"Deep into private mythology with Bruno Schulz"
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, July 22, 1998)

This is how literature works, Bruno Schulz said: it sinks deep into the unconscious, searching for hidden myths, buried memories, childhood dreams. Down there, at the bottom of the mind, it discovers how we are made, why we do what we do. "The artist," he wrote, "is an apparatus for registering processes in that deep stratum where values are formed." Those processes are acted out in The Street of Crocodiles, a now-legendary production by the Theatre de Complicite of London, which opens July 30 at the Premiere Dance Theatre in Toronto.

Schulz's own report on our controlling unconscious is fascinating, and always oblique. While he considered storytelling central to human life ("The most fundamental function of the spirit is inventing fables, creating tales"), his own stories are not simple. No one ever called their appeal universal. "Poetry happens," he explained, "when short-circuits of sense occur." His work is full of crossed wires, wild fantasies colliding with humble realities.

Schulz was born into a family of Polish-Jewish merchants. He was a high-school art teacher in Drohobycz, a city then in Poland, now in Ukraine, where he lived his whole life. In the 1930s Schulz wrote (in Polish) and illustrated the two books of linked stories on which his reputation rests: Cinnamon Shops, which is sometimes titled The Street of Crocodiles, and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. His drawings were as significant to Schulz as his writing, and in one way they're more revealing: they express an abject sexuality, not a long way from masochism.

On the landscape of literature, Schulz occupies a small valley, somewhere between Borges Peak and Mt. Kafka. A maker of myths, he's now a myth himself. Later writers, like Philip Roth in The Prague Orgy and Cynthia Ozick in The Messiah of Stockholm, borrow his imagery or use him as a character. Ozick wraps her novel around the search for a manuscript Schulz may have written; her main character, a Stockholm literary critic, hunts for this lost masterpiece, partly because he thinks Schulz is his biological father. East European writers such as Danilo Kis also use Schulz in their work. "Schulz is my God," Kis said in an interview with another Schulz fan, John Updike. There's a 1987 animated film by Stephen and Timothy Quay, Street of Crocodiles, loosely based on the stories.

And since 1992 the Theatre de Complicite has been touring the world with The Street of Crocodiles, adapted by the artistic director, Simon McBurney. The Complicite players are natural Schulz interpreters. Like him, they transmogrify life, grotesquely changing forms and appearances. In 1996 they brought to Canada a piece based on a John Berger story about peasants, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol; it demonstrated that they see visual reality as unstable, the way Schulz sees narrative reality. How many companies require their actors to impersonate, for instance, a ploughed field? They raise acting-class exercises to the level of magical art.

They use Schulz's life as well as his work--and what everyone remembers about his life is its end. It was caused by a quarrel between two German officers in November, 1942, when Schulz was 50. One officer ordered him to paint murals in his house. Another officer, who had a grudge against the first, happened to see Schulz on the street, shortly after reprisals had been ordered because a young Drohobycz Jew had fired at a German and wounded him. Seeing an opportunity to spite the man he was angry with, the officer walked up to Schulz and shot him. A survivor from that town recently told the New York Times: "The way we heard the story, the man who shot him went to the man for whom he was painting and said, 'I have just killed your Jew.'"

A photograph of the place where it happened appears in Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz, edited by Jerzy Ficowski, the man who carefully preserved his work and reputation. I found the picture a shock. Unconsciously, I'd constructed a background for that monstrous scene, some dusty village with low primitive buildings. That didn't make it any better, yet somehow placed it at a distance. But in the picture, the corner where Schulz died looks charming; it might be Paris. By making the site clearly civilized, the photo refocuses the mind on the hardest fact of the century, that the Holocaust was born at the core of European civilization and perpetrated calmly by many of the most civilized Europeans.

Schulz's stories, 56 years after his death, remain fresh and unexpected. In one of my favourites, the narrator elaborately explains that his town's climate is changing because of "the miasmas exuded by degenerate specimens of baroque art crowded in our museums. That museum art, rotting in boredom and oblivion, ferments like old preserves, oversugars our climate...." In the short story titled "The Street of Crocodiles," Schulz describes a section of town that's entirely fake, where elaborate facades disguise the buildings. The atmosphere is dominated by "sham and empty gestures." Everything is facile, all promise and no fulfilment. It is as if Schulz in 1934 is anticipating Disneyland, a surrealist's nightmare that became "reality." In 1936 Schulz called an essay, "The Republic of Dreams." In that country, he's a leading citizen.

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