by Nicki Leone
“Clearly, mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations.” —Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology
One summer evening in 1932, Professor Stefan Szuman was relaxing in the lobby of his hotel in Zyweic when he was approached by a restless, jittery man. Szuman recognized him as one of the teachers attending the psychology lectures he had been giving as part of a vacation workshop program. The man was not young, but he had the kind of passionate intensity usually associated with youth. “He declared,” Szuman remembered, “that my lectures had won his trust, and that this motivated his request to me to read the typescript of his narratives.”
The man, a drawing teacher named Schulz from a grammar school in an unremarkable small town in southeastern Poland, handed him two pieces from a collection he was provisionally calling “Reminiscences of Father,” a kind of “quasi-novel,” as he termed it. Szuman dutifully read both pieces later that night.
“I was dazzled,” he wrote later in a letter to a friend.
It is a scene that teases the imagination: an ordinary evening in an ordinary hotel, suddenly disrupted by a seemingly ordinary man who turns out to be anything but. And “dazzling” is the word. It is hard to imagine anyone could open up the book that would eventually be published as The Cinnamon Shops (the title was Szuman’s suggestion) in Polish and The Street of Crocodiles in English, and not be dazzled by the glittery, gorgeous language:
In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.
On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colorful beauty of the sun—the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious black morellos that smelled so much better than they tasted, apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons.
One does not read Schulz so much as go swimming in his words.
But as otherworldly as this visitation must have felt to Szuman, in fact Bruno Schulz did not spring forth suddenly and fully formed, out of nothing, just shy of his 40th birthday. Like all so-called “late bloomers” his was a life of fermentation and growth, and only the rest of the world was late in noticing.
“Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are the artists of one kind or another.” —Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Schulz was born in the small city of Drohobycz, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on July 12, 1892. His father, Jacob Schulz, was a cloth merchant and timber dealer. The area began to attract interest at the turn of the century as oil resources were developed in the Ukraine, and refineries sprouted up outside Drohobycz, along with offices for American oil companies, German industrialists, and British businessmen. A veneer of wealth and modernization was laid over the unpaved streets, while men in other offices in other cities ceremoniously gathered together to declare Poland an independent nation—thus sprouting, almost overnight, a national pride and a nationalistic literature.
It was amidst this heady period of artistic fervor and breakneck industrialization that Bruno Schulz came into his artistic maturity. He attended school with the intention of studying painting. But middle-class Jewish family pressures prevailed, and he was encouraged to consider something that would promise a more reliable source of income. He reluctantly took up architecture.
It didn’t stick, although he retained a feel for structure and space that shows itself everywhere in his writing:
The old houses, worn smooth by the winds of innumerable days, played tricks with the reflections of the atmosphere, with echoes and memories of colors scatted in the depth of the cloudless sky. It seemed as if whole generations of summer days, like patient stonemasons cleaning the mildewed plaster from old facades, had removed the deceptive varnish revealing more and more clearly the true face of the houses, the features that fate had given them and life had shaped for them from the inside. Now the windows, blinded by the glare of the empty square, had fallen asleep; the balconies declared their emptiness to heaven, the open doorways smelt of coolness and wine.
The desire to make art stayed with him as well. “Before I could even talk I was covering every scrap of paper with scribbles,” he wrote once in an essay for the journal Tygognik Ilustrowany (no. 17, 1935). Schulz became a graphic artist, achieving some recognition with a collection of prints he called The Book of Idolatry, a series of strangely powerful and erotic drawings characterized by strong women with beautiful bare legs surrounded by cringing men.
Schulz’s growing reputation as an artist allowed him to cultivate friendships with other members of the Polish avant-garde, and because it was an era where the boundary between “artist” and “poet” was porous, he pursued writing with the same intensity that he gave to his prints. Schulz developed a habit of working out his ideas and stories in letters to friends.
It was in a series of letters to the poet Diana Vogel—all now lost—that he first began to set out the scenes that would eventually become sections in The Cinnamon Shops. And it was Vogel who first urged Schulz to collect all his strange and pretty tales into a book, something he did slowly, while battling bad health and a susceptibility to depression.
