Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz a Biographical Portrait

by Jerzy Ficowski
ISBN: 0393051471

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A Review of: Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, A Biographical Portrait
by Maurice Mierau

The age of the passionate amateur in literary criticism is over. Privileging and foregrounding are now verbs, and professional critics say intertextuality when they mean allusion. Spouting the right jargon has for many years now, especially in North America, been more important than insight or the ability to write well. The main reason for this is that we are a society that believes all its children should go to university, and so we need many universities staffed by many PhDs. In the literary field not all of these professors are particularly gifted, but like dutiful lawyers or MBAs, they all know the jargon. Professionalism is more likely to get tenure than passion.
So it is quite shocking to read a critic say things like this: "My own enchantment with the writing of Bruno Schulz lies at the heart of this book," or "I did not know Schulz personally and am not engaged in literary theory or literary criticism." Yet that is exactly what Jerzy Ficowski writes in his book on the great Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz; he prefers to think of himself as a "disciple" rather than a literary critic. Regions of the Great Heresy is a story of an obsessive personal mission to rescue the work of this writer from the oblivion of war, politics, and Hitler's very willing civilian executioners.
Schulz was shot dead on a street corner of his hometown on November 19, 1942 by a Gestapo thug named Karl Gnther. In a dreadful irony, this was the same day he planned to escape the area, aided by friends in Warsaw. Gnther shot Schulz as retaliation against his rival and Schulz's Gestapo protector, Felix Landau. Landau had incensed Gnther by shooting a Jewish dentist who was under Gnther's benevolent protection. After Schulz's brutal murder, Gnther said to Landau, "You killed my Jew-I killed yours."
Schulz was born, lived and died in Drohobycz, a town in what was called Galicia and is now part of western Ukraine. In 1892, when he was born, Drohobycz was part of the Austrian empire. Schulz was educated in Polish and learned German at home from his mother. His father, a shopkeeper, died in 1915. Just before his father's death, Schulz dropped out of architecture school because of poor health and his worsening financial situation. In 1924, after some years of unemployment, Schulz became an art and handicrafts instructor at the local high school, working hard and unhappily to support his family. He published two collections of fiction in his short life, Cinnamon Shops in 1934, and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass three years later. He also produced many remarkable drawings, paintings and illustrations. Schulz worked in obscurity and poverty as an artist, but even during his lifetime James Joyce learned Polish expressly to read Schulz's fiction in the original. English readers are best advised to pick up the 1998 Picador volume, The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz, edited by Jerzy Ficowski, and containing all of Schulz's extant fiction and a selection of his visual art, much of which is now lost.
Between 1939 and 1941, Drohobycz was occupied twice by the Germans and once by the Soviets. During the second German occupation, starting in June 1941, Schulz executed artistic commissions for Felix Landau, a Gestapo official in charge of murdering Jews in the area, or "employing" them, as the Nazi euphemism went. Landau called himself an architect and fancied himself cultured; he was actually a cabinetmaker and a violent bully with a history of political arrests. Schulz did drawings and paintings for Landau in what he desperately hoped was an exchange for food and safety. He was supporting his sister, a nephew, and a female cousin. Schulz also spent months cataloguing a library of books stolen by the Nazis and had to write a report in German on the books; then a Gestapo officer merely signed his name to the ghost-written report and sent it to Berlin. Ficowski tells how surviving eyewitnesses recall Landau shooting out the window of his room and killing Jews working in a garden next door.
Ficowski's Regions of the Great Heresy is particularly insightful about Schulz's personality and its impact on his career:

"Bruno's daily life was controlled by his anxious, pampering mother. She was his everyday love, the incarnation of practicality, the guarantor of security. Bruno's father, devoted to the rites of commerce, was seen less often."

Ficowski also tells us about Schulz's "profound inferiority complex [that] accompanied him all his life, for which his artistic creativity later became a partial remedy, but never a complete liberation." This helps explain why, combined with his physical ailments, Schulz was unable to flourish either in the world of education or art and literature. His family's financial collapse is a crucial factor as well, of course:

"School swallowed up Schulz's most productive artistic years-he could create only in stolen moments. He remained in continual poverty. This left Schulz with only dreams of winning the state lottery and of obtaining leave from teaching. Schulz's one real trip abroad-a three-week trip to Paris in 1938-was preceded by vacillations: should he go, or should he buy a couch? The dilemma was resolved in favor of Paris. To the end of his life Schulz never managed to buy the couch. Neither was he ever able to give up teaching."

Perhaps the most moving and pathetic passage in the book is this one, from a letter Schulz wrote in 1940 during the Soviet occupation:

"But what could I write for them [Soviet literary journals]? I grow more and more conscious of how remote I stand from real life and how little I understood the mood of the times. Somehow everybody else has found an assignment, but I am left out in the cold. It comes from a lack of elasticity and a refusal to compromise, of which I'm not proud."

Schulz's fiction is frequently compared to Franz Kafka's, especially by people who haven't read it, and there are superficial similarities. Ficowski demonstrates his very acute critical and descriptive ability when he distinguishes Schulz's writing from Kafka's:

"Schulz was a builder of a reality-asylum that was a marvelous intensification of the taste of the world'; Kafka was an inhabitant and propagator of a world of terror, an ascetic hermit awaiting a miracle of justice that never came. Schulz was a metaphysician garbed in all the wealth of color; Kafka was a mystic in a hair shirt of worldly denials. Schulz was a creator and ruler of compensatory Myth; Kafka was the Sisyphean seeker of the Absolute."

Ficowski also describes Schulz's view of "art as a mission the fulfillment of longings and a shield against lethal fears." Here's an account of Schulz's interaction with one of his high school students:

"When the boy asked why Schulz painted things differently from the way they really are,' Schulz responded by explaining the most complex artistic matters visually, in the manner easiest to understand. He spoke of artistic creation as a great compensation and as an act of personal freedom."

Ficowski has a profound understanding of Schulz's mythicizing aesthetic, and how it is much more than just a cult of childhood. The fiction anticipates much of the fabulist and magic realist work that was published after the war:

"As Father says in Treatise on Tailors' Dummies, or the Second Book of Genesis,' there is no dead matter. Lifelessness is only a faade concealing forms of life unknown to us.' This is the attitude of primitive man, but also of the child and of the poet. To exist in childhood means to find oneself in the land of fairy tale, and Schulzian fairy tale is ruled by the same laws as mythology."

A more scholarly approach than Ficowski's, addressing the specifically Hebrew aspects of Schulz's interest in myth could yield interesting results, but of course Ficowski has already warned us that he is a disciple and not a literary critic.
One of the many tragedies of Schulz's life is the disappearance of much of his work. He left unpublished manuscripts and original drawings with a number of unknown people outside the Jewish ghetto before his murder. Ficowski had a mysterious phone call in 1987 from someone in Lww offering to sell a package of Schulz manuscripts and art, but the caller died without leaving any clues. The Swedish ambassador to Poland told Ficowski that he had heard about a cache of Schulz papers in the KGB archives. This informant also died incommunicado. While some of Schulz's war-time polychromes were uncovered on a wall in Drohobycz in 2001, they were crudely removed and damaged. Ficowski claims they were stolen by Yad Vashem and relocated to Jerusalem. Whatever happened certainly involved government corruption and damage to the work.

"Nevertheless, what remains for me is simply to tell the entire story, believing that people with the power to reach into secret treasures, whether in Ukraine or in Russia, will be able, if such treasures exist, to facilitate their discovery."

One can only hope that this passionate disciple will be rewarded for his life-long quest with the help, perhaps, of an enlightened official in Russia or Ukraine.

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