The Republic of Dreams

Michał Paweł Markowski

Schulz says clearly: the unreal is whatever people cannot share with one another. Whatever falls out of that sharing falls beyond the circle of human affairs, beyond the boundaries of the human theater, beyond literature.1/

The trouble with Bruno Schulz is the following: everybody knows he’s a genius, everybody talks about his tremendous influence, but when push comes to shove it’s all restricted to banalities, as if the measure of a writer’s greatness were to be this community of popular judgments. On the other hand, this comes as no surprise.

Schulz assaults the reader from the very first page and never allows him to rest, never allows him to gather his thoughts. His perfidy lies in the fact that he resists all translation, but encourages us to imitate, to paraphrase and to counterfeit. It’s easier to speak in Schulz’s language than to speak about Schulz. After reading a single paragraph we know at once that it’s Schulz, though we don’t at once know what to say about the paragraph.

The greatness of Schulz is the greatness of his resistance to appropriation, while the result of this resistance is the very small number of memorable books written about him. Certainly, there are a great many discussions, monographs, presentations, dictionaries and exegeses, but few books which would discard the academic paraphernalia and show in black and white that to read Schulz is to wrestle with an angel who means to wrench out your hip.


But then how should we read Schulz? Should we catalogue motifs and themes? This is important, but superficial. Should we illuminate metaphors and track turns of phrase? This reeks of the laboratory from a mile off. Should we compare? But how to compare the incomparable? Even worse, Schulz cannot be utilized for anything: he can’t be hailed as a patron of the left or right and nobody will write a politically engaged essay about him.

Schulz is clearly useless: he refuses to serve any cause, he refuses to rouse and uplift, and even his essays about Józef Piłsudski are a disappointment to old legionnaires. Neither does Schulz have – as would befit a genius of the nation – a decent biography. Ultimately Jerzy Ficowski didn’t write one, preferring to ferret about in the The Vicinity of ’Cinnamon Shops’, rather than to take a look inside them. This is in fact a broader tendency. Indeed, the proliferation of books in the Schulzean bibliography with titles dominated by various margins, postscripts and footnotes clearly demonstrates that the criticism has been overcome by a reverent fear of confrontation. This ferreting about in the margins is by no means a purely native affliction.

The recent excitement in the West over the figure of Bruno Schulz has been largely connected not with his works but with the scandal which erupted after the theft of his frescos from Drohobycz and their removal to Israel. Although new translations into foreign languages are appearing, there is still no faithful translation into the most important language, that is, into English. The existing translation, made years ago by Celina Wieniewska, reads with a difficulty exacerbated by the fact that whenever the translator can’t cope with the linguistic thicket of Schulz’s language (usually by pruning away with the translator’s secateurs), she blithely omits the troublesome sentences, thus entirely erasing the writer’s signature. Schulz in English reads smoothly and fluently, whereas Schulz is not in the least bit smooth and fluent, and thus I understand the surprise of English-language readers, who can’t understand how they’re supposed to be dealing with a linguistic genius when the sentences they have in front of them sound so ordinary.

Even such virtuosi as Roth, Updike or Coetzee, unfamiliar as they are with the Polish language, cannot know who Bruno Schulz really is, but can only guess. Of course, this is no small thing: better to guess with Coetzee than to know with Professor Pimko.