Schulz frequently tried to find a way to leave Drohobycz for Warsaw, Lvov, or some other place more culturally active—he was forever petitioning the government for sponsorship money—but financial demands kept him tied to his secure job as an art and shop teacher at the city’s Gymnasium. Instead, he made do with rare and carefully planned visits like the one that gave him the opportunity to put his work in Szuman’s hands. Eventually he also landed an introduction to the poet Zofia Nałkowska, who, having read his manuscript in a fever of excitation, made it her mission to get it published and assure that Schulz’s literary genius would be recognized. They also had an affair, despite the fact that Schulz was engaged to be married. One gets the sense that it was all part of the heady creative process.
“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” —Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
When Schulz was attempting to get The Cinnamon Shops translated into Italian, he sent the book to an Italian publisher with the following description:
This book represents an attempt to recreate the history of a certain family, a certain home in the provinces, not from their actual elements, events, characters, or experiences, but by seeking their mythic content, the primal meaning of that history.
We all construct stories of ourselves; personal mythologies, if you will. Schulz’s great task was to find the wellspring of these tales, at least within himself. So The Cinnamon Shops is not a novel, exactly, or a collection of linked stories. It’s more like an extended vision. Schulz would call it a personal “republic of dreams.”
And in the way of dreams the scenes dissolve into each other, until it becomes hard to tell where one moment ends and another begins. In the titular chapter, “The Cinnamon Shops,” a boy sent on an errand gets drawn into streets that have become mysterious and labyrinthine in the dark, until he ends up at last, somehow, in the lush but faded apartments of his schoolmaster, and escaping that, in a horse-drawn cab that takes him into the luminous purity of a winter night:
The colored map of the heavens expanded into an immense dome, on which there loomed fantastic lands, oceans and seas, marked with the lines of stellar currants and eddies, with the brilliant streaks of heavenly geography. The air became light to breathe and shimmered like silver gauze. One could smell violets.
Carriages and horse-drawn cabs are something that Schulz claims as part of his own personal mythology. Of those early scribbles he could not stop making, horses and wagons predominated: “At first they were all horses and wagons. The action of riding in a wagon seemed to me full of weight and arcane symbolism. From age six or seven there appeared and reappeared in my drawings the image of a cab, with a hood on top and lanterns blazing, emerging from a nocturnal forest. That image belongs to the basic material of my imagination. . . . To this day the sight of a carriage horse has lost none of its fascination and troubling power.” It makes one wonder about what images resonate in our own personal psyche—which is perhaps the point of Schulz’s outpouring of mythic imagery: “I don’t know how we manage to acquire certain images in childhood that carry decisive meanings for us. They function like those threads in the solution around which the significance of the world crystallizes for us . . . . It seems to me that all the rest of one’s life is spent interpreting these insights.”
It is tempting to try to “decode” the imagery in Schulz’s work, to label the strange, colorful flock Father breeds in “The Birds” as “the Diaspora,” or Adele the housemaid, who tempts the shop clerks and thwarts Father’s plans in several stories, as “Woman,” or the tailor’s dummies that litter the upper rooms where the sewing is done and inspire sermons on the nature of matter as “Man”—but as Schulz himself admits, such deconstructions and rationalizations tend to murder the message. Art is not a crossword puzzle with the key hidden, he writes, and philosophy is not that crossword puzzle solved:
The difference lies deeper than that. In a work of art the umbilical cord linking it with the totality of our concerns has not yet been severed, the blood of the mystery still circulates.
In other words, if you are going to read Schulz, don’t think about it too much. Just let the words wash over you. The surreal world of his primal myths—where fathers turn into stuffed vultures or cockroaches (Schulz admired Kafka), or bolts of cloth become landscapes under a Father/Creator God (he also admired Thomas Mann); where forgotten rooms sprout vines and birds, and housemaids wreak Old Testament vengeance in the name of spring cleaning; where Pan stalks through abandoned lots behind oil refineries, and books blaze like comets, and some years have extra months, and streetcars never take passengers to their intended destinations—was not without its critics. The writer Witold Gombrowicz, a good friend of Schulz’s, once complained that The Cinnamon Shops could not be read by your average “doctor’s wife who lives in Wilcza Street.” Schulz wrote back that there was no such person.
