Irrealism in the Work of Bruno Schulz

[posted by Alice]

Serendipity has again led me to new reading pleasures, and this time I’m also filling a long-standing gap in my education as an irrealist. Because I recently read two Coetzee novels in a row (Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year), I picked up a volume of his collected essays (Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005) when I saw it at the library the other day.  I read with interest his short succinct essay on the work of Bruno Schulz, who, Coetzee says, shared many superficial biographical details with Franz Kafka. These included being born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a Jewish family, having health problems and having father problems. Both also wrote stories in which a man turns into an insect.  I’m enjoying Coetzee’s very readable and informative essays in which he gracefully gives biographical information, plot summaries, and thoughtful literary critiques in a few short pages. I don’t, however, agree with his statement that similarities between Schulz and Kafka are superficial. I think both were irrealists, though admittedly not the same kind.

After I read Coetzee’s essay on Schulz, I picked up The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (a 2008 Penguin reprint of Schulz’ work with an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer) when I saw it at the public library. [Note to American readers: The work Coetzee discusses as Cinnamon Shops is called The Street of Crocodiles in U.S. editions of Schulz’s fiction.] Some of the chapters/stories in this work seem very much like magical realism (e.g., “The Birds,” “The Gale”), featuring mystical events which take place in a small town in Galicia. Others, including “August,” “Nimrod,” “Mr. Charles,” and even “Pan,” represent a kind of heightened, vivid realism—the world seen through the eyes of a child. And in fact Schulz himself described Street of Crocodiles as “the story of a family told in the mode not of biology or of psychology but of myth,” which is not based on shared symbols but comes from the experiences of early childhood where certain images dominate the imagination (see Coetzee, pp. 70-71). And to be honest, after reading “August,” a rather long piece that opens Street of Crocodiles, I wasn’t sure that Schulz had the philosophical and literary inclination to examine means rebelling against their ends or to set up pointers to an unknown meaning as irrealist writers do. But as soon as I began to read the chapter called “Tailors’ Dummies,” I realized Schulz was also capable of wonderfully irreal prose.

The tailor’s dummy interested many painters we consider to be irreal (or on the border between irrealism and surrealism). These include Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, who used these analogues of the human form in many of their works. In “Tailors’ Dummies” Schulz shows us the complex meanings a seamstress’ dummy has for him, and as a result we begin to see his abilities as an irrealist writer. When two young seamstresses bring their dressmaker’s dummy into the room to begin their work, Schulz describes the object as a “silent immobile lady… mistress of the situation,” who is a “silent idol… difficult to please…  [and] inexorable as only a female Moloch can be.” Then the narrator (a young child) watches as his father delivers a three-part “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies or the Second Book of Genesis” to the seamstresses. This complex, rambling lecture deals with creation and is a compact, complex meditation on what Sartre would call the relation between being in-itself and being for-itself. The child narrator disapproves of the attitudes toward the animate and inanimate world expressed in his father’s lecture. And in fact these attitudes are very odd—he feels compassion for matter forced to bear a human form, yet blithely announces that murder and sadism must be sanctioned if they are necessary to the creative process. Elsewhere he deplores the process of nailing boards together (“the martyred wood”), yet gives no thought for the trees from which the wood came. He also waxes poetic about humans becoming useful inanimate objects, such as when a lamp is made of a man’s murdered mistress, and we are unsure about whether the father’s constant references to the Demiurge lead us to the artist or to God or to something diabolical. The meaning of the seamstress’ dummy is enriched (and from a feminist point of view also diminished) by the way women are sometimes depicted in Schulz’ work. The “dominant woman” Adela, who suppresses the father’s excesses with a tickling forefinger or an insistence that he attend to her proffered foot, encased in its stocking like a serpent’s tongue, finally stops the lecture and rescues the impatient and bored seamstresses.  The tailors’ dummies point toward women and nature and all that the father wants to dominate in the course of his creative activities, yet he is easily reduced to helplessness by Adela’s tickling.

Coetzee quotes Schulz on Kafka: “[Kafka’s] attitude to reality is radically ironic, treacherous, profoundly ill-intentioned—the relationship of a prestidigitator to his raw material. He only simulates the attention to detail, the seriousness, and the elaborate precision of this reality in order to compromise it all the more thoroughly.” (p. 75) Coetzee says that Schulz is speaking only about himself and his own writing, and that this description doesn’t apply to Kafka’s work at all. Yet to my way of thinking this quotation could be applied to both Kafka’s work and (at least in the case of writings like “Tailors’ Dummies”) to Schulz’ own.

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