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“Anders’ approach as essayist and guide is highly personal, engaging, and authoritative.”—Daniel Gerould, CUNY
Twentieth-century Polish literature is often said to be a “witness to history,” a narrative of the historical and political disasters that visited the nation. In this insightful book, Jaroslaw Anders examines Poland’s modern poetry and fiction and explains that the best Polish writing of the period 1918-1989 was much more than testimony. Rather, it constantly transformed historical experience into metaphysical reflection, a philosophical or religious exploration of human existence.
Anders analyzes and contextualizes the work of nine modern Polish writers. These include the “three madmen” of the interwar period—Schulz, Gombrowicz, and Witkiewicz, whom he calls the fathers of Polish modernist prose; the great poets of the war generation—Milosz, Herbert, and Szymborska; Herling-Grudzinski and Konwicki, with their dark philosophical subtexts; and the mystical-ecstatic poet Zagajewski. A collection of essays representing Anders’s thinking over several decades, Between Fire and Sleep offers a fresh understanding of modern Polish literature and cultural identity.
“[The] best book of its kind available in English and, quite likely, any other language.”—The Nation
One of the most frequently recounted biographies in the history of Polish literature is known primarily for its ending. On November 19, 1942, a Gestapo officer shot and killed a fifty-year-old man in the Drohobycz ghetto. The victim, one of more than two hundred Jews who were murdered on that Black Thursday, was Bruno Schulz, a local high school teacher and artist and the author of two slim volumes of dreamlike prose that a few years earlier had been hailed as one of the most original achievements of Polish literature in the twentieth century. It is hard to guess what this timid, cautious person was doing in the streets during a German killing spree, one of numerous such "wild actions" that preceded the final solution. According to one version of the event, Schulz had decided to attempt to escape from Drohobycz and was going to the local Judenrat to purchase his ration of bread. Others say that, ill and dejected, he was roaming the streets as if looking for death. He appears to have fallen victim to a feud between two local Nazi satraps. His body remained in the street until sunset, when he was secretly buried by somefriends; his grave has never been found.
A few months earlier, in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, an eighteen-year-old Polish poet named Jerzy Ficowski read one of Schulz's books, published shortly before the outbreak of the war. Ficowski, who died in 2006, said he experienced a sense of immediate, almost mystical connection with the writer and a conviction that Schulz must be "the kind of genius who sometimes creates great religious systems, or a magician and master of black arts, whose predecessors were burned at medieval stakes." Ficowski did not know that Schulz, resettled into the ghetto in Galicia and furnished with a certificate that protected him as a "necessary Jew," had been surviving for some time as an artist-slave in the service of a brutal SS man named Felix Landau. Landau took a fancy to his drawings, made him paint his portraits and decorate his villa, and secured artistic assignments for him for the German institutions in the town. (Some of Schulz's frescos survived the war. In 2001 they were snatched from Drohobycz by Yad Vashem and surreptitiously transported to Israel, causing an international furor.)
Having learned of Schulz's death, Ficowski decided to preserve as much as possible of his hero's legacy. He wished to salvage and to reconstruct Schulz from scraps of surviving documents and letters and from the memories of those who knew him. He became the self-appointed custodian of the writer's work and life. Ficowski, who lived in Warsaw in an apartment filled with Schulz memorabilia, is also known as a poet, a translator from Yiddish, a specialist in Gypsy literature, and an author of books for children. His cycle of poems "Odczytanie popiolow" (A Reading of Ashes) is one of the most powerful literary testimonies to the Holocaust written in Polish by a non-Jew. And yet, despite his own considerable literary achievement, Ficowski is defined chiefly by his Schulzian obsession. He declared himself "a reader of a single book, one for which no rival has emerged," a "personal and disquieting bible" that speaks about "the secret essence of things which transcend their own limitations"-in other words, the Book of Schulz.
Thus, whatever we know about Schulz, we know from Ficowski, whose biographical-critical essay Regiony Wielkiej Herezji (Regions of the Great Heresy), the result of a lifelong and almost religious devotion to the strange writer from Drohobycz, was published in Poland in 1967, only a few years after Schulz's own prose was resurrected by Polish publishers following decades of neglect. It was soon followed by Ksiega Listow (The Book of Letters,) a collection of Schulz's correspondence edited by Ficowski, and two other books devoted to more recently discovered letters, writings, and testimonies. The English edition of Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, A Biographical Portrait is an expanded version of its Polish predecessor and includes material from Ficowski's other publications on Schulz.
It is hard to overestimate the service Ficowski has performed with his uncommon dedication. He has managed to preserve-not only for Polish literature, but also for world literature-a very great writer and also substantial fragments of his world, the Galician-Jewish-Polish-Ukrainian mélange that was completely wiped out by World War II and its brutal aftermath. It is quite possible that without Ficowski there would be no Schulz, just as without Max Brod there would be no Franz Kafka. And yet the Schulz that we have is distinctly Ficowski's Schulz-his own reconstruction of a writer and an individual who, from the strictly factual standpoint, remains a puzzle, a subject of conjecture, hypothesis, and invention. Ficowski is not only the archaeologist of Schulz's life; he is also the creator of the Schulzian myth.
