Tag: literature

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories by Bruno Schulz

I was lead to Bruno Schulz by the Brothers Quay. Their version of Street of Crocodiles is one of my favorites of their films. Now having read the source material, I can see a connection in the dream reality and empty city streets of both. But the Brothers Quay have a cruelty in their work that Schulz’s work lacks. In its place, Schulz has a Romanticism that lies in contrast with the Modernist settings and conflicts of his writing.

Schulz was born in 1892 in a small town in Poland, Drohobycz, where he basically stayed his entire life. He was a writer as well as an artist. In fact, he taught art to high school students as a way to support himself. Personally, these details draw me to him since they are a fun house mirror of my own biography and I must admit I hoped that Schulz’s drawing and writing may have merged at some point. Yet if there is a Schulz comic, it is locked in the lighthouse in Hicksville. As far as I can tell, the only melding of his writing and drawing came in the form of illustrations for his stories.

From the accounts, Schulz was a modest man who focused on the development of his art more than the grooming of his image. Yet he did begin to acquire a small amount of fame in his early forties. Unfortunately, and tragically, this fame coincided with the start of the Second World War. The Nazis came to power. And Schulz was a Jew. His artistic abilities got him noticed and a gestapo officer ordered Schulz to paint murals on the walls of his child’s playroom. Yet another officer had a grudge against Schulz’s officer and so used Schulz as a means of exacting his revenge. Schulz was shot dead in the street.

Apparently, Schulz had been working on his masterpiece, entitled The Messiah. The manuscript of this work didn’t survive the war. The murals did however, as did his two collections of stories, Cinnamon Shops (known in the U.S. as the Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. These are collected in the book I read.

One cannot read these stories as one reads most stories. Schulz’s work has less in common with the plotting of traditional narrative and is closer to the lush metaphors of Romantic poetry or the thick movements of oil on canvas. His stories are dream-like and surreal. He is often compared to Kafka, but where Kafka stays focused on one image and takes it to its conclusion, like in The Metamorphosis, Schulz offers us image after image. His writing is like a decaying bouquet, heavy with perfume and hinting at a vigor fading. I see Borges and Márquez as echoes of Schulz. Yet, as I mentioned, there is a strong Romantic element to Schulz’s writing. One aspect of this is the emphasis on the emotional and the personal over the universal. The pieces barely hint at plot and instead hinge on the expression and changes of mood. Furthermore, there are many odes to nature in these stories, such as an entire chapter to spring dusk in The Street of Crocodiles and a long description of the end of summer in the short story “Autumn.” Yet, in the end Schulz is a recorder of the city. We see dark streets, bustling shops, and haunting city parks.

But my attempts to explain his work do not do justice to Schulz’s inventiveness. For in the midst of his hallucinatory descriptions we also come upon strangely humorous narratives. For instance, “My Father Joins the Fire Brigade” starts with a journey through the darkness by the narrator and his mother:

We entered the wilted boredom of an enormous plain, an area of faded pale breezes that enveloped dully and lazily the yellow distance. A feeling of forlornness rose from the windswept space.

Such drowsiness and lethargy give way to the image of the narrator’s father in a full suit of armor, gleaming like an avenging angel. He is engaged in an argument with the housekeeper about the lack of raspberry syrup in the house. As it turns out, the father is captain of the fire brigade and lets the men under him stay at his house. And they love raspberry syrup. The housekeeper thinks they are a bunch of free loaders, but the father sees them as noble heroes. He tells the housekeeper: “Unable to experience noble flights of fancy, you bear an unconscious grudge against everything that rises above the commonplace.” The story goes on to end with an organized display of acrobatics by the father and his men, but this quotation gets at the Modernist concerns of Schulz’s writing. The city deadens colors and takes the romance away from people’s lives. Yet in this story the father, like Don Quixote, refuses to give in to the status quo of commonness. He wishes to rebel with his adherence to “noble flights of fancy.” This is echoed in the chapter “Tailors’ Dummies” in The Street of Crocodiles:

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, the strangest of men was defending the lost cause of poetry.

And perhaps Schulz’s own art serves a similar function. There is something beautiful and fantastic to be found even in the most gray and base of city scenes. One only has to be sensitive enough to perceive it.

