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 …

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