In this respect, too, the analogy with Brod's impact upon the reception of Kafka comes to mind. For the myth of Schulz and the myth of Kafka display striking similarities. They are both varieties of the modernist myth of the artist as a dark hero, a neurotic, a misfit rejected and maligned by the philistine society in which he miserably lives, humbled by circumstances but spiritually unvanquished, bearing cryptic revelations beyond the comprehension of conventional reason. In Regions of the Great Heresy, Ficowski declares that he is not interested in a reasoned analysis of Schulz's prose and quotes his idol, who wrote in a letter to his friend and fellow writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz in 1935, "I think that the rationalization of the vision of things rooted in the work of art is like the demasking of actors.... In the work of art the umbilical cord is not yet cut that joins it to the whole of the problem. The blood of the mystery is still circulating; the ends of the vessels escape into the surrounding night and return full of a dark fluid."
Ficowski seemed to subscribe to this romantic view without reservation. "The essence of the work," he remarks in Regions of the Great Heresy, "remains unattainable, always happily eluding the critics' scalpels and microscopes." And since any "close reading" of the text is tantamount to sacrilege, what remains is the close reading of the artist's life, the study of the "correlations between the man and the writer, the life and the work, the actual events and the artistic creation." Ficowski's Schulz is an emblematic modern artistic sufferer, not unlike Brod's Kafka: a sickly, misunderstood, lonely, inhibited man who faces reality with the naïveté and the helplessness-and the privileged intuitions-of a child seeking refuge in the magic gardens of his imagination. "A profound inferiority complex accompanied him all his life," Ficowski writes, "for which his artistic creativity later became a partial remedy, but never a complete liberation.... The shyness or embarrassment which rarely left him precluded closeness with others and intensified the growing sense of isolation that tormented him from childhood: his increasingly hermetic solitude."
Schulz, according to Ficowski, was "consumed by fears and complexes" and surrounded by hostile, insensitive people from whom he was forced to conceal "the literary and artistic fruit of his spiritual entanglements and complications." One of these "complications" was apparently his masochistic sexuality, which found expression in his erotic drawings. About this subject Ficowski is more reticent than about others, but he suggests that his hero suffered from pathological submissiveness and passivity that prevented him from escaping his provincial environment, his dreary job, and eventually his death in Nazi-occupied Drohobycz. This is now the Schulz of legend. But the truth is more complicated, as always. Indeed, even the facts gathered by Ficowski allow us to sketch a different, though no less intriguing, portrait of the writer and the artist.
Bruno Schulz was born in 1892 into an assimilated Jewish family. His father, Jacob, was a merchant, while his mother, Henrietta, came from an affluent industrialist family. Schulz's native town, Drohobycz, at that time in the Austro-Hungarian empire, was not at all a somnolent shtetl, as it is often described, but a vibrant provincial town with a theater and a red light district, later portrayed so memorably by Schulz in his story "The Street of Crocodiles." Drohobycz owed its relative prosperity to oilfields discovered in nearby Boryslaw in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and its outer suburbs were dotted with the luxurious villas of the local plutocracy. The proximity of Truskawiec, a fashionable spa frequented by vacationers from Krakow, Lvov, and Warsaw, contributed to Drohobycz's peculiar mixture of the provincial and the cosmopolitan.
Drohobycz was sometimes called a town and a half because it was supposedly half-Polish, half-Jewish, and half-Ukrainian. In fact, Jews constituted almost half of the population, the other half being divided more or less evenly between Poles and Ukrainians. After the war, Drohobycz became a stock of legends among its Polish and Jewish diaspora, an epitome of Galician charm and multiethnic geniality. (According to one account, the funeral of a beloved Drohobycz rabbi was attended by crowds of Polish and Ukrainian mourners.) But the Polish-Jewish writer Henryk Grynberg, in his book Drohobycz, Drohobycz, paints a much darker picture of the relations between the communities that shared this place on the eve of the catastrophe. According to testimonies gathered by Grynberg, Polish and Ukrainian nationalisms simmered throughout the interwar years and sometimes erupted into open hostility, with Poles and Ukrainians pitted against each other and against the always-punishable Jews. Still, Drohobycz under Polish rule did not experience pogroms or any major incidents of nationalist violence. It certainly helped when Jews, such as the Schulz family, did not manifest their religious difference. Bruno, who later formally left the Jewish religious community, was named after the Christian patron of his birthday. He never openly converted to Christianity, but witnesses say that while accompanying his mostly Catholic students to church (as part of his teacher's duties), he would genuflect in front of the crucifix. All this, of course, seems like an idyll in comparison with what was soon to follow.
