Sunday, December 16, 2018

Bruno Schulz's Collected Stories - transformations into ever more artistic configurations

This is not Bruno Schulz describing himself, but it is close:

It is a characteristic of my existence that I parasitize metaphors; I am so easily carried away by the first fine metaphor.  Having gone too far with this I must now withdraw with difficulty, returning slowly to reason.  (“Loneliness,” 232)

The difference is that Schulz is carried away by not just the first metaphor, but the second and third and on to the end of his inventive powers, which are substantial.  His two little books of stories, Cinnamon Shops (1934) and The Sanatorium under the Hourglass (1937), are treasure houses of metaphor.

The girl languidly sinks her hands into the dough of the bedclothes, still warm and yeasty from sleep.  Finally, with an inner shudder, with eyes filled with the night, she shakes out a large, ample feather bed through the window and fluffs of down float onto the city, tiny down stars, a lazy sowing of nighttime dreams.  (“The Pensioner,” 221)

Someone should count the references to stars in Schulz’s books, stars compared to things and things compared to stars.

There was no end to the transformations of the sky, the metamorphoses of its multiple vaults into ever more artistic configurations.  Like a silver astrolabe the sky opened its inner mechanism on this magical night and revealed in endless evolutions the golden mathematics of its wheels and cogs.  (“Cinnamon Shops,” 53)

One word in that quotation reminds me that Schulz is commonly compared to Kafka, and boy are there some weird correspondences: many father-son stories, transformations into a cockroach or a fly or a bird (although it is the father that is always transforming or dying or returning to life, not the son), and an unstable and uncannily shifting geography.  But Schulz’s flow of imagery, the images turning into images, is unthinkable in Kafka.  In Schulz, everything metamorphosizes, and is constantly metamorphosizing.  It is exhausting.

In Cinnamon Shops, the abundance of imagery exists within or atop a small Polish town and an ordinary family.  Or maybe the imagery creates the town and the family, the father and the common-sensical maid Adela and their strange adventures collecting rare birds or fighting an invasion of cockroaches.  The perspective is always that of the son, and there is the possibility that the magic of the town and the strange fates of his father are all in his imagination.  I find this book to be a beautiful rush.

Some of the stories in Sanatorium are more of the same – the continuing adventures of the father are unmissable – but in others Schulz pushes towards a purely poetic form of prose, where I wonder if there is anything left but metaphor.  The pieces function more as prose poems, but at such length that I find them quite difficult to follow, the novella-length “Spring” being the most extreme example.  Sections of that piece feel like they are made of nothing but Schulz’s beloved stars.

The page numbers above are from the new (2018) Collected Stories of Schulz, translated by Madeline G. Levine.  She is working from a corrected text, a plus, puts everything under one cover, and the old translations by Celina Wieniewska are known to have problems, beginning with a change in Schulz’s title, but when I did some spot-checking, comparing the new Cinnamon Shops with the old The Street of Crocodiles, I did not find anything that did not look like the usual differences between translators.  Levine uses more repetition and lets the sentences get a little more long and tangled, so the new translation is less “smooth” than the old one, but if you have an old copy of Crocodiles I would not recommend throwing it in the fireplace.  I guess I do not know how cold you are.  And maybe the differences between the two versions of Sanatorium are larger?

Cinnamon Shops was among the very best books I read this year. Parts of Sanatorium, too.  Not just this year; also, ever.


  1. Very interested to hear your thoughts on the new translation. I have the old ones, and I was thinking I should get the updated ones. Difficult, because I find I often tend to have a huge attachment to the version I originally read. Schulz is just marvellous...


  2. Thanks for sharing, you described perfectly some of the best things schulz does. For me, Spring is a a big big poem and has some chapters that the methapors are so big they fell off the text. I don't know where the comparisions with kafka come from, probably cause he translated some of his work. I think the short story "sanatorium under the hourglass" is relatable because of the desperate mood . Anyways have you catched the polish movie inspired in his work? Sanatorium pod Klepsydra by wojciech jerzy has. You can find it in torrent or buy the blue ray on amazon. It is a big big tribute. Greetings from uruguay

  3. Lázaro, thank you. It is nice to hear that I did Schulz justice. Thank you for the movie recommendation, too. I did not know about it.

    Kaggsy, yes, getting to know Schulz is more important the version, but how nice that we now have a choice.

  4. "In Schulz, everything metamorphosizes, and is constantly metamorphosizing. It is exhausting."

    Looking back on my notes, I think this coincides with my comment that Schulz writes not only about childhood memories but does so from a childlike consciousness. Anything is possible...and also come to pass. And you're right. It can be exhausting.

    I'll second the movie recommendation. I truly enjoyed it.

    I'll have to check out the new translation. Thanks for covering it! There used to be an additional translation of all of Schulz's works online, but that site seems to be long gone.

  5. Ooh, I need to check out the new translation too! What a great excuse to read Schulz again.

  6. An online translation! How ambitious. How sad that it is gone.

    It really is a good excuse. Who knows what you will see differently.