A note on the use of metaphor in the works of Bruno Schulz

[posted by Greg]

Recently I’ve re-read Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles (New York, 1977) and what especially stood out for me on this reading was Schulz’s extensive use of simile and metaphor. In part this happened because Schulz’s work is often likened to the work of Franz Kafka, and yet Kafka rarely used similes or metaphors. And, as an irrealist, I would argue that Kafka didn’t use them for good reason: when the world being described is already fantastic in ways that aren’t clear to the reader, using a lot of similes and metaphors can confuse matters. In addition, similes and metaphors can offer the reader an escape from the irreal. If, in an irreal work, we liken something to the scent of a rose, we have just given the reader a lifeline to the world of the normal and potentially reassuring. And this upsets the high-tension state of the irreal, in which the reader is kept constantly poised between the real and the unreal.

But does Schulz’s extensive and continual use of analogies therefore mean that it is a mistake to liken his writing to Kafka, in spite of several natural affinities between the two (their fiction is often fantastic in theme and deals with issues they had with their fathers, they were both Jews living in Slavic countries between the wars, etc.)? Not entirely. First of all, as Alice explained in another posting on this blog, some of Schulz’s stories, such as “Tailors’ Dummies,” are quite certainly irreal. But, additionally, I would argue that in a few of his stories that are ostensibly magical realist in structure and theme, his unusual use of metaphor gives them something of an irreal hue. To illustrate this, I will first use an example where his use of metaphor doesn’t do this. In this excerpt from the story “The Night of the Great Season,” Schulz has already described the vast crowd that is making its way through the streets of the town of Drogobych on the occasion of a strange phenomenon known as the “thirteenth month,” and how the crowd has now entered his father’s fabric shop. Deserted by his shop assistants and faced with the incessant demands of the crowd, his father, “in one leap, reached the shelves of fabrics and, hanging high above the crowd, began to blow with all his strength a large shofar, sounding the alert. But the ceiling did not resound with the rustle of angel’s wings speeding to his rescue…[and, seeing that resistance would be useless, his father] jumped down from his ledge and moved with a shout toward barricades of cloth.” He then proceeds to rampage through the shop, leaning “with his whole strength against the enormous bales, heaving them from their places. He put his shoulders under the great lengths of cloth and made them fall on the counter with a dull thud…” The visual description of the store and the crowd’s actions that follows is biblical in tone and reference:

“The walls of the shop disappeared under the powerful formations of that cosmogony of cloth, under its mountain ranges that rose in imposing massifs. Wide valleys opened up between the slopes, and lines of continents loomed up from the pathos of broad plains. The interior shop formed itself into the panorama of an autumn landscape, full of lakes and distance. Against that backdrop my father wandered among the folds and valleys of a fantastic Canaan. He strode about, his hands spread out prophetically to touch the clouds, and shaped the land with strokes of inspiration…” [p. 133]

The effect here is not irreal. The metaphors, dramatic though they are, simply expand the proportions and meaning of the town, store, and season, even if they are, with an intentional irony, to a biblical scale. And to the extent they provoke an unreality, it is a legendary unreality, in this case flowing from God himself. Indeed, in this passage Schulz bears out Jerzy Ficowski’s description in the book’s introduction that it is in the “mythmaking realm” that “both the source and the final goal of Bruno Schulz’s work reside.” (p. 17)

But the next example, which comes from “The Gale,” uses strong, unreal metaphors that are not tied to any concrete realities or established mythologies and thus begin to move us into the realm of the irreal. Similar to the previous story, a force is moving through the town, but in this case it is the storm implied by the story’s title.

“The gale blew cold and dead colors onto the sky—streaks of green, yellow, and violet—the distant vaults and arcades of its spirals. The roofs loomed black and crooked, apprehensive and expectant. Those under which the wind had already penetrated, rose in inspiration, outgrew the neighboring roofs and prophesied doom under the unkempt sky. Then they fell and expired, unable to hold any longer the powerful breath which then moved farther along and filled the whole space with noise and terror. And yet more houses rose with a scream, in a paroxysm of prediction, and howled disaster.” (p. 119)

Initially we assume the story to be a description of a particularly violent storm passing through Drogobych and related to us via the vivid imagination of the stories narrator, a young Bruno Schulz, who is being kept home from school by his mother because “there’s a gale blowing.” But this is not a child’s description of a storm, and what are we to make of the fact that some of the roofs “rose in inspiration, outgrew the neighboring roofs and prophesied doom under the unkempt sky”? Especially when, in the next passage, we learn that the “enormous beech trees around the church stood with their arms upraised, like witnesses of terrifying visions, and screamed and screamed”? Since these metaphors have no obvious metaphysical or mythological connection, nor possesses a clear real-life correlate, they tend to leave us properly (in the irreal sense) cast adrift from both the real and “concretely” unreal. Certainly more so than does the first example, in which the father strides about the “folds and valleys of a fantastic Canaan” spreading his hands out prophetically. Indeed, the fact that “The Gale,” uses such unusual, juxtapositional metaphors so consistently and incessantly through the whole of the story even starts to make the reader wonder if maybe the metaphors might not be describing the actual reality depicted in the story, heightening the story’s projection of the irreal.

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.