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Beyond the Laws

Robert Looby

Collected Stories, by Bruno Schulz (trans Madeline G Levine), Northwestern University Press, 288 pp, $17.95, ISBN: 978-0810136601

Lovers of a spare prose style, not to mention tight plotting, may be disappointed by Bruno Schulz:

The world lay mute, unfolding and rising somewhere above, somewhere behind and deep inside – blissfully powerless – and floated on. At times it slowed and vaguely resembled something, it branched out in trees, grafted onto the gray day a thick, glistening net of bird twittering that had been thrown over it, and moved deep into the subterranean snakelike tangle of roots, into the blind pulsing of worms and caterpillars, the muffled darkness of chernozem and clay.

Born in 1892 in a part of Poland that now lies in Ukraine, Schulz’s “biography was monotonous and largely unvaried – as grey as the life of a provincial drawing teacher can be”, writes Jerzy Jarzębski in Poland’s National Library edition of Schulz’s works. Jerzy Ficowski, dedicated student and biographer of the writer, calls Schulz’s three-week trip to Paris his only international excursion, although in an earlier book he writes that Schulz spent several months studying in Vienna. Schulz also visited Stockholm, in 1936, and corresponded with the likes of Julian Tuwim, Witkacy (Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz) and Witold Gombrowicz, leading lights of 1930s Polish literature, among whose ranks he has long been counted.

Nevertheless, for years he lived with the reputation of being a “modest teacher” from Drohobycz – the quintessential provincial town. Much is made of the fact that all his stories but one are set in a small town which, though he never names it, we are sure – or are assured – is his own home town. The stories are read as surreal autobiographical sketches, whose central figure is the narrator’s father, Jakub, a cloth merchant. The tales unfold in the telling; they branch out, double back, and spring offshoots in all directions. Schulz set himself free from the constraints of cause and effect and viewed time not as a straight line, but as a constituent part of space. He does not feel bound to leave things which have already happened alone. The stories do not refer to a fixed stock of events which have already happened and have now been recorded for future generations. Writing and happening interpenetrate, giving Schulz freedom to indulge in the displays of linguistic skill for which he is known. In “The Sanatorium under the Hourglass”, Father is both dead and alive and, within the region of the sanatorium, he is sometimes on his deathbed, sometimes the lively heart and soul of the party.

As for the subject matter of his stories, contemporary critics wrote of him that “no profundity of experiences is hidden behind the technical display”; “we should disregard those methods of expression which serve no purpose, and consist purely of play with the words and ideas of an undisciplined fantasy”; “the most wonderful form without a definite content is no more than a choice of beautiful words”; and that his first collection was “a cerebral, artificial creation, which lacks sincerity and therefore does not move the reader”.

And yet a great deal of the critical literature in Poland and abroad on Schulz has been concerned with interpreting his stories, deciphering the “content” obscured by his complex, metaphorical and wordy style. The stories have been read as an elegy to the passing of the age of the solid, dignified merchant. The meaning of the mannequins in Schulz has been explored. The house/shop opposition has been read as a reflection of the internal division of the human being between the sublime and the earthly. Much has been written on the Kabbalah; much too on the use of myth; inevitably Freud and Jung have been pressed into service to explain the stories’ dreams, while Father’s various physical transformations have been interpreted as attempts to find outlets for frustrated erotic desires. Metaphysical isolation, sublime trash, simulacra, irony and mysticism, the semantics of space and time, the uterine myth, the meaning of colours, mythical consciousness, messianic visions, Jacob wrestling the angel, the phenomenology of dreams, virtual reality – take your pick: they have all had critical outings over the years.

Critics can be forgiven: Schulz is always hinting that there are deeper meanings behind everyday things. In “Spring”, Józef, the narrator, declares that a butterfly is “one more proof”. Of what it is proof we do not learn. Józef later penetrates the “hidden intention” of Bianka’s words. “A Second Autumn” traces a connection between museums and weather. Father reads into Adela’s every movement a deeper meaning in “Birds”. And of course there are the famous pronouncements in the grandly titled “A Treatise on Mannequins; or, The Second Book of Genesis”, such as:

Matter has been granted infinite fecundity, an inexhaustible vital force, and at the same time, a seductive power of temptation that entices us to create forms ... it becomes a space outside the law, open to every sort of charlatanry and dilettantism, the domain of every abuse and dubious demiurgic manipulation ... Every organization of matter is impermanent and unfixed, easily reversed and dissolved.

Father also says, in the conclusion to his treatise:

Who knows ... how many suffering, crippled, fragmentary forms of life there are, how artificially pieced together is the life of wardrobes and tables violently hammered together with nails, the life of crucified wood, of the silent martyrs to cruel human ingenuity. The terrible transplantation of alien races of wood that hate one another, their being shackled together into a single unhappy individual.

The “organization of matter” is not, after all, so impermanent or easily reversed as suggested by Father’s earlier words and later metamorphoses. There is a playfulness in the stories, often passed over by critics. Schulz is a tease. Of the dog/man in “The Sanatorium under the Hourglass”, he writes: “For it was a man. A man on a chain, whom in reductive, metaphoric, undifferentiated abbreviation by some inconceivable means I had taken for a dog. Please don’t misunderstand me. It was a dog, most assuredly – but in human form.” When the narrator visits a waxworks he solemnly assures us that he has no difficulty in distinguishing the dummies from the humans. Most of “A Second Autumn” is a parody of scholarly discourse: “Let several factual observations about our provincial museum serve at this point for a better understanding of the matter.”

