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)