Heartwood 1:13 – The Street of Crocodiles

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz is an atmospheric and fantastic account of a boy living with his merchant family in a small town in Eastern Poland. The episodic chapters are sensuous explorations of a vividly realized time and place, viewed through the eyes of a child but pervaded by a more experienced understanding. The somewhat lengthy passage below, from a letter Schulz wrote to a friend, gets at the spirit that informs his writing:

I do not know just how in childhood we arrive at certain images, images of crucial significance to us. They are like filaments in a solution around which the sense of the world crystallizes for us… They are meanings that seem predestined for us, ready and waiting at the very entrance of our life… Such images constitute a program, establish our soul’s fixed fund of capital, which is allotted to us very early in the form of inklings and half-conscious feelings. It seems to me that the rest of our life passes in the interpretation of those insights, in the attempt to master them with all the wisdom we acquire, to draw them through all the range of intellect we have in our possession. These early images mark the boundaries of an artist’s creativity. He cannot now discover anything new; he learns only to understand more and more the secret entrusted to him at the beginning, and his art is a constant exegesis, a commentary on that single verse that was assigned him. But art will never unravel that secret completely. The secret remains insoluble. The knot in which the soul was bound is no trick knot, coming apart with a tug at its end. On the contrary, it grows tighter and tighter. We work at it, untying, tracing the path of the string, seeking the end, and out of this manipulation comes art…

These remarkable chapters blend the innocence of a child-like gaze with an uneasy awareness of sin, mildew, deception and decay. The narrator’s father is at the center of a number of the stories, “that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination…who alone waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city.” In “Birds” he is revealed to be a bit off when he orders exotic bird eggs and turns his attic into an aviary. A chapter on dressmakers’ dummies further explores his father’s unpredictable fixations, this time, an obsession with the demiurge – with spirit and matter, form and mutability.

The title of “Cinnamon Shops” refers to a section of businesses that held unusual and mysterious appeal to the young narrator. Sent from the theatre on an errand by his erratic father, he takes a shortcut but, in turning a familiar corner, finds himself near these enticing businesses instead – it’s as if his hidden desires had transported him to these secretive and alluring late-night shops where everything is infused with both wonder and dread, and where dream scenes merge with nocturnal quest.

In Schulz’s world we find not only familiar streets that become unrecognizable, but also rooms that have gone so long unused that they essentially disappear, the calendar taking on an additional month, and other conundrums. In “The Street of Crocodiles,” Schulz follows up the atmospheric and surreal happenings of “Cinnamon Shops” with the swirling, astonishing, ever-shifting illusoriness that makes up this seedy part of the city that is a literal blank spot on his father’s map. Schulz articulates my own sense of estrangement when some errand takes me off my routine commuter route and through a neighborhood I had never explored before:

At times one has the impression that it is only the small section immediately before us that falls into the expected pointillistic picture of a city thoroughfare, while on either side, the improvised masquerade is already disintegrating and, unable to endure, crumbles behind us into plaster and sawdust, into the storeroom of an enormous, empty theater.

Schulz is fascinated by the surfaces of things and their potential to deceive – façades, tailor’s dummies, masks and costumes. In some scenes we see through solid forms (trams without fronts, behind which passengers sit with stiff decorum) while in others, what is normally transparent becomes occluded (frequent mentions of dark or flat gray windows).

In “The Comet” the town is agitated by news that a comet is on a collision course with the earth. This chapter contains one of the most profound illustrations of the father’s madness. At one point, he sticks his head inside the fireplace and looks up the chimney pipe at what he thinks is the earth’s lost moon, but it soon morphs into a human brain upon which something like the charred words of newsprint writhe before the image finally resolves into a human embryo “sleeping upside-down its blissful sleep in the light waters of amnion.”

The Street of Crocodiles is an extraordinary book that blends desire and decay, solidity and uncertainty, the mad and the mundane. Schulz untangles the “inklings and half-conscious feelings” of an unusual childhood to create stories in which the complex and “insoluble” nature of memory and experience are fantastically and imaginatively interwoven.

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Bruno Schulz is one of Poland’s great 20th century writers. He was gunned down by an SS man in his hometown of Drohobycz on November 19, 1942. Check out Heartwood 1:12 to see how Cynthia Ozick has imagined the discovery of his lost manuscript in her novel, The Messiah of Stockholm.

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Heartwood 1:12 – The Messiah of Stockholm

Bruno Schulz was gunned down by an SS man in his hometown of Drohobycz on November 19, 1942. Schulz lived there quietly as a high school art teacher who secretly wrote fiction. He is now celebrated as one of Eastern Europe’s great 20th century writers, and Cynthia Ozick has put him at the center of her novelistic homage.

In Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm, Lars Andemening has convinced himself that he is Bruno Schulz’s orphaned son. He works as a book reviewer for the Morgontörn newspaper in Stockholm, and dedicates his column inches to the Eastern European writers who were from Schulz’s generation or the following one. Lars’s coworkers (along with his supplier, the prominently featured bookstore owner, Heidi Eklund) rib him about his interest in these writers who they berate as obscure, inscrutable, and bogged down in “existential dread.” For readers of the many writers named (including Musil, Kafka, Hrabal and Kundera), Ozick’s novel is a pleasure from the first page, and it only becomes more intriguing and mysterious when a woman claiming to be Schulz’s daughter shows up with The Messiah, his long-missing manuscript.

Ozick weaves her story skillfully, and includes a father-son connection that is as uncanny as the one found in Schulz’s vividly surrealistic tales which orbit around the tragicomic figure of the narrator’s mentally unstable father.  In Ozick’s book, Lars is visited by Schulz in his dreams, and upon waking he finds his book reviews are fully formed in his mind, as if by some occult intervention, just waiting for him to type them out.

To read books from the late 1980s, such as this one – a time just before the advent of the world wide web – can be a shocking reminder of how thoroughly the world has changed. The already ghostly quality to The Messiah of Stockholm is augmented by being set in the not-so-distant past when typewriters clattered, newspapers were thriving, and even small papers had fully-staffed books sections.

Ozick has written a beautiful tribute to the brilliant Schulz that is also a satisfying mystery, a reminder of the horrors of the Nazi regime, and a warning not to give up on your dreams if you don’t want them to give up on you.

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Cynthia Ozick is a writer of novels, short stories and essays. Among her many awards are the PEN/Malamud award for short fiction and the PEN/Nabokov award, both of which honor a writer’s lifetime achievement.  Check back for the next installment of Heartwood where we’ll take a look at Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles.

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