Regions of the Great Hourglass

Regions of the Great Hourglass

Bruno Schulz

Sixty-six years ago today, Bruno Schulz was murdered by a Gestapo officer in a concentration camp in Poland. Now recognized as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Schulz was little known outside his native Drohobycz during his lifetime, though he had made fruitful contact with several important Polish literary figures of his generation. He was friends with Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz and Zofia Nalkowska, among others, exchanged letters with them and sometimes reviewed their works. His connection with the larger world was chiefly through literature and art.

Schulz was a rarity in a multitude of ways. He was a small-town, provincial intellectual and artist, a public school drawing teacher who rarely ventured beyond the confines of that small town. He did not seem to feel the need to live in the center of literary and artistic ferment — the closest city like that would have been Prague. He traveled little. But his mind was filled with the world. His stories were filled with small, everyday things that touched upon everything. Family, love, imagination, childhood. His knowledge of life and art was at once sophisticated and naive. Wisdom, passion and innocence joined forces in his work to create something unique in all of literature. His combination of the surreal, the deceptively simple, the sweet and the grotesque, made for a barogue drama slightly offstage. Something off, off Broadway, while being on a certain kind of Main Street.

Childhood was key:

“The books which we read in childhood don’t exist anywhere; they fluttered away — bare skeletons remain. Whoever would still have in himself the marrow of childhood — ought to write them anew as they were then.” — Bruno Schulz

— translated by Theodosia Robertson.

Like Kafka, whom he is often compared with, Bruno Schulz thought art was everything. The work of art was everything. The craft. The deliberation before the moment of creation. The act itself and its inspiration. And, like Kafka, his published output was relatively slight. Though much of what he wrote, drew and painted has been lost to us forever, a victim of war, conquest and political upheaval, we have two of his story collections to savor: Cinnamon Shops and Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Both are filled with marvels, joy and sheer genius.

For those of you who would like to learn more about his life and works, I heartily recommend Jerzy Ficowski’s biography of Schulz, entitled Regions of the Great Heresy. Revised by the author and translated by Theodosia Robertson in 2003. The revision includes an update on efforts to track down Schulz’s lost masterwork, The Messiah, his lone novel. That lost masterwork was also the inspiration for Cynthia Ozick’s excellent novel, The Messiah of Stockholm. Ficowski is a poet of note and the main force behind the Schulz revival in the West. His determination and devotion to his subject have born much literary and artistic fruit. Those of us who love Schulz’s work are in his debt.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Schulz, this time from Cinnamon Shops:

“It is worth noting that all things that touched this unusual man somehow retreated into the root of their existence, reconstructed their phenomenon down to the very metaphysical core, somehow returned to the original idea — only to prove faithless to it, veering off into the dubious, risky and ambiguous regions which we shall name here, in short, the Regions of the Great Heresy.” — Bruno Schulz

— translated by Theodosio Robertson

 

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