaginary structures to collapse, spreading out and rising into the formless atmosphere.
The storm rages outside and in the sanctuary of the kitchen, the maid pounds cinnamon in a mortar, a furious aunt shrinks until she disintegrates and his mother’s everyday conversation carries on.
(First published in Sklepy Cynamonowe, 1934, translated as The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, Walker,1963, and subsequently by Penguin, 1977/Penguin Classics, 2008)