In all honesty, these stories sometimes made me sleepy as I read them. I was lulled by their dreaminess to fall into my own dreams. This says more about my lifestyle than it does about Schulz’s art. Yet it does point to the concentration needed to engage with his stories. This concentration is rewarded with images and worlds that seem of an older time and yet like nothing else you’ve read before. Let Bruno Schulz live on in your imagination.

** My biographical information about Schulz comes from the book, specifically the foreward by Jonathan Safran Foer. Schulz’s writing was translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska.

There is a long discussion of Bruno Schulz at The New Yorker.

 

(written August 25, 2012)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

When I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I was pleasantly surprised by the deftness of its writing. So I decided to try Jackson’s final, and some say her best, novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

In some ways it is Jackson’s infamous story “The Lottery” and her quintessential haunted house story The Haunting of Hill House put together. But this is not simply a remixing of former stories, but instead a reworking of former themes in a tale that is its own fully realized world. The strength of voice in this book comes from the narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat. She is at once an adult and a child. She is the only one of her remaining family able to venture out into the world and yet is the most in a world of her own making. The fact that we quickly get the information that she hates dogs and taking baths right next to the fact that most of her family is dead lets us know that this is a character whose moral compass may be off, whose view of the world is unsettlingly childlike.

Basically, Merricat lives with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in the family house, which is isolated from the rest of the town. This isolation is both due to the class pride of the family and the hatred of the townspeople. The rest of the Blackwood family is dead, except for an estranged uncle, due to a poisoning at the dinner table. Someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was accused because she had been the cook and didn’t touch the sugar bowl. The mystery of who is responsible for the arsenic isn’t much of a mystery and isn’t the point of the book. It’s not a detective story. Instead it is an exploration of character, mood, and sisterly love.

The tense but static existence of the sisters and Uncle Julian is broken by the arrival of a cousin, Charles. He begins to drive a wedge between Merricat and Constance, or at least Merricat fears he will. And it is here that Jackson’s writing is at its most economical and evocative. For while Charles seems obsessed about money, what also becomes apparent about his manner is his unconscious male privilege. He disturbs the pattern of the female run Blackwood house, but never asks permission or pardon. He doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he’s disturbing anything at all. That ability not to have to notice is the hallmark of privilege. Jackson captures this perfectly without having to name it or even call much attention to it.

So this is a novel that lends itself to many interpretive strategies. For instance, you could see it as being about female space constantly being invaded by male forces. The world of Merricat and Constance first has to survive cousin Charles and later the male firefighters. This is helpful, but it doesn’t capture the whole complexity of the book. No one interpretive strategy acts, as Lethem calls it in his introduction, as a key to unlocking the book. Instead, the various possible critical angles from which you can approach this book demonstrate its complexity and subtlety.

Nothing in this book is simple. It is a story about family homicide and societal intolerance, but also sisterly love. Yet that love is both heart warming and claustrophobic. It counterbalances the darkness in the book, but also compounds it in the end. Likewise, Merricat is an entertaining narrator with a wicked sense of humor, but also a disturbing and disturbed person. Likewise, one could see the ending as a both a victory and a chilling tragedy.

Overall, this is an amazingly written book. I think Merricat Blackwood should be considered one of the classic unreliable narrators of American literature. So why isn’t Jackson’s novel part of the canon? It may be a case of genre bias; her work is classified as horror and horror is not seen as being serious. It could also be a case of sexism. Henry James is called a genius for his unreliable narrator in Turn of the Screw, but not Jackson. Also, the reviewers in Jackson’s day were mostly men and male writers who explored the kind of darkness Jackson does were called brave. Jackson was called “neurotic.” Also, at that time critics were looking for art that made big statements and had epic scopes in terms of plot and stylistic exploration. Jackson instead is narrowly focused. She has small casts of characters and never claims to be the voice of her generation. But her focus is scalpel-like. When she cuts, she cuts deep. And it’s disturbing.

As a final note, in the novel the Blackwood house is not compared to a castle until near the end of the book. Yet the title is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. “Always” implies a long period of time. So the title then implies that the state we find Merricat and her sister in at the end of the book will persist for quite some time. So this book becomes the origin story of the haunted house tale the locals tell each other for years to come. They don’t know where the story began, but they are still troubled by it. Much as we are with Jackson. Everyone remembers “The Lottery,” but most people have forgotten who wrote it and probably never knew that the author wrote many other works. Let me assure you that Jackson is not a one-hit wonder. She is a powerful and fearless American writer.

 

(written August 21, 2015)