The young Schulz excelled in school and quickly demonstrated his artistic talents. His teachers encouraged him to pursue his interest in the visual arts, which seemed to be his main vocation, and his school proudly sponsored the printing of a postcard featuring one of his works. Later the explicitly sexual content of many of his drawings scandalized the conservative elements of the Drohobycz community, but there is no evidence that Schulz treated his art as especially personal or shameful or that he tried to hide it from the world. He frequently exhibited his drawings in Warsaw, Lvov, Krakow, and Truskawiec, presented them as gifts to friends and relatives, and sold them in self-published folios. He treated them, in other words, with a measure of professional detachment. He often drew his own face on the dwarfish, half-human creatures crawling at the feet of his beautiful, pouting women, but he also liked to depict his friends and acquaintances in similar states of abjection. (He created a minor scandal when someone recognized his wife among the naked prostitutes in one of the more lascivious drawings.) But those familiar with the expressionist style of the time, which clearly influenced Schulz, must have understood those excesses as a calculated erotic impishness. In those days, perversion was an artistic fashion. Vienna was not too far away, and even Drohobycz had to maintain its standards of decadence.
Like his father, Schulz suffered from poor health, which interfered with his studies and his creativity. He was afflicted by phobias and anxieties-and yet his life was hardly as sorrowful as is often assumed. In fact, most of his days passed in relative comfort. The Schulz family was sufficiently well-off to allow the artistically inclined son to pursue his interests without worrying about gainful employment. After graduating from high school Schulz studied architecture in Lvov. A bout of illness and the outbreak of World War I forced him to return to Drohobycz. A year later his father died, at the age of sixty-nine. Soon afterward, excused from military service on account of his health, Schulz traveled to Vienna, where he attempted to resume his architectural studies, although his stay in the capital of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire lasted only six months. Back in Drohobycz, he joined a group of local young intellectuals, artists, and musicians called Kalleia, or "beautiful things"; practiced his graphic craft; and read voraciously from the library and the bookstore of the father of one of his closest friends.
Though he is often described as a loner, Schulz was in fact a gregarious fellow. He was always surrounded by brilliant, devoted, and often influential friends, especially sophisticated women of artistic ambitions. Some of them remained his lifelong correspondents and promoters, and one of them, a Polish-Jewish poet named Debora Vogel, encouraged him to think seriously about writing. Later, when Schulz became known in avant-garde circles in Warsaw, his close friends included not only Witkiewicz, but also the caustic Witold Gombrowicz and the grande dame of Polish letters, Zofia Nalkowska, whose salon (and bedroom) he visited during his stays in Warsaw. It was Nalkowska's enthusiasm that opened doors at the best literary periodicals and the avant-garde publishing house Roj (The Hive), which brought out both of Schulz's books as well as Gombrowicz's groundbreaking novel Ferdydurke, with a design by Schulz on its cover.
Schulz's correspondence indicates that he was by no means an innocent about the workings of literary life, and though he was lacking in natural resourcefulness he could nonetheless manage his career with a degree of professionalism and cunning. We see him systematically trying to break into literary Warsaw and to meet the right people. In one letter he openly solicits a favorable review for an acquaintance who, he admits, may be useful to him. He could be quite effective in pestering his friends for help in getting grants and writing assignments, and he met with a surprising amount of kindness. Even the usually pitiless Gombrowicz, who occasionally taunted Schulz for what he considered artistic affectations, displayed an uncharacteristic protectiveness toward his much older colleague. Schulz's famous letters-mostly lyrical and literary, sometimes including credo-like explanations of his ideas about art-can be surprisingly businesslike. They also betray a self-centered personality preoccupied almost exclusively with his own spiritual ventures, his writing, and the practical problems of his life. He rarely takes an interest in other people's dilemmas. He speaks about his desire for solitude and silence, but he longs for an ideal camaraderie of kindred souls, "partners in discovery," "one or two people who would not constrain me," "sensitive souls one does not have to close oneself from, or translate oneself into a foreign language." Like most writers, in sum, he seeks not friends but admirers. He was forever in need of reassurance.
There is also an unmistakable note of self-pity running through Schulz's letters, especially after he was finally forced to get a job as an arts and crafts teacher in order to support himself and his widowed sister. He saw it as an undeserved punishment and an unbearable burden. "So much mechanical, soulless work for someone who could do other things-that is after all a great injustice," he wrote to a fellow schoolteacher. "My nervous system has a fastidiousness and delicacy which has not matured to the demands of a life denied the sanction of art," he remarked melodramatically on another occasion. "I am afraid this school year will kill me." The torment of teaching was also a handy explanation for his prolonged periods of despondency and his increasing problems with summoning his creative powers. Ficowski declares his full sympathy with his hero's suffering: "A mythologue-artist in the role of an overworked secondary school teacher was the contradiction and violation inflicted upon Schulz's own identity."
Excerpted from Between Fire and Sleep Essays on Modern Polish Poetry and Prose by JAROSLAW ANDERS Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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