Bruno Schulz

One of the greatest Polish writers combined memoir and myth.

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In the mid-1930s, Bruno Schulz was asked by a student at the primary school where he taught, "why [do you] paint things differently from the way they really are?" Schulz, not yet a famous author renowned for his surreal prose answered: "We can turn day into night and night into day. We may cover snow-capped mountains with luxuriant foliage. That is our, the artist's, freedom, and such is artistic truth, which we can demonstrate through our works." 

 

Bruno Schulz's Santorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

Schulz's 1937 book,

Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

This artistic freedom is what, ultimately, would grant Schulz's writing a modest degree of fame during his lifetime and, after his death, would influence a number of famous Jewish (and non-Jewish) authors, among them David Grossman, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and Nicole Krauss

Early Life

Born on July 12th, 1892 to Jewish shopkeepers in Drohobycz, Poland (now Drohobycz, Ukraine), Schulz was the youngest child in his family, and the frailest. Though he spent much of his childhood sick and isolated, Schulz was recognized as a brilliant student. He wrote and drew throughout his adolescence, but it was his academic performance that set him apart.

As a result, when Schulz studied architecture at college in Lvov he was expected to thrive, but because of financial problems, he was forced to drop out in 1914.  He spent the next decade shuffling from job to job. He finally found steady work in 1924 as a drawing teacher in Drohobycz, at the school where he himself had been educated. There he became known for calming unruly classes with elaborate fairy tales. In his spare time, he drew, and wrote stories. Those who knew him well knew about his writing, but it was not until the 1934 publication of Schulz's first book, Cinnamon Shops, that he achieved some measure of literary success.

Cinnamon Shops was a collection of short stories that Schulz originally wrote in the postscripts of letters to his friend, Deborah Vogel. The book was published to great acclaim, and soon after was nominated for Poland's Literary News Prize. Decades later, in 1963, Cinnamon Shops was published in English under the name The Street of Crocodiles.

In 1937, Schulz's second book of short stories, Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, was also published with immediate critical success. Both books, though officially fiction, functioned as memoir for Schulz, who drew heavily upon his childhood and family life to create the mythical worlds of his literature. 

The stories in both of Schulz's works reflect his obsessions: his childhood and parents, the unconscious mind and dreams and intuitions. In many of them, the figures of his father, and the family maidservant, Adela, loom large; Schulz was preoccupied with his father's eccentricities, with Adela's sexuality, and with her strange power over the Schulz family especially over the his father.

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Jordie Gerson

Jordie Gerson is a newly ordained rabbi and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.