‘The Republic of Dreams’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Madeline G. Levine

Selecting a story by Schulz is like drawing a thread from a tapestry and holding one’s breath. Born in 1892 in Drohobych, a town in Austrian Galicia currently located in Ukraine, Bruno Schulz wrote in Polish, and conversed in German. As a Jewish male in a land where language and political borders didn’t coincide, Schultz interposes the fantastic and the nostalgic in order to immortalize a world that never existed. Perhaps it is a world which could only exist in the mind of a child. 

‘The Republic of Dreams’ tracks a son’s drive with his father from Warsaw to their smaller village of origin. Alternately narrated by the son, and then by the plural pronoun, the “We” of father-son, the story invents its placement, or creates this surreal origin for the speaker. “Here on the streets of Warsaw, in these tumultuous days, fiery and intoxicating, I am transported in thought to the distant city of my dreams…” Schulz begins, before launching into an aerial view of the surrounding landscape, narrowing in on a thing that “lies—like a cat in sunshine—this chosen region, this singular province, this city unique in all the world. It is futile to speak of this to the uninitiated!” This city belongs to them, to the father and the son.  In “our city,” says the speaker, “nothing happens in vain.” Unlike the urban cities who expand logically “into economics” and develop “into statistical figures,” their city retains its mysteries, its unreasons, its surreality.

Schulz tantalizes the reader this cyclical world of the Polish small-town where everything speaks: each sunset discloses its warnings, each table predicts the conversations to come, each curtain records the words of humans. “Here, every minute something is resolved in exemplary fashion and for all time. Here, all matters happen only once and irrevocably. That is why there is such gravity, a deep accent of sorrow in what takes place here.” The father, a fabric merchant with a wild imagination and a penchant for esoterics, eventually loses his mind. Schulz portrays him with an extraordinary tenderness, a soft spot for his implacability, which feels as elusive and foolish as hope. The metaphysical wilderness is the “fatherland” Schulz offers the reader—an inescapable, frenzied mysterium of life in a city that is “under the sign of the weed, of wild, passionate, fantastical vegetation shooting out cheap, shoddy greenery, poisonous, virulent, and parasitic.”

I started by acknowledging the difficulty of choosing a single story by Schulz. The reason for this involves the entanglement of his narratives, and the role played by Time. For Schulz, time is a character capable of abandoning the body in order to articulate its own steps across a room. Duration is both empty and overfilled: for example, there is a 13th false month which appears to account for unexplainable happenings (a month possibly related to Jewish mysticism or the father’s esoteric interests). Or maybe the 13th month exists in order to account for everything that occurs outside time–everything that recurs and returns. Schultz doesn’t  resolve this for us. This refusal to define the symbolic lends a metaphysical texture to his writing, as does the narrative’s relationship to time. Time is watched, supervised, attended, divided, and rigorously narrated. It is “threadbare “but also “regurgitated, “. Each story reveals itself in relation to time (Rivka Galchen details this in the book’s introduction). Each season, for Schultz, is another story. Nothing is separable or without implication. Schulz’s characters (often drawn from his own family life) read the world in signs and parables.

This relationship between naming, associating, and invoking lies at the heart of my favorite writing. And I suspect kids are better at hearing it, since kids have fewer stakes in saying the correct or accurate thing. The child’s mind takes what exists and builds from the unlikely into the marvelous. The gonads of a male eel are a looped, frilly organ located inside the animal. This is easier for a child to imagine because a child doesn’t have a theory about where gonads should be located. All is still possible. Maturity narrows the world of possibility to the material; it banishes the metaphysical.

Schulz died young, murdered by an SS officer on the street. One dreams of his work continuing, of another book being discovered in a cinnamon shop, under a mud puddle, somewhere, anywhere in the 13th month of what exists.

Collected in Bruno Schulz: Collected Stories, Northwestern University Press, 2018.

‘Tailors’ Dummies’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Celia Wieniewska

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

‘Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies, or the Second Book of Genesis’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Celina Wieniewska

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

‘The Gale’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Celina Wieniewska

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)