Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz: cockroaches and crocodiles

Ewa Kuryluk

An American friend recently asked me a seemingly impossible question: „What would you recommend to a lover of modern literature if you had to name just one book of Polish fiction?” The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, I replied, the collected stories by a prose writer equal to Kafka. „Kafka?”

My friend mumbled in disbelief. „Aren’t you exaggerating?” Not a bit. Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz are two outstanding citizens of „The Republic of Dreams”, to use Schulz’s beautiful metaphor, capable of transmuting acute observation into prophecy by circumscribing reveries and nightmares as precisely as if they were facts of life. Illuminators of human nature and visionaries of history, they complement each other in interesting and significant ways.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) were born into assimilated Jewish families of the multicultural and multilinguistic Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Kafka was from a well-to-do German-speaking family of Prague, Schulz from a modest Polish-speaking family of Drohobych. Kafka’s German, admired for its cool rigor, is indebted to Pragerdeutsch, the exquisite postclassical German spoken in Prague by the educated Jewish elite. It was a perfect medium for what Kafka had in mind. Employed by an international insurance company, he watched bureaucracy driven by capitalist efficiency operating in a moral vacuum and imagined how easily it could be turned into a totalitarian death machine. Bruno Schulz was as keenly aware of Europe becoming corrupt and criminal, but he had a different point of observation. A gifted painter and draftsman, he made his living as a secondary-school crafts teacher; after teaching, he illustrated his stories and drew self-portraits and portraits of friends. He worked in a rare technique known as cliche verre, printing from treated glass plates, and excelled in the grotesque and erotic in black and white. A follower of Goya, Aubrey Beardsley and other European fin-de-siecle artists, Schulz was fascinated by the human beast and inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian from Lemberg (in Polish Lwów), and his famous novel Venus in Fur (1870), the bible of masochism.

Unlike Kafka, a cosmopolite traveler, Schulz was firmly based in Drohobych, a medium-sized town with ties to international business, situated in the industrial oil district of Galicia, the eastern provinces of Austria-Hungary, which after World War I became part of Poland. Schulz’s poetic prose has its roots in Galician Polish, a language traced by the official Imperial Austrian German, fond of convoluted sentences and archaic-sounding Latinisms, yet rich and polyphonic, spiced with Yiddish wit, laced with Hasidic fantasy and echoing the musicality of Ukrainian, spoken in the countryside around Drohobych. Fluent in German, Schulz was equally familiar with the Polish modernists of Warsaw,Cracow and Lwow and the German-writing avant-garde of Vienna,Berlin and Prague, including Kafka, whose Trial he translated into Polish.

A father-son duo, symbolic of old and new power and evocative of the writers’ respective relationships with their own fathers, stands at the center of Kafka’s and Schulz’s writing. Kafka’s robust and successful father was a family tyrant who disapproved of culture and all things spiritual, including Judaism and his son’s literature. Jacob Schulz, on the other hand, was a lovable eccentric with bad health, bad luck and a passionate interest in animals. This passion was shared by his son and by Kafka, who wrote about an ape wiser than a human, and Josephine, the singer heroine mouse of his last story, which inspired Mauss. Both writers identified with the underdog and delighted in that innocent „crumb of life,” as Schulz calls the puppy Nimrod, named ironically after the Old Testament warrior and hunter.

Jacob Schulz, given to daydreaming more than to commerce or exercise of paternal authority, failed in business and as head of household. His textile store onMarket Square, located in his family house and registered under the name of his wife Henrietta, burned soon after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Confined to bed and taken care of by Henrietta and his youngest son Bruno, Jacob survived the fire by only a few months. We find the writer’s father in many stories and most significantly in Birds, a counterpart to Kafka’s Metamorphosis.