This remarkable prose stylist and artist lived a life outwardly uneventful to the point of drabness, but inwardly incandescent. His writing is the window into that inner life. Poetic, magical, irridescent, obsessive, and often wildly funny, Schulz’s language is the virtual obverse of the stifling reality of the shtetlach – the provincial centres of Jewish life in Eastern Europe whose imminent obliteration he seems uncannily to have sensed.
Schulz was born, lived and died in Drohobych, in the province of Galicia. He studied architecture in Lvov, returning to Drohobych to work as a school teacher from necessity rather than inclination. His writing was slow to achieve recognition – unsurprising, given its subversion of all the rules of narrative. Recognition nevertheless came towards the end, and it is said that James Joyce learnt Polish in order to read Schulz in the original.
When the Nazis occupied Poland, Schulz as a Jew was confined to the ghetto of Drohobych, but found a patron of sorts in the form of a Nazi officer, Felix Landau. When Landau murdered a Jew similarly protected by another officer, the latter revenged himself by killing Schulz.
Isaac Bashevis Singer said of Schulz: “He wrote sometimes like Kafka, sometimes like Proust, and at times succeeded in reaching depths that neither of them reached”.
This selection of readings from Schulz is taken from The Street of Crocodiles, and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. It broadly tracks the passage of the seasons from the end of summer into the depths of winter, beginning and ending with train journeys.
Please click on each of the following photos to view the corresponding video.
A prose-poem about the transition from summer to autumn, and the return from the holidays.
Music: “Di Goldene Pave”,
Chava Alberstein and the Klezmatics.
Art: Schulz series, Ofra Amit
The Age of Genius
A brief, introductory piece in which Bruno proposes that time is incapable of containing all events, and announces a solution – the doubling of time.
Music: “Der Kolmayer Badchen”, Henri Gerro
Artwork: Self Portrait, Bruno Schulz
A long, rhapsodic and dream-like account of an errand undertaken on a magical winter night.
Music: Khosns Niggun (Modzhitz)
Artwork: Backcloth from The Firebird Suite, Natalia Goncharova
A Second Autumn
Based on the theory of Bruno’s father that the late autumn warmth of Galicia is caused by the decomposition of the second-rate mannerist art hoarded in its museums.
Music: Modzhitzer Waltz
Artwork: “Melancholia”, Giorgio de Chirico
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass
A strange train journey leads Bruno to the Sanatorium, where his father’s death is perpetually postponed.
Music: “Di Zun vet Aruntergeyn”, the Klezmatics.
Artwork: “Father in the Sanatorium”, Bruno Schulz
Another prose-poem in which the winter darkness of lofts and attics ferments, and summons the gale to besiege the city.
Music: “Gasn Nign”, Alicia Svigals
Artwork: “White grayscale geometry”, Michael Plaster
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Poet Laureate of the Yiddish language, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s literary career spanned pre-war Poland and the fragmentation of Jewish existence in post-war America. The selection of short stories presented here depicts the vanished world of the Eastern European Jewish shtetl, where despair and longing found go-betweens in superstition, lacerating humour, and the dream of escape. In Singer’s speech accepting the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, he quietly but somewhat outrageously demonstrated the resources of Yiddish in dealing with life’s accidents. His literary output celebrates the resources of the heart in all its frailty, and in all its unbounded power.
There have always been those who criticise Singer for occasional sentimentality, spurious fascination with the supernatural, and indifference to social misery. There is some truth in these charges, even though they are based on carefully selected evidence. I can only respond by recording what I was told by my father, born into a similar milieu less than one year after Singer: “This is how life was, or at least this is how it is in the memory”.
The ideal would be to tell these stories in the original Yiddish, but apart from anything else those texts are hard to find. Singer often published English translations concurrently with the Yiddish, referring to them – perhaps a little ruefully – as his second originals.
The Extingushed Lights
A Chanukah tale with more than a little of the supernatural, from the repertoire of Singer’s studyhouse story-teller, Reb Berish.
Music: “Kinder Iorn”, Benzion Witler
Artwork: “Lastday Chanukah”, Pavlina Richterova
Shrewd Todie and Lyzer the Miser
Singer’s retelling of a classic comedy in which a rich skinflint falls prey to the resourcefulness of his impoverished neighbour, and to his own greed.
Music: “A Glezele Vayn”, the Klezmatics
Artwork: “Todie and the Miser”, Lorie Wolf
Aunt Yentl’s memories of her childhood in Turbin lead her into the uncanny as she gives her own theory of the mysterious presence which lurked in the house of three reclusive neighbours.
Music: “Sher”, Giora Feidman
Artwork: “Golem”, Sigrid Rodli
Twelve year-old Menashe, feeling more than usually down on his luck, takes a walk in the forest and discovers a new way of viewing the past and the future (and more besides).
Music “Shnirele Perele”, the Klezmatics
Artwork: “Fantasy Castle”, Tan Koon
Ole and Trufa
Two leaves in autumn, clinging to each other and to existence, face the certainty of annihilation but as yet imagine nothing of what lies beyond it.
Music: “Los Bilbilikos”, Kerasia Samara
Artwork: “Zlota Jesien” na.pulpit.com
On A Wagon
A young husband, only a recent convert to modernity, has his world fall apart in the course of a nighttime wagon ride to Zamosc with the travelling companion from hell.
Music: “Kol Nidre”, Max Bruch (Pablo Casals)
Artwork: Untitled, Roman Vishniac
As New Year approaches, the Rabbi’s teenage son longs for a tryst not with Heaven but with the neighbour’s intriguing daughter. Obviously, it’s not going to happen….
Music: “Rondo alla Zingarese”, Brahms (soundtrack from the film “Monsieur Hire”)
Artwork: “Portret Kobiety”, Teodor Axentowicz
Read: By David Herling
Lida Mantovani by Giorgio Bassani
This haunting 30 page novella, which Giorgio Bassani took some 20 years to complete, now forms the opening of his labyrinthine Romanzo di Ferrara, set within or at least within sight of that northern Italian city’s Jewish community between the wars. Its themes are those which pervade all of Bassani’s writing; the ways in which people treat one another, themselves, their hopes and their memories. With “Lida Mantovani”, Bassani establishes himself not only as a virtuoso prose stylist, but as a writer of deep humanity.
Read: By David Herling