Much celebrated, very overwritten "stories," the genius of which is lost on me

Sep 14, 2013
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review


Cons:flood of adjectives and lists, lack of plot or characterization

The Bottom Line: For me not one of the masterpieces of middle-European culture from the first half of the twentieth century

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) is one of the revered victims of the Nazis (shot on the streets of Drohobych (in Galicia, now in the Ukraine). He has been called “the Polish Kafka, though I find Schulz’s stories opaquely metaphysical, whereas I can interpret Kafka’s parables (perhaps not as Kafka intended…). Schulz helped his fiancée, Józefina Szelinska translation Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial) into Polish, btw.
The stories in his first collection, Sklepy cynamonowe (which means “cinnamon shops,” the narrator’s category for shops of exotic goods with cinnamon-colored walls). That title story about a youth wandering off when he is supposed to be going home to get his father’s wallet so the family can go to the theater, was replaced by another that is even less character-driven or plot-driven, but sounds more exotic, “The Street of Crocodiles” in Celina Wieniewska’s 1963 English translation, available from Penguin Classics with other Schultz “stories.”

The piling on of metaphors and of adjectives are, I’m pretty sure, Schultz’s, not his translator’s. Some things (the Latinateness of Schultz’s (Slavic) Polish is one mentioned in the introduction by Slavicist professor David Goldfarb. I found that introduction and the enthusiastic preface by Jonathan Safran Foer (author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extemely Loud and Incredibly Close, two best-sellers about which I am dubious) interested me more than Schultz’s stories. Though they are short, I lost interest in each one and started skimming and skipping.

It can’t be that the syntax is impenetrable (I have read Proust, Mann, and Faulkner!), but I like some plot or some characterization, not just evocation of settings and the mysteries of The Father (who runs a textile shop in the marketplace and metamorphoses (or metaphorizes!) in “Father’s Last Escape”). The narrator, Józef, is a dreamy youth (whose Jewishness is never explicit), the maid Adele, indolent, the mother inconsequential.

Since there are no plots to summarize, let me quote some sentences at random that I find overwritten:

“I stood against him looking at those delicate human bodies with distant, unseeing eyes, when all of a sudden the fluid of an obscure excitement with which the air seemed charged, reached me and pierced me with a shiver of uneasiness, a wave of sudden comprehension.”

“In the black thickets of the park, in the hairy coat of bushes, in the mass of crusty twigs there were nooks, niches, nests of deepest fluffy blackness, full of confusion, secret gestures, conniving looks.”

“It was one of those clear nights when the starry firmament is so wide and spreads so far that it seems to be divided and broken up into a mass of separate skies, sufficient for a whole month of winter nights and providing silver and painted globes to cover all the nightly phenomena, adventures, occurrences and carnivals.”

“On the reverse of the page, Anna Csillag was shown six weeks after the prescription was revealed to her, surrounded by her brothers, brothers-in-law, and nephews, bewhiskered men with beards down to their waists, exposing to the admiration of beholder in an eruption of unfalsified, bearlike masculinity.”

Such verbose, list-heavy sentences may seem poetic to some readers. I guess Foer’s foreword forewarned: he recalled that the first time he read The Street of Crocodiles he “loved the book, but didn’t like it The language was too heightened, the images too magical and precarious, the yearnings too dire, the sense of loss too palpable” (Foer’s list is easier to defend IMHO). For me the key word in Foer’s recollection is “precarious”: I think that it applies to Schultz’s life (especially after the 1939 splitting of Poland between the Nazis and the communists, with Drohobycz going to the Nazis, as well as to his fictions). And having finally gotten around to trying to read Schultz, it is unlikely that I will undertake a second reading.

(BTW, I am puzzled by the lesson Foer adduces from Schultz : “Do not withdraw into the frailty of realization.” Schultz as also championed by the late John Updike and Philip Roth.)

©2013, Stephen O. Murray

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