Preface to the Book by Bruno Schulz The Cinnamon Shops. The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass
(L’viv, Prosvita Publishers, 1995)
At one of the world’s cultural and religious crossroads, in Halychyna’s town of Drohobych, at the end of the century and the great rule of keiser Franz Joseph I, in the nation of ever wandering tradesmen and sages – the Jews, – in the Jewish year of 5652, or on July 12, 1892 according to the Gregorian calendar, amidst the general expectation of something unfathomable and yet anticipated, a most ordinary baby was born. He chose his own name by virtue of his birth – July 12th is the day of St. Bruno.
Some time before this, in the year of 1871, on May 1 according to the Julian calendar, or May 14 according to the Gregorian one, in the same Halychyna, in the village of Rusiv, among the nation of eternal wheat growers, a son named Vasyl’ was born. He was destined to become perhaps the sharpest analyst of human pain, which was so abundant in the land of Halychyna. He went to school in Drohobych, only to graduate in the year of Bruno’s birth and leave the town to make room for the latter. Krakow was already expecting the young Stefanyk.
The mysteries of the literary word and the great heresy of human life were introduced to Stefanyk by the Great Krakowian Master of Heresies Stanisław Przybyszewski, born on May 7, 1868 into the family of a village teacher in Loyev near Inowrocław. Przybyszewski was not only the first one to express the inhuman burden of life, but also to dare penetrate into the region, which Bruno would later call the Region of the Great Heresy. There, Przybyszewski examined the evil that existed not among people, but in their souls.
One may ask what is the use of all this information – different calendars, cultures, and religions. The point is that Halychyna, common to all three, was the only place which they – the children of biblical prophets, peasants, or teachers – called their fatherland and which united them in this Noah’s Arc of life. Not only their nations, but they themselves, lived side by side with one another. The entire life of young Bruno was to pass on this very strange ship, which took some to the far-away America (Stefanyk’s fellow villagers, for instance), some to Israel (as Bruno’s brother Izydor), and some to the insane perversions in the infernal depths (as Przybyszewski himself). And Bruno, it seems, perceived best of all that, in truth, there was something bottomless and unstable somewhere underneath his feet – the element of water, of the primordial biblical ocean tehom from which the entire world was created, but which as yet knew no difference between good and evil, or holy and sacrilegious. Together with Przybyszewski and Stefanyk, Bruno carefully listened all his life, trying to hear if the water wasn’t filling up the ship’s hold, if sooner or later that ship wouldn’t go down, carrying all of its passengers to their end…
Bruno’s father – Jacob Schulz – traded in fabrics, as did many of Drohobych’s Jews. Bruno’s mother – Gendel-Genriette Kuhmerker – also came from a family of small businessmen, who traded in wood. Bruno had two older siblings – a brother Izydor and a sister with an unexpectedly Ukrainian name Hania. The boy grew up amidst various languages and cultures. Drohobych, which was inlaid into the Ukrainian cultural mosaics, had Polish, Jewish, and German components to it, and was a good example of the amalgam typical of the old, now almost biblical Halychyna of the late nineteenth century. That was Halychyna which expected its call of destiny, and as a subterranean continent of cultures, it occasionally emerged as an active participant in cultural and political life. One thing that remained constant there was the characteristic small-town microcosm, which from time to time was enlivened by the scores of customers who spoke the language of Rus’ and came to buy fabric and necklaces for the holidays, only to disappear later without a trace, leaving behind the hot Drohobych market and its stray dogs. After a boisterous celebration of the new century, Bruno started his mundane schooling at the Franz Joseph gymnasium in 1902, in his native town of Drohobych. From his indeterminate multilingual environment of the local Babylon, there emerged the language of the school – Polish, which gradually replaced the Yiddish spoken at home. Bruno’s later study of German made him realize that there exist less “dreamy” languages, which are much more rigid and precise. However, Bruno was not inclined to deal with concrete things – even then he was attracted to the realm of creativity. There are traces of his early attempts at sculpting from 1908, which two years later led him to enter the Department of Architecture at the Higher Technical School in L’viv.
