The OF Blog: Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories

And suddenly he dropped onto his forepaws and uttered a sound unfamiliar to him, a strange noise, completely different from his usual whimpering.  He uttered it once, then again and again, in a thin faltering descant.
But in vain did he apostrophize the insect in this new language, born of sudden inspiration, as a cockroach's understanding is not equal to such a tirade:  the insect continued on its journey to a corner of the room, with movements sanctified by an ageless ritual of the cockroach world.
The feeling of loathing had as yet no permanence or strength in the dog's soul.  The newly awakened joy of life transformed every sensation into a great joke, into gaiety.  Nimrod kept on barking, but the tone of it had changed imperceptibly, had become a parody of what it had been – an attempt to express the incredible wonder of that capital enterprise, life, so full of unexpected encounters, pleasures, and thrills. (p. 44)

Bruno Schulz perhaps is one of the most well-known of the overlooked writers of the early 20th century.  A near-contemporary of Kafka (both were Jewish writers who came of age during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:  Kafka in Bohemia, Schulz in Galicia), Schulz's stories and illustrations are not quite as famous as Kafka's, yet seventy years after his death on the infamous "Black Thursday" of November 1942 at the hands of a vengeful Nazi officer, Schulz's stories contain an unsettling and sometimes menacing quality to them that is at least the equal of the better-known Czech writer.  Schulz's stories vary from the whimsical to the disturbing, with sometimes only a paragraph or two to separate the twain.  In The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, virtually all of Schulz's extant writing (several works in progress, including an unfinished novel, The Messiah, were lost during World War II) is collected.

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories contains the two collections Schulz had published during his lifetime, The Street of Crocodiles (the US title; in Polish, it was named after the story "Cinnamon Shops") and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.  The first collection, published in 1933, is a more dream-like look at Schulz's native city of Drohobycz (now a city in the western Ukraine known as Drohobych) that originally was a series of letters that he wrote to a close friend, Debora Vogel.  In these tales, quotidian life can take on a more surreal and sometimes even existentialist quality.  Consider the quote above, taken from the end of the story "Nimrod."  There is the Biblical reference to the mighty hunter, here cast as a dog.  There is a heightened sense of perception here, from a creature that has found its own sort of enlightenment, yet that quality is not necessarily one that conveys a universality of understanding, but rather something that cannot be conveyed adequately.  Here, Schulz is interested in the limits of expression, as we, like the dog Nimrod, are not quite capable of full communication with each other.  Like the cockroach, scurrying off to do its "ageless ritual of the cockroach world," we move in circumscribed patterns, the meaning of which is obscured to others and sometimes even to our selves.

This ritualization of the possibly absurd can be seen in the titular "The Street of Crocodiles", where the narrator recounts a visit to a merchant's store:
Tall dark salesgirls, each with a flaw in her beauty (appropriately for that district of remaindered goods), came and went, stood in the doorways watching to see whether the business entrusted to the experienced care of the salesman had reached a suitable point.  The salesman simpered and pranced around like a transvestite.  One wanted to lift up his receding chin or pinch his pale powdered cheek as with a stealthy meaningful look he discreetly pointed to the trademark on the material, a trademark of transparent symbolism (p. 66)
Like several of his stories, "The Street of Crocodiles" relies on movement to set up the unsettling observations that follow.  Here, the hustle and bustle of a store, here an outfitter's shop, in which "[t]he effeminate and corrupted youth, receptive to the client's most intimate stirrings, now put before him a selection of the most peculiar trademarks," is shown to be a microcosm of the world at large.  As Schulz pans out from this detailed scene of this store, which ultimately is a façade for a different sort of store, it becomes a metaphor for something quite different than what the reader might expect:
It is, as usual in that district, a gray day, and the whole scene seems at times like a photograph in an illustrated magazine, so gray, so one-dimensional are the houses, the people, and the vehicles.  Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character.  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.  The tenseness of an artificial pose, the assumed earnestness of a mask, an ironical pathos tremble on this façade. (p.67)
This “thinness” of reality is a motif that Schulz explores frequently in his fiction.  Beneath the hum-drum of an industrial society lurks another world, one in which all that activity is revealed to be a masquerade, a sometimes badly choreographed dance of characters from one crumbling cityscape to another.  There is little permanency to our lives; all seems to be on the brink of dissolution. This sense of dissolution is strongest in one of Schulz's most famous short stories, "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass."
The whole landscape, somber and grave, seemed almost imperceptibly to float, to shift slightly like a sky full of billowing, stealthily moving clouds.  The fluid strips and bands of forest seemed to rustle and grow with rustling like a tide that swells gradually toward the shore.  The rising white road wound itself dramatically through the darkness of that woody terrain.  I broke a twig from a roadside tree.  The leaves were dark, almost black.  It was a strangely charged blackness, deep and benevolent, like restful sleep.  All the different shades of gray in the landscape derived from that one color.  It was the color of a cloudy summer dusk in our part of the country, when the landscape has become saturated with water after a long period of rain and exudes a feeling of self-denial, a resigned and ultimate numbness that does not need the consolation of color.(p. 241)
The sanatorium toward which the narrator travels is in another country.  It is a place where his father has not yet died, where he is alive despite the shadow of that death in his own country casting a pall over him.   Here Schulz sets up a situation in which reality can be seen as malleable, where as the sanatorium caregiver says, “we reactivate time past, with all its possibilities, therefore also including the possibility of a recovery.”  This malleability, however, comes at a dreadful cost, as the narrator discovers to his chagrin as he ventures out from the sanatorium into the streets below.  There, life such as that of his father’s, is conditional upon the whims and beliefs of the beholder; the slightest doubt risked destroying everything.  Control is illusory, and virtues that might have otherwise been steadfastly held to have been abandoned here.

"Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass" is representative of Schulz's explorations of Fate and Death and how all of our rituals and gestures do little more than attempt to place the reins around a horse that has already escaped from the barn.  In the story "Father's Last Escape," he makes this point quite explicit:
Fate has a thousand wiles when it chooses to impose on us its incomprehensible whims.  A temporary blackout, a moment of inattention or blindness, is enough to insinuate an act between the Scylla and Charybdis of decision.  Afterward, with hindsight, we may endlessly ponder that act, explain our motives, try to discover our true intentions; but the act remains irrevocable. (p. 311)
Without rituals or other means to try to explain the inexplicable, we can feel lost, rudderless, adrift in a sea of seeming madness.  What Schulz does in his fictions is strip away those protective layers of semiotic gesture, leaving us raw and naked, exposed to a world that is as incomprehensible as it may be threatening to our sense of sanity.  While few of his characters succumb to insanity, there are few that are left unscathed by their exposure to the worlds that lurk beneath and around the constructed one that we have built to provide the semblance of order in a chaotic existence.  The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories haunts us not because of ghosts or "unnatural" phenomena but rather because of the sense that we get that perhaps we are the ghosts that flitter about in a world that is more "real" than we care to ever admit.

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