The Pequod Review:
Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) was a Polish writer who spent his entire life in the small town of Drogobych before he was tragically killed by the Nazis at age 50. He mostly worked as a high school art teacher, but as a side project he wrote a series of short stories based on life in and around Drogobych. His stories are full of extraordinary imagery and surreal events, often involving his lunatic father or the local streets of his hometown. One of his finest books is The Street of Crocodiles, an especially dreamlike collection of sixteen short stories.
Schulz’s pieces are more like scenes or vignettes than proper short stories, but he has a rich imagination and the world he describes is both charming and unsettling. In “The Cinnamon Shops,” for example, a young boy’s short errand turns into a surreal dream involving a luxurious apartment hidden inside a grade school and a horse that shrinks to miniature size. In “Tailors’ Dummies,” Schulz uses the presence of a seamstress’s dummy to explore animate and inanimate objects more generally. And “Cockroaches” imagines a metamorphosis but ultimately becomes a psychological profile of Schulz’s own father:
I had a hidden resentment against my mother for the ease with which she had recovered from Father’s death. She had never loved him, I thought, and as Father had not been rooted in any woman’s heart, he could not merge with any reality and was therefore condemned to float eternally on the periphery of life, in half-real regions, on the margins of existence. He could not even earn an honest citizen’s death, everything about him had to be odd and dubious.
These are inventive plots for sure, but the real strength of Schulz’s work lies in his descriptive prose, which is full of winding sentences and precise imagery:
Uncle Mark, small and hunched, with a face fallow of sex, sat in his gray bankruptcy, reconciled to his fate, in the shadow of a limitless contempt in which he seemed only to relax. His gray eyes reflected the distant glow of the garden, spreading in the window.
Sometimes he tried with a feeble gesture to raise an objection, to resist, but the wave of self-sufficient feminity hurled aside that unimportant gesture, triumphantly passed him by, and drowned the feeble stirrings of male assertiveness under its broad flood. There was something tragic in that immoderate fertility…
The days hardened with cold and boredom like last year's loaves of bread. One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with a lazy indifference.
In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and my 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.
This is a vivid blend of the real and fantastic, with observational turns of phrase that recall the best of Nabokov. Highly recommended.