Some months ago I was looking at books in Borders when I stumbled across The Street of Crocodilesby Bruno Schulz. Like most people whose literary focus has been vaguely European but specifically British, the name did not ring any bells. However, the name intrigued me, and upon reading the brief biography, I was deterimed to learn more about the book and the man.
For those of you who are wondering: no, Bruno Schulz is no relation to Peanuts author Charles Schulz. Well, by no way I've found, and if they were, it would certainly be very distantly. (Maybe not as distantly as my possible relation to Thomas Mann, but we're talking about a good sized separation.) Schulz is a very common German family name, though Bruno Schulz was not a German. He was a Polish Jew.
He was born in 1892 in the then small Austro-Hungarian town of Drohobrycz, the son of a cloth merchant. He was raised there and spent most of his life there. Apparently he really liked it, and judging from the pictures I've seen of modern day Drohobych (it's modern name), it's easy to see why someone would want to stay there. Still, he did travel somewhat, like when he studied architecture at Lviv University and briefly in Vienna. Without traveling at all from Drohobrycz though, his nationality changed four times, as the city changed hands that many times in his lifetime. Countries must've loved them some Drohobrycz.
Like I mentioned, he was a Jew and was very interested in Jewish culture, though he didn't know Yiddish. He spoke Polish and German, and helped his fiancée Józefina Szelińska translate Kafka's The Trialinto Polish. He wrote in Polish, and was awarded Poland's Golden Laurel award by the Polish Academy of Literature in 1938.
From 1924 to 1941 he was an art teacher in Drohobrycz, though he apparently didn't enjoy it and only kept the job for monetary reasons. He apparently kept to himself; he was perceived as a hermit. Most of his life was uneventful--you know, except for all that writing of the best Polish literature of the 20th century. His life was uneventful, I should say, until 1939. For those who aren't familiar with history (or not good with dates) it was at this time that World War II began. You know that one. It's the one with the Nazis. Yeah, it's gonna be one of those stories. At the time, the Soviet Union owned Drohobrycz, but after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Schulz, like the other Jews in Drobobrycz, was put in a ghetto. At the time, he was working on a novel supposedly called The Messiah, thought to be his masterpiece. He gave this and other papers and artwork to some gentile friends for safe keeping. They have never been seen since.
It's not all bad though. He's still alive, and not only that, a Gestapo officer named Felix Landau found out about his talents as an artist and put Schulz to work painting murals on his child's playroom. This of course gave Schulz certain privileges, not the least important being protection.
That is, supposed protection. On a night in November of 1942, at the corner of Czacki and Mickiewicz streets, Schulz was shot in the head by Karl Günther, a Gestapo officer. You might be wondering why. Apparently, like Landau, Günther had himself a "favored Jew," who was killed by Landau. "You killed my Jew," he said. "I killed yours." And so, one of the greatest Polish writers--possibly the greatest--of the 20th century died.
According to the forward to my copy of The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz was planned an escape from the ghetto that very night. It's impossible to say if he would've succeeded. We'll never know. Perhaps, if he had, he would've had to start all over on The Messiah; and perhaps it would've been a masterpiece of literature, changing the art form forever. Perhaps it would've been terrible.
As for Schulz known work, we have The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. They are collections of interconnected short stories, containing some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read. Of course, large credit goes to the translator Celina Wieniewska for giving us such a wonderful English version. I highly recommend the Penguin Classics edition pictured above as it contains both books and three other short stories.
I'll end this with one of my favorite passages from The Street of Crocodiles, from the short story "August." It is a discription of a sunflower, yet it brings to mind Schulz himself for me. "An enormous sunflower, lifted on a powerful stem and suffering from hypertrophy, clad in the yellow mourning of the last sorrowful days of its life, bent under the weight of its monstrous girth. But the naive suburban bluebells and unpretentious dimity flowers stood helpless in their starched pink and white shifts, indifferent to the sunflower's tragedy."