Bruno Schulz Imagines an Insane, Ecstatic World
Bruno Schulz was a writer, painter, and literary critic in early 20th-Century Poland. I’ve always admired his work. It’s surreal and strange but amazingly compelling. The other day I came across my copy of Street of Crocodiles, a collection of short fiction that’s his signature creation and couldn’t resist sharing my ideas about it here.
Wild Words That Resonate
When I read it years ago, the book rang in my soul like a large brass bell. Days after reading it, I could still feel the sound resonating in my chest. Even now, reading some of the words, I’m swallowed into his world of madness and beauty. The book is a kind of crazy masterpiece, blinding its readers with a relentless white-hot light of words to create a searing maniacal portrait of a family and its daily routines. Because Schulz’s father’s insanity is at the heart of the book, the story almost glows with intensity.
Not Quite a Stream of Consciousness
Schulz describes the full spectrum of his father’s wild behavior, from how “tears would stream from his eyes” during the mundane act of room cleaning to how he waves “his arms as if they were wings, and emit a long-drawn-out bird’s call.” Most events are not just unfortunate but tragic, not just happy but ecstatic, and not just off or weird but utterly nuts.
It was for this reason, and Schulz’s magnificent way of seamlessly slipping from one surreal image to another, from one mythic idea to another, that I had trouble intellectually making sense of the book. It’s almost as if the book is a dream, where the reader passively experiences the action and the words flow through the mind rather than function as a means to comprehending something. When my rational brain said, “Wait, stop, what is actually happening?” my intuitive mind had to intervene and say, “Let go. Run with it.”
A Dream to Experience Rather Than Read
This creates a new and original reading experience. The words evoke impressions, feelings, ideas and rhythms that all tumble together in a dance of language and connection that oftentimes charges forcefully forward or slows to a discreet intimacy. It’s almost orchestral in its bold variations, like a Beethoven symphony. At one point, the narrator’s mother is suffering from a migraine in the drawing room (a slowing point) where Schulz describes the room’s orderliness. But then the dance flows faster when Schulz describes how the peacock feathers in a vase are “winking, fluttering their eyelashes, smiling to one another, giggling and full of mirth…. They pushed … peeped … made signs, speaking to each other in a deaf-and-dumb language full of secret meaning.”
The movement then slows again, “I let the silence drag on for a long moment” as he speaks to his mother before spiraling the energy upward again in a remembrance of the cockroach invasion: “…each crevice suddenly produced a cockroach, from every chink would shoot a crazy black zigzag of lightning. Ah, that wild lunacy of panic … ah, those screams of horror … leaping from one chair to another with a javelin in his hand!”
Amidst this symphony of images and linguistics is Schulz’s brazen insight that pops up in phrases that explode and bloom like fireworks. In describing the dog, Nimrod, he calls it “that crumb of life” and says, “His exclusive preoccupation with longing for a return to the maternal womb gave way before the charms of plurality.” This is such a fresh way of describing how the unsure and trembling puppy grows into a curious dog.
An Unleashing of Images
One difficulty I had, which is a testament to the book’s imaginative power, was sorting out what literally happened in some situations. In the tailor’s shop, during the sale it’s difficult to discern whether the setting in the following passage is literal or what it represents: “…the fathers of the city … walked up and down in dignified and serious groups…. Having spread themselves over the whole extensive mountain country, they wandered … on distant and circuitous roads. Their short dark silhouettes peopled the desert plateau over which hung a dark and heavy sky…” The shop has earlier been likened to a landscape where the folds of fabrics were like “mountain ranges,” but still it’s difficult to discern as the next passage refers to a group of people literally pointing at the sky whether the landscape Schulz describes is inside the shop or outside in the city.
Regardless, I love Street of Crocodiles. Fans of Italo Calvino will love it as well. SoC taught me to open up and allow my own “Demiurge” spirit to set aside its self-conscious rational persona and instead unleash its inspiration and create words. It’s a book I can’t recommend enough, especially to fellow writers.