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A miniaturist and uncanny genius

Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, a Biographical Portrait, Jerzy Ficowski, Translated from the Polish by Theodosia Robertson, W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $25.95

November 03, 2002|Clive James | Clive James is the author of, among other works, "Falling Toward England" and "The Silver Castle" and the forthcoming "As Of This Writing: The Essential Essays."

As a writer, a painter and a man, Bruno Schulz believed that the aim of life was to mature into childhood. With its overtones of me-speak, of getting in touch with one's inner child, Schulz's belief might look like yet another reason for not getting in touch with him. He didn't write a lot, and a lot of what he did write was in a Polish difficult even for Poles; he is hard to translate. Nearly all of what he painted went missing. He is one of those creative spirits from what Philip Roth called "the other Europe," the Europe beyond the Elbe, whose reputations tend to stay there because it is hard to airlift them out. If we add to all that the notion that he was a toy-cuddling advocate of infantilism, he could be lost to us indeed. But the truth of his mentality was anything but infantile: It was a penetrating realization that the perceptual store of our early childhood forms what he called "the iron capital" of the adult imagination.

The realization was itself realized in his two little books of short stories, "Cinnamon Shops" (otherwise known as "The Street of Crocodiles") and "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass": the two little books that constitute the bulk of his writing as it has come down to us, and which are enough by themselves to make him a weighty figure. Nobody quite matches him for seeing everyday objects in three dimensions and evoking them as if the fourth dimension, time, had been erased. Making a mythology from the actual, he convinces us that the actual is made from myths. Reading him, we feel as our own children must feel when we are reading them the words of Maurice Sendak while they are looking at the pictures. Colors breathe. Textures pulse. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker loom like totem poles. And it is all done in such a short span, in paragraphs worth chapters and chapters worth a book. There might have been another, longer work -- the novel usually called "The Messiah" -- but if the manuscript ever existed, it vanished, as the paintings and all other possibilities of future work vanished, along with his future. On a scale measured by his potential achievement, he died young.

In fact he had already turned 50 when he was murdered, but we are right to think of him as still beginning because it was always the way he thought of himself. So it was an untimely end, as well as a terrible one. If only it had been uniquely terrible. Alas, it was a commonplace. He was one more Jew rubbed out by the Nazis. The circumstances, in his case, were merely unusual. In the Drohobycz ghetto, a Gestapo officer with good taste, one Felix Landau, had made a pet of him so that he could paint murals. In November 1942, on a day of "wild action" -- that is, a day when the Nazis ran around shooting people at random instead of rounding them up to be shipped off in batches, as on an ordinary day -- Schulz's protector took his eye off his human property. Landau had a jealous rival, another Gestapo officer, Karl Gunther. Landau had once shot Gunther's pet dentist, so Gunther took the opportunity to get square. He put two bullets through Schulz's head. If we find ourselves hoping that the first bullet did the job, it is because it is so hard to bear the idea that Schulz might have had even a split second to reach the false conclusion that his life had come to nothing.

It was a conclusion he had always been apt to reach even in normal circumstances. One of the many ironies of his life was that the Nazis made actual the torment of uncertainty in which he had lived and worked since his adolescence. Insecurity, indecisiveness and diffidence were marks of his personality. He was one of those geniuses blessed with an uncanny creative ability and cursed with an almost equally uncanny inability to do anything practical about it. From Jerzy Ficowski's biography, this pitiably tentative personality emerges so sharply that it is likely to make us impatient, but decency and a sense of proportion demand that we should rein our impatience in: It was, after all, the condition for his inventiveness, which was the opposite of tentative and indeed looks bolder as time goes by. By extension, it would be wise not to become impatient with this biography. It has been a long time getting to us. The first version was published in 1967. This translation is of an expanded version, but it still has some of the marks of a thesis. "The attainment of the Schulzian artistic postulate led me to a state of feverish ecstasy" is not a heartening sentence to meet early on.

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