The collected fiction of "one of the most original imaginations in modern Europe" (Cynthia Ozick)
Bruno Schulz's untimely death at the hands of a Nazi stands as one of the great losses to modern literature. During his lifetime, his work found little critical regard, but word of his remarkable talents gradually won him an international readership. This volume brings together his complete fiction, including three short stories and his final surviving work, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Illustrated with Schulz's original drawings, this edition beautifully showcases the distinctive surrealist vision of one of the twentieth century's most gifted and influential writers.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
About the Author
Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew killed by the Nazis in 1942, is considered by many to have been the leading Polish writer between the two world wars.
Celina Wieniewska (translator) was awarded the 1963 Roy Publishers Polish-into-English prize for her translation of The Street of Crocodiles.
Jonathan Safran Foer (foreword) is the bestselling author of the novels Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Here I Am. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
David A. Goldfarb (introducer) taught for eight years in the Slavic department at Barnard College, Columbia University. He has written on a range of writers and subjects, including Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and East European cinema.
What People are Saying About This
One of the great writers, one of the great transmogrifiers of the world into words.
One of the most remarkable writers who ever lived.
Reading Group Guide
In The Street of Crocodiles, Bruno Schulz’s collection of interlinked stories, the most prosaic elements of everyday life become fantastic, full of mystery, capable of containing and at times revealing the deepest secrets of existence. For example, as the narrator, his family, and the shop assistants sit down to lunch, “it was only when a dish appeared on the table containing two large fish in jelly lying side by side, head-to-tail, like a sign of the zodiac, that we recognized in them the coat of arms of that day, the calendar emblem of the nameless Tuesday: we shared it out quickly among ourselves, thankful that the day had at last achieved an identity” (p. 27). An article of clothing, a ray of light, wind, a cloud, a stray dog, a cockroach—any of these things can send the book’s narrator on the most lyrical, at times disorienting, flights of description, reminiscence, or metaphysical speculation. On the other hand, descriptions of incredible events, absurd landscapes, and bizarre animals make them seem matter-of-fact. When the narrator’s father, Jacob, begins to keep birds in the attic of their house, the narrator perceives a growing resemblance between his father and a particular condor: “I could not resist the impression, when looking at the sleeping condor, that I was in the presence of a mummy—a dried-out, shrunken mummy of my father. I believe that even my mother noticed this strange resemblance, although we never discussed the subject. It is significant that the condor used my father’s chamber pot” (p. 22). Once filtered through the narrator’s consciousness, the real and the unreal become indistinct from each other.
What accounts for the narrator’s leveling of different orders of experience? One way of answering this question is to note thatThe Street of Crocodiles is the product of the narrator’s memory, the operations of which can as easily be called invention as recollection (as seen in Proust, to whom Schulz is sometimes compared). Direct access to what really happened is impossible, which makes the question of what is believable irrelevant. But there is also the suggestion that the narrator’s mode of presenting the world of his childhood is a reaction to it. In the book’s first story, “August,” the narrator wishes that Emil, his exotic cousin, would notice him and liberate him from “the tortures of boredom” (p. 10). Whether the attention he gets from Emil has a desirable outcome is unclear. His cousin shows him a collection of pornographic photographs, and their effect on the narrator seems not entirely pleasurable.
The narrator frequently contrasts his boredom with various possibilities for relieving it, but these possibilities always possess ominous, if not dangerous, qualities. The tension between the safety of boredom and the potential for chaos lurking within its antidotes is most explicit in “The Comet.” The town becomes convinced that a comet is about to obliterate the earth. But, instead of inspiring fear, the prediction is cause for celebration: “Something festive had entered our lives, an eager enthusiasm. An importance permeated our gestures and swelled our chests with cosmic sighs” (p. 106). When the disaster fails to materialize, the narrator observes that the people were “richer by one more disappointment” (p. 111). How can a disappointment enrich them? Might it be that what actually happens in this provincial place could never be as exciting as what its inhabitants are capable of imagining? Schulz does not, however, depict the products of imagination as necessarily benign and therefore unquestionably preferable to the daily reality.
Throughout the book, the father seems to function as a counterweight to the boredom that oppresses the narrator. Looking back on the period when his father kept birds in the attic, the narrator notes that the “affair of the birds was the last colorful and splendid counteroffensive of fantasy which my father, that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defenseworks of a sterile and empty winter” (p. 25). Standing against this counteroffensive is Adela, the family’s servant, who chases the birds from the attic in a “dance of destruction” that renders the father “an exiled king who had lost his throne and his kingdom” (p. 23). The rest of the family wonders if she’s been given “some commission and assignment from forces of a higher order” (p. 25).
The Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies that Jacob recites (in “Tailors’ Dummies”) can be read as an explanation of the aesthetic philosophy at the heart of Schulz’s method. “The whole of matter,” Jacob proclaims, “pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself. . . . Anyone can mold it and shape it; it obeys everybody. All attempts at organizing matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve” (p. 31). The narrator seems to treat the substance of his memories as his father here describes matter. Near the beginning of “The Gale,” the narrator tells us that “one night the regiments of saucepans and bottles rose under the empty roofs and marched in a great bulging mass against the city” (p. 77). It is difficult to make sense of this until, several paragraphs later, we learn that a fierce wind is blowing through the town, and we realize that what he has been recounting is what the wind initiated in his imagination.
As the stories progress, it seems as if madness gradually overtakes Jacob, but it is a madness measured not so much in how he perceives the world as in how radically isolated from it he becomes. In “Visitation,” the narrator recalls that “we did not count him as one of us anymore, so very remote had he become from everything that was human and real” (p. 17). In “Cinnamon Shops,” the narrator says his father “was already lost, sold and surrendered to the other sphere” (p. 53). The narrator tells us that he now understands his father as a “lonely hero who alone had waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city” (p. 25). Is Jacob’s isolation the cost he pays for saving his family? If so, does the narrator believe the price is fair? suggests that our individuality, if given full expression, fulfills the somewhat contrary ends of giving shape and color to an otherwise dreary world while separating us from those with whom we would share the pleasures to be found in a world so completely alive.
ABOUT BRUNO SCHULZ
Born in 1892 in Drohobycz—then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of Ukraine—Bruno Schulz is considered one of the greatest prose writers of twentieth-century Poland. He started drawing as a young child, and he studied architecture before his schooling was interrupted by illness and the outbreak of World War I. Schulz intended to have a career in graphics, but could only earn a living by teaching high school art. Apart from his work, his interaction with others consisted almost entirely of exchanging letters. Many of the stories in Schulz’s first book, Cinnamon Shops (1934, retitled The Street of Crocodiles in its American edition), began as letters to a poet friend in Lviv, Debora Vogel. Introduced to Zofia Nalkowska, a prominent novelist in Warsaw, Schulz later sent her his stories, and her support facilitated their publication. Schulz wrote that “these ‘stories’ are true; they represent my style of living, my particular lot. The dominant feature of that lot is a profound solitude, a withdrawal from the cares of daily life.” In addition to translating Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Schulz published a second collection of stories, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937), which is included in this Penguin Classics edition.
When the Germans seized Drohobycz in 1941, Schulz was forced from his home and into the Jewish ghetto. He distributed his unpublished writing, along with drawings, prints, and paintings, among non-Jewish friends for safekeeping—these were rumored to include the manuscript of a novel called The Messiah. A Nazi officer took an interest in Schulz’s art, serving as a kind of protector and commissioning a set of murals for his son’s bedroom. (When the murals were discovered in 2001, officials from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, ignited a controversy by removing them without permission.) In 1942, Schulz was shot and killed by another Nazi officer, supposedly an enemy of his protector. None of the work Schulz is thought to have left with others has ever surfaced.
- Why does the narrator describe inanimate objects as if they were living beings, such as in “August,” where he describes windows as having “fallen asleep”? (p. 4)
- In “August,” how does the narrator feel after Emil shows him his photographs of “naked women and boys in strange positions”? (p. 10)
- Why does Adela have more influence over Jacob than his wife does?
- What does the narrator mean when he explains his father’s interest in animals as “a kind of experimenting in the unexplored regions of existence”? (p. 20)
- Why does Jacob decide to hatch birds’ eggs inside the house? Why do the chicks fascinate the narrator?
- Why does Adela suffer no consequences for chasing the birds out of the attic? Why does the rest of the family feel “a vile satisfaction, a disgraceful pleasure that Father’s exuberance had been curbed”? (p. 25)
- Why is the narrator concerned that the Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies may give offense, calling it “this most heretical doctrine”? (p. 31)
- What is the significance of the fact that the narrator never finds the cinnamon shops?
- What does the narrator mean when he says, “Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character”? (p. 67)
- Why does the narrator describe the Street of Crocodiles as “a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption”? (p. 72)
- How are we to understand the narrator’s assertion that his father has been transformed into a cockroach? Why does the narrator then say that his father is a condor?