The family moved in with Hania (married name – Hoffman) and her husband, who lived in Bednarska Street in Drohobych. Because of his father’s failing health and his own disposition to various maladies, Bruno had to leave L’viv and receive treatment in Drohobych, making occasional trips to nearby Truskavets’ for cure. Bruno’s mother and sister were taking care of the sick men. Nevertheless, before World War I Bruno did manage to spend another year in L’viv studying architecture. As the war began, however, he came back to Drohobych – his Ithaca, to which from that moment onwards he would be returning all his life, condemning himself to provinciality – consciously choosing an existence in provincial Drohobych. The war changed much not only in his life, but also in the life of the entire continent, especially of its old-fashioned Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many an intellectual ridiculed its impotence, its inability to play the role bestowed upon it by destiny – to instill a European essence in the space which later would be called Central or, in more modest terms, Middle Europe. The fall of this liberal empire caused a collision between the hordes from the East and the walls of the West, which, incidentally, all more or less serious fin-de-siècle artists anticipated in the dark mood of their work. Blok’s Scythians did reach Drohobych in 1915 together with the Russian army. The atmosphere of this onslaught was perfectly captured by another writer from Halychyna – Julian Stryikovsky, who described this event in his novel Austeria, although its action took place in a tavern near the town of Stryi, which at the time resembled Noah’s Arc. Somewhat later, in the writing of another author with a similar fate – Franz Kafka – one also repeatedly encounters a fantasy of an invasion by some Mongol-like hordes from the East.
In the tumultuous years of a world war, even the death of Bruno’s father became an insignificant event. In his flight from war, Bruno stopped for a little while in Vienna where he continued his studies in architecture. At the time, Vienna was the capital of two artistic styles. One was the brilliant imperial Secession – a manifestation of quintessential Austrian-ness in the period of its own decay. Secession became a temple of the new, imposing, and dazzling art, albeit with a flickering of death in its eyes, and its demigods in the realms of painting and music were Gustav Klimt and Gustav Maller. The other style was Expressionism. The tensions of waiting and indeterminateness, and the sufferings of war brought forth a feeling of bitterness and disappointment, at least in those who remained forever the faithful subjects of His Royal Majesty, such as a writer from the town of Brody Joseph Roth – an individual who had not managed to find his place in the world without the Empire and who had nothing else left to him but his writing, alcohol, and a voluntary death.
The new Expressionist style was combined with a typically Austrian grotesqueness, which through Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando pointed to another alcoholic, abeit a non- Austrian one – Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann. The most prominent representatives of this style in painting were, of course, Egon Schiele, Oscar Kokoschka, and Alfred Kubin. Kafka himself was not very far from Expressionism either. Upon his return to Drohobych, Bruno seriously took to painting and became a member of a group Kalleia, which brought together young lovers of art and the Jewish intelligentsia of Drohobych. It is difficult to explain what prompted Schulz to start his career in art with a perversive Xiegi balwochwalczej (1920, The Book of Idolatry). Was it an acquaintance with the then-popular psychoanalysis by Zigmund Freud or with the work of Schulz’s fellow countryman from Vynnyky near L’viv – Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch (who was already considered quite old-fashioned at the time)? It is the latter who gave his name to sexual perversion of masochism, which he portrayed. One may say that it is in Schulz’s work that the graphic expression of this anomaly acquired its most classic and accomplished form. However, experiments in the infernal regions, in the Regions of the Great Heresy, were very popular at the time. One only needs to think of Baudelaire or Wilde.
Times are changing. On the ruins of keiser’s royal lands of Halychyna and Lodomeria, there emerges a Western Ukrainian People’s Republic and begins a Polish-Ukrainian war, which has little effect on Bruno Schulz, who is preoccupied with his failing health and his fantasies. The Poles are busy rebuilding the Second Republic. The Drohobych gymnasium is renamed in honor of the king Wladyslaw Jagiello. Schulz receives a post there and begins to teach painting. Meanwhile, his fame of a graphic artist is growing: he participates in collective exhibitions of graphic art at the Zachenta Gallery in Warsaw, in L’viv (1922), in Wilno (1923), as well as outside of Poland – at a German resort Kudowa. Schulz becomes acquainted with artists from Warsaw, whose world was inaccessible to him before the war, since at the time it was part of the Polish Kingdom in Russia. In 1926, he successfully passes an examination before the committee of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts. Afterwards there is another exhibition, this time in Zakopane (1927). Here the artist befriends Władysław Riff, who is taking treatment for tuberculosis (a typical situation described by Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain). This artistically minded individual stimulates Bruno Schulz to try his hand at prose. Riff and Schulz become involved in an epistolary dialogue of sorts, which is cut short because of Riff’s death. A correspondence with Debora Vogel partly compensates for this loss; it is owing to her that Schulz writes almost all of his subsequent prose works. Vogel herself is a writer and an art critic. Despite Schulz’s success at various exhibitions, be it in Truskavets’ or in L’viv, he acquires some opponents, most of whom come from conservative circles, closely associated with the church, and consider his drawings to be “pornographic.” As a result, Bruno Schulz must repeatedly justify his right to teach before various committees.
