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Comic Genius

The Street of Crocodiles

by Bruno Schulz, translated by Celina Wieniewska, with an introduction by Jerzy Ficowski
Penguin, 160 pp., $3.95 (paper)

The ridiculous or preposterous father is a subject irresistible to the comic genius. The fellow is an involuntary god, and the variety of the species extends over the knockabout and the merely whimsical to the full wonder of incipient myth. To this last superior class the fantastic father invented by Bruno Schulz in The Street of Crocodiles belongs; the richness of the portrait owes everything to its brushwork and to our private knowledge that the deepest roots of the comic are poetic and even metaphysical.

Few English-speaking readers have ever heard of Schulz, and I take from his translator, Celina Wieniewska, and the thorough introduction by Jerzy Ficowski the following notes on a very peculiar man. Schulz came of a Jewish family of dry goods merchants in the dull little town of Drogobych in Poland—it is now in the USSR—where he became a frustrated art master in the local high school and lived a solitary and hermetic life. The family’s trade separated them from the ghetto; his natural language was Polish. The only outlet for his imagination seems to have been in writing letters to one or two friends, and it is out of these letters that his stories in this and other volumes grew. They were a protest against a boredom amounting to melancholia. He became famous, but found he could not live without the Drogobych he hated and he was caught there when the war began and the Nazis put him into the ghetto. It is said that a Gestapo officer who admired his drawings wangled a pass for him to leave the ghetto; one night when he took advantage of his freedom and was wandering among the crowds in the streets he was shot dead in a random shooting-up of the crowd. He was fifty years old.

It is not surprising to find comic genius of the poetic kind in serious and solitary men, but to emerge it has to feed on anomalies. We might expect—or fear—that Schulz would be a Slavonic droll in the Polish folk tradition, but he is not. Distinctly an intellectual, he translated Kafka’s The Trial and was deep in Joseph and His Brethren—to my mind the most seminal of Thomas Mann’s works; hence his sense of life as a collusion or conspiracy of improvised myths. Note the word “improvised.”

Drogobych had suddenly become an American-type boom town owing to the discovery of oil, and the fantasy of Schulz takes in the shock of technology and the new cult of things and the pain of their metamorphosis. His translator is, rightly I think, less impressed by his literary sources in Kafka or surrealism than by the freedom of the painter’s brush—a brush, she says, astonishingly like Chagall’s.

Our hero”—as Schulz calls his secretive father, in The Street of Crocodiles—blossoms into speeches to his family or the seamstresses and assistants in his dress shop. He rambles into theories about the Demiurge and our enchantment with trash and inferior material. He discourses on the agonies of Matter:

Who knows…how many suffering, crippled, fragmentary forms of life there are, such as the artificially created life of chests and tables quickly nailed together, crucified timbers, silent martyrs to cruel human inventiveness. The terrible transplantation of incompatible and hostile races of wood, their merging into one misbegotten personality.”

Misbegetting is one of his obsessions; Schulz goes on:

Only now do I understand the lonely hero who alone had waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city. Without any support, without recognition on our part, that strangest of men was defending the lost cause of poetry.

The awed seamstresses cutting out dresses to fit the draper’s model in their room are told the model is alive.

Where is poetry born? In the solitary imagination of the child who instantly sees an image when he sees a thing, where the wallpaper becomes a forest, the bales of cloth turn into lakes and mountains. In his way, the father has the inventive melancholy of Quixote. The delightful thing about him is that he is the embarrassing, scarcely visible nuisance in shop and home. It is hard to know where he is hiding or what he is up to. He is an inquiring poltergeist, coated with human modesty; even his faintly sexual ventures, like studying a seamstress’s knee because he is fascinated by the structure of bones, joints, and sinews, are as modest as Uncle Toby’s confusion of the fortress of Namur with his own anatomy. A minor character, like Adela the family servant, sets off the old man perfectly. She comes to clean out his room.

He ascribed to all her functions a deeper, symbolic meaning. When, with young firm gestures, the girl pushed a long-handled broom along the floor, Father could hardly bear it. Tears would stream from his eyes, silent laughter transformed his face, and his body was shaken by spasms of delight. He was ticklish to the point of madness. It was enough for Adela to waggle her fingers at him to imitate tickling, for him to rush through all the rooms in a wild panic, banging the doors after him, to fall at last flat on the bed in the farthest room and wriggle in convulsions of laughter, imagining the tickling which he found irresistible. Because of this, Adela’s power over Father was almost limitless.

This is a small matter compared with his ornithological phase when he imports the eggs of birds from all parts of the world and hatches them in the loft. The birds perched on curtains, wardrobes, lamps. (One—a sad condor—strongly resembles him.) Their plumage carpeted the floor at feeding time. The passion took “an unnatural, even a sinful” turn.

My father arranged the marriages of birds in the attic, he sent out matchmakers, he tied up eager, attractive brides in the holes and crannies under the roof.

In the spring, during the migration, the house was beseiged by whole flocks of cranes, pelicans, peacocks. And father himself, in an absent-minded way, would rise from the table, wave his arms like wings, and emit a long-drawn-out bird’s call, while his eyes misted over.

Then, rather embarrassed, he would join us in laughing it off and try to turn the whole incident into a joke.

It is a sign of Schulz’s mastery of the fantastic that, at the end of the book, he has the nerve to describe how after many years the birds returned to the house—a dreadful spectacle of miscegenation, a brood of freaks, degenerate, malformed:

Nonsensically large, stupidly developed, the birds were empty and lifeless inside. All their vitality went into their plumage, into external adornment…. Some of them were flying on their backs, had heavy misshapen beaks like padlocks, were blind, or were covered with curiously colored lumps.

In a curious passage the father compares them to an expelled tribe, preserving what they could of their soul like a legend, returning to their motherland before extinction—a possible reference to the Diaspora and the return.

Like an enquiring child, the father is wide open to belief in metamorphoses as others are prone to illness: for example he has a horror of cockroaches and, finding black spots on his skin, prepares for a tragic transformation into the creature he dreads by lying naked on the floor. But it is in the father’s ornithological phase that we see the complexity of Schulz’s imagination. The whole idea—it is hinted—may spring from a child’s dream after looking at pictures of birds; it is given power by being planted in the father; then it becomes a grotesque nightmare; and finally we may see it as a parable, illustrating the permutations of myths which become either the inherited wastepaper of the mind or its underground. Incidentally—and how recognizable this is in childish experience—there is an overwhelming picture of the ragged idiot girl of the town sleeping on a rubbish heap, who suddenly rises from the fly-infested dump to rub herself in terrible sexual frenzy against a tree.

Under the modesty of Schulz the senses are itching in disguise. Each episode is extraordinary and carried forward fast by a highly imaged yet rational prose which is especially fine in evoking the forbidden collective wishes of the household or the town: when a comet appears in the sky and a boy comes home from school saying the end of the world is near, the whole town is enthusiastic for the end of the world. When a great gale arrives, the town becomes a saturnalia of things at last set free to live as matter wants to live. There is the admonitory farce when loose-living Uncle Edward agrees to reform and to submit to the father’s discovery of mesmerism and the magic of electricity. Here we detect a dig at Freud. Uncle Edward is eager to shed all his characteristics and to lay bare his deepest self in the interests of Science, so that he can achieve “a problem-free immortality.”

The dichotomy “happy/unhappy” did not exist for him because he had become completely integrated.

Schulz’s book is a masterpiece of comic writing: grave yet demented, domestically plain yet poetic, exultant and forgiving, marvelously inventive, shy and never raw. There is not a touch of whimsy in it.

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