The Power of Delight

Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz with Selected Prose

edited by Jerzy Ficowski, translated by Walter Arndt, with Victoria Nelson
Harper and Row, 256 pp., $25.00

One odd feature of our century’s literature is a metamorphosis to childishness. Childhood had been a subject for great literary artists—Wordsworth, Dickens, Tolstoy, Aksakov, Fournier—for almost a hundred years, but they had always created it retrospectively, revealed it from the standpoint of maturity. The war, and Freud, possibly Dada and Surrealism too, seemed to change all that. Childishness began to extrude itself into literature on its own terms, as it were; it crawled out raw and unmodified from the subconscious.

After World War I the new state of Poland seemed a suitable experimental region—“God’s playground” as it had been called, where the ruling classes had never taken power and politics seriously, and with to them fatal results. The grown-ups of Russia, Germany, and Austria had closed the place down. But the Polish intelligentsia had never lost its identity, or, in a sense, its wonderful irresponsibility.

Between the wars was its heyday. Warsaw intellectuals and lively periodicals like Skamander inaugurated new kinds of writing that drew inspiration from other European authors—Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Thomas Mann—but possessed a very definitely Polish personality and Polish characteristics. Witold Gombrowicz, who achieved international fame in 1938 with his novel Ferdydurke, had for some years before been publishing in Warsaw his stories and studies of adolescence. Ignacy Witkiewicz, usually known as Witkacy from the way he signed his paintings, was perhaps the most versatile Polish artist and writer of the time, pioneering and encouraging new cliques and movements. He committed suicide during the German and Russian invasion of 1939, and Gombrowicz had emigrated to Argentina the year before, never returning to Poland.

The two made a trio with a small, shy Jewish writer from the provincial Galician town of Drohobycz (now in the Soviet Union), whom Witkacy championed in 1934 as the most significant contemporary phenomenon in Polish literature. This was Bruno Schulz, whose fantasy The Street of Crocodiles, sometimes translated under the title Cinnamon Shops, had just appeared. Unremarked before Witkacy hailed it as a masterpiece, the gestation of Schulz’s book was itself sufficiently extraordinary. The son of a dry-goods merchant, and himself the drawing master at a local high school, Schulz depended on letters to friends for intellectual support and nourishment. In 1929 a fortunate chance introduced him to Debora Vogel, a girl from Lvov who was a poet and had a Ph.D. in philosophy; she had scored a critical success with a book of imaginative prose called The Acacias Are in Bloom. They began writing letters to each other, and Schulz’s letters developed postscripts, of greater and greater length and originality of fantasy, with a mythology of his childhood, his family, and the town where he lived.

In 1938, when he was well known in writers’ circles, Schulz wrote to the editor of a literary periodical, modestly disclaiming that he had been an influence on Gombrowicz, whose Memoir from Adolescence had, he pointed out, appeared in 1933, The Street of Crocodiles a year later. “What led to the association of our names…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.