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)
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.
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.