“Spring” too is a parody, this time of the romance. One of Schulz’s longest stories, it has the traditional requisites of an adventure story: dynastic manoeuvrings, betrayal, a love story, heroic gestures, stirring speeches and rescues. Schulz does not stop short of using clichés. At one point Józef turns to his volunteers and cries: “To horse! ... We must cut them off.” In particular, the story will remind some readers of The Prisoner of Zenda from 1894: Schulz even gives one of the main characters the same name as the central figure in Anthony Hope’s novel, which tells the tale of “the great adventure of Rudolf Rassendyll, the king’s double who can take the king’s place to rescue the last of the Elphburgs [sic] and foil the traitors who would destroy him; who wins the love of Princess Flavia, the king’s bride-to-be, and yet offers all ‘for our love and her honour’ and in the end gives his life to save both” (from Roger Lancelyn Green’s introduction to the 1966 edition). The Prisoner of Zenda is told in chapters with titles like “If love were all!” and contains exchanges like the following: “‘My queen and my beauty!’ said I. ‘My lover and true knight!’ she said.” In “Spring” we read: “I cried out, ‘Count on me! …’ and, ‘To the last drop of my blood ...,’ and I fired into the air with a pistol I retrieved from under my jacket” (the ellipsis is knowingly present in the original). But this romance has a darker side: the narrator is held to account for his dreams.

Seventy-six years after his death, Bruno Schulz needs no reviews and the occasion for this one is the appearance of a new translation by Madeline G Levine of his complete fiction, which comes in at under three hundred pages (though rumours persist of a lost novel waiting to be found some day). The previous translations by Celina Wieniewska had their critics, although they are not as bad as all that. Nonetheless, Levine’s new translation, despite a few minor errors, such as translating “muzykanci” (musicians) as “magicians”, will undoubtedly replace the old ones, and deservedly so. Wieniewska was guilty on occasion of trimming back some of Schulz’s prose; Levine, never. Here, for comparison, are two examples from Wieniewska and two from Levine:

... he sank between the white mounds of cool feathers and slept ... (Wieniewska, The Street of Crocodiles, 1980)
... he collapsed somewhere among the whitish mountains, ranges, and drifts of cool down, and slept ...

... Dodo’s mind did not register anything but the present (Wieniewska, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1979)
... Dodo’s memory did not, in fact, reach beyond the present moment and the most recent reality.

Although there are those who say that a plain and unadorned style – the opposite, in short, of Schulz – is hardest to capture in translation, Schulz still presents a challenge. Levine writes in the translator’s note: “The present translation attempts to get closer to the texture of Schulz’s prose by stretching English syntax to make it accommodate the sinuosity of Schulz’s longer sentences rather than reining them in.” Levine also tries to respect Schulz’s frequent subordination of sense to sound, as can be seen in her successful translation of this alliterative passage: “There, those black parliaments of pots began, those garrulous and empty rallies, those mumbling bouts between flasks, those burblings of bottles and jugs.”

Try as he might – twisting, turning, reversing, ordering clauses hypotactically and paratactically – Schulz never succeeds in shaking off his faithful translator: Levine keeps with him every step the way. There is a price to be paid for this dedication. Calling the narrator “Józef”, rather than “Joseph”, is fine, but what is the reader to make of a waiter called “Pan Adaś”? The head of the department in “The Pensioner”, who jokes at the narrator’s expense, is a Pan Kawałkiewicz in both Polish and English but only the Polish reader will know that “Pan” simply means “mister” while the first part of his surname means “joke” (Wieniewska called him “Mr Filer”). In one story Schulz uses the word “wicher”, which Levine translates as “gale”. If “wicher” is “gale”, and you are being one hundred per cent consistently faithful, where do you go for its augmentative, “wichura”, which is the title of the story? What is windier than a gale? “Storm” will not do because of the importance in the story of the image of wind, pneuma, the breath of life that leaves Father hollow. Levine’s answer is “Windstorm” – a technical term used by meteorologists, less often by ordinary people – and an odd choice when it is borne in mind that “wichura” is a perfectly natural Polish word, not an exotic coinage of Schulz’s. But Levine’s dedication is worth it for bringing us passages like this, describing a painting in Father’s shop:

Two merchants stood facing each other, two antitheses, two worlds. “I sold on credit,” cried the thin one, ragged and dazed, his voice breaking in despair. “I sold for cash,” replied the fat one in an armchair, one leg draped over the other, twiddling the thumbs of his interlocked hands on his belly. How Father hated the fat one.

Though perhaps the passage that follows shortly after is more enticing: “The shop, the shop was unfathomable. It was the goal of all thought, of nighttime investigations, of Father’s terrified, pensive moods. Impenetrable and boundless ...”

1/7/2018

Robert Looby teaches English and translation at the Catholic University of Lublin. His research interests include translation and censorship.

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