Authors: Bruno Schulz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Polish short-story writer

July 12, 1892

Drohobycz, Galicia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Ukraine)

November 19, 1942

Drohobycz, Poland (now in Ukraine)

Biography

Bruno Schulz is one of the greatest figures in Polish modernist literature of the period between the world wars and one of the most original European fiction writers of the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in the small town of Drohobycz in the Polish province of Galicia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today part of Ukraine), the son of a Jewish merchant, Jakub Schulz, and his wife, Henrietta Schulz. His family’s faith was Mosaic, but the language they mostly spoke was Polish. Schulz went a step further than his parents toward cultural assimilation by not adhering to any specific religious creed and writing exclusively in Polish (except for one short story written in German, which has not survived).

Bruno Schulz.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A morbidly shy and reticent man, tormented all of his life by a sense of inadequacy, Schulz was also burdened with all the psychological consequences of his status as an outsider. He entered Polish literature as a member of an ethnic minority, a first-generation intellectual, and a newcomer from a remote province. This fact perhaps explains why from the very beginning he cared so much about the stylistic mastery of his prose: In order to be taken seriously, he had no choice but to dazzle the critics with an unquestionable brilliance.

One of the most striking characteristics of Schulz is the contrast between his rich, fertile, unbridled imagination and the fact that he spent most of his life in his backwater hometown of Drohobycz. After graduating from the local high school in 1910, he spent five years in Lvov and Vienna, studying architecture and painting; however, for the rest of his life he resided mainly in Drohobycz, toiling as an underpaid, overworked high school teacher of arts and crafts. Drohobycz finally became the place and cause of his death as well. Schulz was caught there by the Soviet invasion in 1939 and the Nazi invasion in 1941. Under the German occupation, he survived for a while thanks to a Gestapo agent who hired him to decorate his house. During a roundup on November 19, 1942, however, he was shot by another Gestapo agent, who held some grudge against Schulz’s protector.

As his surviving letters show, throughout his life Schulz was painfully aware that his creative potential was being constantly stifled by the pressure of everyday reality. Another paradox of his career is the contrast between his remarkable accomplishment as a writer and the meagerness of his output: His entire oeuvre consists of two slender collections of short stories, along with a few volumes of letters and essays. Indeed, everything in his life, from his poverty to his pathological shyness, seemed to conspire to keep his productivity at a minimum level and delay his recognition as much as possible. He began to write rather late in his life, in the mid-1920’s, switching to literature from graphic arts. His first publication was a portfolio of etchings he distributed as a limited edition in the early 1920’s. Characteristically, Schulz’s beginnings as a writer stemmed from his correspondence, which for him was the principal way to maintain contact with the external world. His early short stories were originally written as postscripts to his letters to a woman friend, the writer Debora Vogel. Collected as The Street of Crocodiles, the stories were published thanks to the enthusiastic support of the influential novelist Zofia Naikowska. As legend has it, she had agreed reluctantly to read the manuscript of this unknown author only because the request had come from a mutual friend.

Schulz’s first book met with critical acclaim, even though its success was limited to the circles of the literary avant-garde. Significantly, the two authors who wrote the most penetrating analyses of Schulz’s work in the 1930s were two other representatives of what was then most innovative in Polish literature: the novelist and playwright Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and the novelist Witold Gombrowicz. In 1937, buoyed by the favorable reception of The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz published Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, another collection of short stories composed, in part, of his earlier writings. These two collections differ only slightly. Both are written in lyrical and stylistically luxuriant prose, and both use the setting of a Drohobycz-like provincial town as the point of departure for a complex interplay of realism and fantasy. The Street of Crocodiles is a more tightly knit collection of stories sharing the same characters, whereas Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass has a much looser composition. Its longer and more complex fictional constructions (including the full short story “The Spring”) apparently foreshadowed Schulz’s only novelistic undertaking.

Since 1934 he had been working intermittently on his novel “Mesjasz” (messiah); apart from two fragments included as separate stories in his second collection, though, the text of this novel, in all probability never completed, perished during the war. Besides short stories, drawings, and letters (the latter preserved only in small part), Schulz’s surviving output also includes a number of brilliant essays and book reviews, scattered in prewar Polish periodicals. Most of these critical works, such as the essay “The Mythologizing of Reality,” show him as a perspicacious and profound theorist with a clear, consistent set of original ideas concerning the role and significance of literature.

Schulz’s name is often mentioned in the same breath as Witkiewicz and Gombrowicz. However, his singular achievement is a combined result of his innovation and his dependence on a specific tradition. He owes much to the spirit of modernist literature of the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his own way Schulz continued the tradition of expressing the fundamental problems of human existence in the language of myth or subconscious symbolism. In order to reach back to this language’s original sources, he often explores the materials of dreams, childlike imaginings, erotic fantasies, or popular culture. Metaphor is the chief device that enables him to imitate the peculiar poetics of these layers of imagination and reproduce mythologized reality’s constant metamorphoses. Schulz’s metaphors, however, create rather than reproduce. In his work the author-narrator emerges as a demiurgic maker of the world represented. Although burdening him with a sense of sinful transgression and guilt, this kind of usurpation of divine prerogative also results in his ironic detachment, adding to the semantic complexity of his prose.