- In “The Comet,” after seeing the results of his father’s experiment on Uncle Edward, why does the narrator feel “a grudging approval when one saw how punctually, how accurately he was functioning”? (p. 104)
- Why is it “fashion” that prevents the comet from hitting the town? What does the narrator mean when he says the town was “richer by one more disappointment”? (p. 111)
FOR FURTHER READING
David Grossman, See Under: Love (1989)
In this complex novel by one of Israel’s most highly acclaimed writers, Bruno Schulz is one of four narrators Grossman uses to tell the story of Momik, an only child of Holocaust survivors whose life is distorted by an event that not only predates him but also escapes every conventional means of understanding.
Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis (1915)
Beginning with its central character, Gregor Samsa, waking up to find himself transformed into an insect, Kafka’s story is perhaps the most iconic example of a work of fiction that violates the conventions of realism in order to access feelings and states of mind that seem at once extreme and commonplace.
Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm (1987)
A meditation on literature, identity, and obsession, this short novel turns on the appearance of a manuscript of The Messiah, Schulz’s lost novel. It’s in the possession of a woman claiming to be Schulz’s daughter, and it upsets the life of a war refugee and book reviewer for a Swedish daily newspaper who is convinced that he is Schulz’s son.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927)
Proust’s extraordinarily rich seven-volume novel, in which the narrator seeks to understand the most nuanced forces that have shaped his life, is a penetrating study of human consciousness and a profoundly evocative depiction of the workings of memory.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Alas poor Bruno Schulz. Had he been allowed to live the world would not be deprived of his surreal genius. Sadly, a Nazi ended Mr. Schulz's life and we will simply have to treasure what little he left behind. This book includes his novellas 'The Street of Crocodiles' (originally published as 'The Cinnamon Shops'), 'Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass' and a few short stories. Trying to describe Schulz' writing is akin to describing a dream. I can simply say that this is easily one of the best books I've ever read. However, I'm not ashamed to admit that there were many parts where I felt like I didn't quite understand what was going on; in this rare case, I'm quite okay with that. Some sections are very straightforward and easy to comprehend, while others can be quite vague, even metaphysical in a sense. I for one am eager to re-read the book though, so as to better understand it. I can already tell it will be one of those books that will be different with every reading. For readers who are not intimidated by the abstract, surreal and downright labyrinthine this book will find a place in your heart.
I had to read this book for a World Literature class at school. This is a very interesting book and bruno Schultz must have been a very interesting man. He used a lot of metaphors and personifications to bring objects to life. I enjoyed reading this book but it was a slow reader. I would recommend allotting yourself at least several days to read this book because after each short story I found myself wanting to take a break.
Some passages in "The Street of Crocodiles" are as intensely and sharply described as anything in fiction. Here is a sentence introducing the idea that some years that go on too long, and sprout extra months:"It sometimes happens that August has passed, and yet the old thick trunk of summer continues by force of habit to produce and from its moldered wood grows those crablike weed days, sterile and stupid, added as an afterthought; stunted, empty, useless days--white days, permanently astonished and quite unnecessary." (p. 83).By comparison so much fiction is unfocused: even passages of Nabokov can seem slightly dulled by comparison: Nabokov's sense of what sharp writing can be can appear as a kind of dried-up, academic, precious version of Schultz. Writers like Banville or Handke (who owes a lot to Schultz) can seem positively soft. Rilke is a closer comparison, and so is Trakl. And there are also passages that Walter Benjamin would have envied, like this one describing a newly modernized society:"Man was entering under false pretenses the sphere of incredible facilities, acquired too cheaply, below cost price, almost for nothing, and the disproportion between outlay and gain, the obvious fraud on nature, the excessive payment for a trick of genius, had to be offset by self-parody." (p. 99)A good half of the books I've read this year aren't even _written_ in the sense I mean here: they're just sentences, with no use of language beyond the barely denotative and informational. Franzen's "Freedom" is like that, and most of Énard's "Zone." Schultz is the diametric opposite: no sentence is permitted in his fiction unless it squeezes language until it nearly chokes. This is one of the things Jonathan Safran Foer likes about Schultz. In his introduction, he he says he thought "The Street of Crocodiles" was a great book, but that he still didn't like it:"The language was too heightened, the images too magical and precarious, the yearnings too dire, the sense of loss too palpable--everything was comedy or tragedy." (p. ix)Some of Schultz is surrealism, as when a man is reduced to the rubber tubes used for enemas (!), but most of it is rhapsodic, ecstatic, and visionary -- "magical" in Foer's term. And that is exactly the limitation of the work: it is deeply romantic in an old-fashioned sense, desperate ("dire" is Foer's word) for revelation and salvation, obsessed with ending, decay, corruption, "loss," and their fragile opposites: brilliant flashes of light, comets, strange meaningful patterns, hidden arcane knowledge. "The Street of Crocodiles" is not a novel or a collection of stories, but not for the usual formal reason (that is, not because the sections fail to cohere, as in a novel, or remain distinct from one another, as in a collection of short stories or prose poems), but because Schultz's obsessive scenes keep recurring. Form isn't the point: what matters is getting the transient revelation right. There are inadvertent repetitions, and repetitions he has recognized turned into elaborations. Both sorts are signs that what matters is not the story but the mould, the fever, the impending insanity or petrifaction, the pathos of the overlooked and ruined hallway smeared with grime and spotted with stains. It is a very nineteenth-century vision, made more intense by its twentieth-century setting. In that sense it is typical central European romantic fiction. What it lacks and "desperately" needs is the coldness of Kafka.
