THE FICTION OF BRUNO SCHULZ is alive with dead things. His stories all take place in the narrow landscape of his childhood: the small, provincial town of Drohobycz in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now western Ukraine, a few years after the start of the twentieth century. At the same time, they seem to occupy a separate cosmos, one whose physics, biology and even meteorology are distinct from our own. Schulz’s Drohobycz is a city of abnormal winds, intercalated seasons and illusory geography, in which time is entirely plastic, stretching out and contracting according to its own desires.
Here, the boundaries between people and things aren’t fixed. Human beings are susceptible to sudden, inexplicable transformations. They turn into animals — cockroaches, flies, crustaceans — and objects — a pile of ash, a primitive telegraph, a heap of rubbish, the rubber tube of an enema. A flock of multicolored birds flies from the family house in winter; in the fall, it returns blind and misshapen, the birds’ anatomy a nonsense of cardboard and carrion. The substance of reality seems paper-thin and prone to tearing. In attics, darkness degenerates and ferments. Unmade beds rise like dough. Colorless poppies sprout out of the weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish.
But perhaps the most important way in which Schulz’s cosmos differs from our own is that dead things are never simply dead. Matter is never inert. Beneath its inertia and clumsiness, matter trembles with a life of its own. It pulsates and shivers, grows, ferments and germinates. Its curious respiration can be felt passing over moldering, water-stained walls and in the pullulating jungles of wallpaper. In certain environments — in forgotten rooms overgrown with bricks and above rubbish heaps, abounding in the hummus of memories, nostalgia, and sterile boredom — matter sprouts and flowers in a parody of vegetable life. Trapped in wax figures and tailors’ dummies or crucified in chests and tables, it rebels against the cruel prison of its form.
Schulz’s fiction is one of those rare bodies of literary work that gives rise to its own cosmology. Attention to the secret, inner life of matter is at its heart. This is what makes his stories seem so strange and unlike anything else in the modernist canon, at once domestic and uncanny, sweetly nostalgic and unaccountably bizarre. The life of matter is also at the heart of his poetic project. As he explained in a letter to his friend and literary rival S.I. Witkiewicz, his 1934 short-story collection Cinnamon Shops (The Street of Crocodiles in English) “offers a certain recipe for reality, posits a certain special kind of substance … it contains no dead, hard, limited objects … the life of the substance consists in the assuming and consuming of numberless masks.”
Within the stories, it is left to Jacob, Schulz’s father, to justify the peculiar theology behind living matter. The central story in Cinnamon Shops is called “Tailors’ Dummies.” In it, Jacob gives a series of lectures, or parodies of lectures. The first is subtitled “The Second Book of Genesis,” and that is, in effect, what they all are: accounts of the creation, or really, the re-creation of the world accordi...read more