Author Works Short Fiction: Sklepy cynamonowe, 1934 (pb. in Britain as Cinnamon Shops, and Other Stories, 1963; pb. in U.S. as The Street of Crocodiles, 1963) Sanatorium pod klepsydrą, 1937 (Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1978) The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, 1989 Nonfiction: Proza, 1964 Księga listów, 1975 (Jerzy Ficowski, editor) Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz, 1988 The Drawings of Bruno Schulz, 1990 Miscellaneous: Collected Works of Bruno Schulz, 1998 (Jerzy Ficowski, editor) Bibliography Brown, Russell E. “Bruno Schulz and World Literature.” Slavic and East European Journal 34 (Summer, 1990): 224-246. An excellent article placing Schulz not in his native Polish tradition but in the context of writers such as Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Louis Aragon, and Robert Walser. Brown also traces the lineage of Schultz in contemporary writers such as the Czech, Bohumil Hrabal; the Yugoslav, Danilo Kiš; the American, Cynthia Ozick; and the Israeli, David Grossman. Brown, Russell E. “Metamorphosis in Bruno Schulz.” The Polish Review 30 (1985): 373-380. Brown explores patterns of metamorphosis in Schulz’s fiction and considers their allegorical meanings. He distinguishes between the ways Schulz and Franz Kafka use metamorphosis, noting that Kafka transforms the boy while Schulz always transforms the father figure. Budurowycz, Bohdan. “Galicia in the Work of Bruno Schulz.” Canadian Slavonic Papers: An Inter-Disciplinary Quarterly 28 (December, 1986): 359-368. Budurowycz points to the significance of Galicia, “a region suffering from an acute identity crisis and divided against itself,” as a significant formative influence on Schulz’s fiction. To this real world can be tied the bizarre, imaginary world of Schulz’s fiction. Ficowski, Jerzy. Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, a Biographical Portrait. London: Newman-Hemisphere, 2000. Kuprel, Diana. “Errant Events on the Branch Tracks of Time: Bruno Schulz and Mythical Consciousness.” Slavic and East European Journal 40 (Spring, 1996): 100-117. Discusses mythologizing in Schulz’s fiction, using Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms; argues that Schulz’s fictions are expressions of Cassirer’s “mythical consciousness.” Nelson, Victoria. “An Exile on Crocodile Street: Bruno Schulz in America.” Salmagundi, nos. 101/102 (Winter/Spring, 1994): 212-225. Discusses Schulz’s influence on American writers and readers, particularly John Updike and Cynthia Ozick; concludes that the terms under which Schulz’s work gained approval from American literary culture highlight the often arbitrary and superficial ways in which authors are transplanted successfully into another language and culture. Newton, Adam Zachary. “‘Nothing but Face’—‘To Hell with Philosophy’? Witold Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, and the Scandal of Human Countenance.” Style 32 (Summer, 1998): 243-260. Argues that Schulz discovers a deep pathos in human faces but, unlike Gombrowicz, links it to the pathos of metaphor and figuration generally: a fundamental principle of transmigrated form. Prokopczyk, Czesław Z., ed. Bruno Schulz: New Documents and Interpretations. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. An updated look at Schulz’s works. Rachwal, Tadeusz, and Andrew Lakritz. “Bruno Schulz: An Introduction.” Chicago Review 40 (1994): 62-65. An introduction to a symposium on Schulz in which scholars and artists discuss Schulz’s work, particularly “territorialization,” or the imaginative movement beyond and across social, political, cultural, and religious borders. Schonle, Andreas. “Of Sublimity, Shrinkage, and Selfhood in the Works of Bruno Schulz.” Slavic and East European Journal 42 (Fall, 1998): 467-482. Discusses the work of Schulz in relation to continental theories of the self and the sublime, from Immanuel Kant to Jean-François Lyotard; examines Schulz’s exposure of reason’s potential irrelevance in a world devoid of stability and unity. Claims that Schulz’s modernism answers the same need as Kant’s aesthetics, but it betrays the increasing fragility and depersonalization of the self. Schulz, Bruno. “An Interview with Bruno Schulz.” Interview by Lou Weiss. Translated by Tom McDonald. Pequod: A Journal of Contemporary Literature and Literary Criticism 16-17 (1984): 144-148. In this rare, short interview, Schulz talks about the motif of the hackney-coach in his work, his early childhood memories, his drawings and his prose, his debt to Thomas Mann, his notions of “reality,” and destructive tendencies critics have noted in his work. Stala, Krzysztof. On the Margins of Reality: The Paradoxes of Representation in Bruno Schulz’s Fiction. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1993. A good look at Schulz’s fiction. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Updike, John. Introduction to Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Translated by Celina Wieniewska. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. Reprinted in Hugging the Shores. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Updike considers Schulz a real find. His appreciation stems from the sheer inventiveness of the writer; the Jewish, Eastern European flavor of his work; and his innovative prose style.

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