Schultz’s mother passes in 1931, and his brother Izydor, who supported Bruno financially, dies a year later. Schulz becomes engaged to a writer Józefina Szelińska, whom he helped translate Kafka’s novel The Trial. In the 34th issue of the journal Prion (1935), there appears an article by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz entitled Literary Works by Bruno Schulz, and Tygodnik Ilustrowany (issue 17) publishes An Interview with Bruno Schulz about his work as an artist. Schulz makes a number of new acquaintances –Witkiewicz, Slonimski, Tuwim, Gombrowicz – and publishes in the most avant-garde Polish journals, such as Skamander, Tygodnik Ilustrowany, Kamena, and Wiadomości Literackie. His visits to L’viv and Warsaw become more frequent. Unfortunately, his personal life reflects the formal trappings of the epoch. His fiancée is a Catholic while Schulz is a Jew. For his intention to marry outside his faith, Schulz is banished from the religious community, and a marriage with an excommunicated Jew could not be blessed by the church even in the Catholic Poland. Schulz’s attempt to marry Józefa Szelińska fails even in the more liberal German Silesia.
Nevertheless, the publishing house Rój prints the translation of The Trial. Gradually, the entire corpus of The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass comes together, and the book comes out in the same publishing house (1937). Schulz takes to literary criticism and even tries to leave behind his life in the provinces – he finds sponsors (an art group Start) who finance his trip to Paris (1939), which at the time is the world capital of the avant-garde. Meanwhile, Hitler is already in power in Germany. He enacts the Anschluss of Austria and annexes Czechoslovakia. It becomes impossible to travel through Europe – one needs to prove one’s Arian origins to do that. Schulz finds one month in Paris more than enough and returns to Drohobych. A difficult time begins. Poland is also in danger. Schulz experiences health problems and succumbs to depression. 1939 is the last year of the inter-war Poland: on September 1, the Third Reich attacks Poland and is soon followed by the Soviet Union. On September 11, the German troops enter Drohobych and organize the first massacre of the Jews. In a short while, the German terror is replaced by the Bolshevik rule with its mass deportations, intimidation, and spiritual annihilation. Schulz tries to survive even in these circumstances. He paints a huge portrait of Stalin on the city hall and makes banners with absurd Communist slogans, in his naiveté using too much of blue and yellow, which almost leads NKVD to accuse him of “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism.” Nonetheless, he also participates in art exhibitions in L’viv and collaborates with a L’viv periodical New Horizons, as well as with a Moscow publishing house that specializes in foreign literature.
Schulz’s health is deteriorating, and not only because his art absolutely does not fit into the strictures of Socialist Realism. The power changes hands once again. Schulz, as all the Jews, finds himself in a ghetto. Debora Vogel dies in the Yanivsky concentration camp in the vicinity of L’viv. As an artist, Schulz continues to hold on to life, albeit he does so with reluctance. Realizing the imminent danger, he passes on his manuscripts and drawings to his acquaintances. In the ghetto, the notorious “wild raids” take place periodically, randomly destroying its inhabitants by the hundreds. Bruno Schulz dies on November 19, 1942, gunned down in the street by a member of the SS.
Meanwhile, the old Halychyna is really sinking. From the depths of the primordial ocean, there emerges the biblical beast Leviathan. It is in vain now to go looking for that Arc which Bruno Schulz called either Canaan or the Promised Land. In reality, the Arc was Halychyna itself.