Schulz would publish one other “quasi-novel” called Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, along with a number of essays, reviews, and afterwords for translations. He was at work on a novel he called The Messiah—he had supposedly even sent a copy of the manuscript to Thomas Mann—when the war broke out. Drohobycz was first invaded by Russia, then by Germany, and in 1941 Schulz was forced to move into the Jewish ghetto. His letters, notes, and manuscripts all disappeared.
“If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” —Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The world remembers November 19, 1942 as the day that Joseph Stalin launched the massive Russian army assault to retake control of Stalingrad and decimate the German Sixth Army entrenched in the city. It encircled and trapped over a quarter of a million Axis soldiers, a major offensive in one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, marked by the high numbers of civilian casualties—the result of fighting in close quarters on city streets.
But unremarked against the backdrop of that massive battle was another small skirmish erupting in the town of Drohobycz, where on this “Black Thursday” gunfire erupted in the ghetto, to which the German Gestapo responded with their trademark efficient and brutal force.
Schulz had been living for the past year under the uncertain protection of an SS officer who, although in the habit of shooting Jewish workers from his villa window, was also enough of a connoisseur to recognize artistic talent when he saw it. The officer, SS Master Sergeant Felix Landau, kept Schulz out of the forced labor camps on the condition that he paint a series of frescos from Grimm’s Fairy Tales on the walls of his children’s bedrooms.
Schulz got out his paints and brushes. He chose scenes from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” and perhaps “Cinderella” (there is certainly a princess in a carriage) for the nursery walls. He gave the figures the faces of his own family.
Feeling that even the protection of Landau would not ensure his safety during the reprisals that were sure to come in the aftermath of what the Gestapo called “the wild action” of that day, Schulz chose to flee that night. But he made the mistake of going to procure some bread for his journey, and was cornered at an intersection by another Gestapo officer, who, ticked off because Landau had killed one of his “favorite” Jews, shot Schulz twice in the head in retaliation. Friends buried Schulz’s body secretly at night in the town’s Jewish cemetery—which survived the Nazi occupation but not the aftermath of the war. Schulz became one of the lost.
The story has a strange postscript. In 2001 a German documentary filmmaker, intrigued by the story of Schulz’s death, went to Drohobycz in search of the murals he had supposedly painted for the Gestapo officer’s children. He found them, still preserved under a layer of whitewash, in the villa the officer had occupied. The find was front-page news and Drohobycz, now officially part of the Ukraine, was descended upon by historians and restoration experts—and also several people representing Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. These men gained access to the frescoes—it’s uncertain if they had official sanction from local authorities—and pried pieces of them from the wall in order to bring them back to be put on display in Israel.
It was a bizarre act of vandalism; the official line from Yad Vashem was that the museum had a “moral right” to the pieces. It would take another seven years before this odd position would be retracted, and the museum would negotiate to display the frescoes as “on loan” from the town.
“Cut down in the street” is a tragic (Schulz would call it absurd) death for an artist who sought to turn his life into myth. But the revelation of his fairy tale pictures in the walls, and their return to the light of day, has the eerie ring of the familiar: “It seems as if whole generations of summer days, like patient stonemasons cleaning the mildewed plaster from old facades, had removed the deceptive varnish revealing more clearly the true face of the houses.” It is almost as if the writer is still telling us the story from wherever he sleeps and dreams in his lost grave.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities at a young age when she asked her parents if she could exchange a gift of jewelry for a hardcover Merriam-Webster. Later, her college career and attending loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. Currently she works with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. She has been a book reviewer for local magazines and newspapers, and the on-air book commentator for her local public radio and television stations. She is also past president and a current member of the board of the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with a varying numbers of dogs and cats.
Nicki Leone’s previous features: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Pakistan: Where East Meets East, Gaston Leroux: A Man of Heaven and Earth, Connections in Space and Time: The Stories of Josh Rolnick, Samuel Richardson: Persuading Pamela