Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz a Biographical Portrait|
by Jerzy Ficowski
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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
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
"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.