So maybe my expectations were too high, because I read Schulz's name often in the same sentence as Robert Walser's.So I was disappointed, even though this book isn't bad by any means.But I felt like it just never quite measured up.All the reviews keep saying how the language is rich and full. I agree that there is a LOT of language going on here, but I feel like there is a little too much, and that the language hasn't been properly honed or paid full attention to. Almost like eating 10 desserts in one meal, this writing seems bloated and unfocused. A writer like Proust may jam a lot of words into his sentences, but you felt like every word mattered. Here, I just don't get that feeling. The words often seem to say the same thing over and over again. I do realize that this could be a problem with the translation, but since I don't read Polish, I can't really say for sure.And while some of these episodes were pleasantly creative, overall this book just didn't blow me away. It certainly never reaches Walserian heights, at least for me. Speaking of which, Walser uses really simple language. Maybe the comparison with Walser has more to do with a child-like quality of both writers. But there is something charming and wonderful in Walser that I don't detect here. I think Bruno Schulz may write ABOUT childhood, but he doesn't infuse his writing WITH it, with that quality of pure delight; instead his reminiscences often feel melancholic and from a place of much reflection. Nothing wrong with that, except I wish people wouldn't put these two names together in sentences, since they feel completely different to me!
This book is extremely well written; particularly striking are the author's use of color and sound, as well as the chapters dealing with the father's many manias. With that said, I often got bogged down by so many consecutive paragraphs of description, however beautiful they were--I could see things wonderfully in the world Schulz has created, but I didn't understand much of anything that was going on in terms of plot.
Strange, episodic story cycle of life in a gloomy Eastern European city (Drogobych), which is overstuffed with decaying marvels, cryptic artifacts, and just plain trash. (Same goes for the protagonist's home, which seems both cramped and weirdly infinite.) The book is populated by colorful / quirky / mad characters, most centrally the protagonist's father, who obsesses first over raising exotic birds and then later, over developing a quasi-Gnostic theory about tailor's dummies as a form of imprisoned matter. Uniquely European high weirdness, likely to be enjoyed by fans of Calvino's "Invisible Cities" or Kafka's parables.
Some of the most beautiful writing I¿ve ever experienced is in the short little fiction of Bruno Schulz. Every time I read this book I get a feeling of sadness, I¿m not sure if it¿s because of the power of his writing or if it¿s the thought of him lying dead in the Ghetto after being shot by a vengeful Nazi officer. He left us to soon, if only we had his lost work.
The narrator's dad is pretty much crazy. He conducts strange science experiments, collects and hatches a lot of birds, climbs into strange spots around the house, and has a "Metamorphosis" moment of turning into a cockroach. Schulz is a very youthful-feeling and imaginative storyteller. I happened to really like one section that dealt with extra half-formed months, as if time could grow small appendages. An odd little book...but one that you can't help smile at..
Read Bruno Schulz! His entire output is two books in English, padded out with his drawings. He was brilliant and inspiring, a teacher, artist, man of culture and a wastrel. He was murdered by the Gestapo (who had until then been protecting him) in Warsaw, shot dead in the street.
Unmatched prose styling. Exceptionally beautiful writing. Truly marvelous.It's a shame there isn't a plot. Nonetheless this is worth your time.