Saturday, June 6, 2009


If no one has yet used the word 'decadent' to describe Bruno Schulz's prose, allow me to be the first. I have defined 'decadence' elsewhere as a mode of artistic production characterized by highly stylized excess, and even the briefest examination of a random page from The Street of Crocodiles is a more effective argument than any I could construct for the work's decadent nature. (I should probably add that to me the word 'decadence' is purely descriptive, connoting no positive or negative aesthetic or moral judgment.) Assuming the general faithfulness of Celina Wieniewska's translation (a controversial issue that I am not linguistically competent to pronounce upon), Schulz writes a lush, beautiful, gloriously decadent prose, the highly figurative lyricism of which overwhelms the narrative gestures in his fiction. Schulz's 'stories' are nothing of the sort. Nor are they Kafkaesque parables. The too-easy Schulz-Kafka connection (made easier by the seemingly obvious influence of Kafka on Schulz's conception of the Father character) obscures the fact that these two artists could hardly be more different. Where Kafka is dry and focused, Schulz is expansive and effusive. Where Kafka's descriptions exhibit scientific naturalism even at their most surreal, Schulz is a lush, poetic painter whose prose is as vividly colored as an Expressionist canvas. Where Kafka describes, Schulz mythologizes. (Gregor Samsa is very matter-of-factly described in his transformed state; Adela and her broom, by contrast, become a furious maenad with her thyrsus when she shoos the birds from Father's attic room.) In short, where Kafka is incomparably and outrageously deadpan, Schulz is gorgeously decadent. His prose is like a burst pomegranate; the over-ripeness is all. I love it.

Some of the pieces in Crocodiles are extraordinary (the title fiction, "Cinnamon Shops," "Tailor's Dummies," "Visitation," "Birds," "The Comet") while others are slight and forgettable ("Nimrod," "Pan"). At their best, these fictions demand re-reading, if only to catch the elements missed on a first reading. There is a Borgesian richness here, as well as--it must be said--a Borgesian sameness, a repetition of images and ideas that almost (but not quite) could be justified as musical form. There's also, at times, too much too-much-ness, a poetic concentration of idea and image that calls to mind Schulz's favorite poet, Rilke. The Rilke influence may, in fact, be more decisive than Kafka, given the resemblances between certain passages in this book and similar moments in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.


Lane Eliezer said...

Hey, I recently stumbled upon your blog; I think it's awesome.

Anywho, JM Coetzee writes an essay about Schulz in his new book and he says the Wieniewska translation is not to be trusted. She changes the name of towns to make the book appear more autobiographical and also makes references less "Jewish" and more "universal". I have not read the novel myself (although it's high on my list). Coetzee also says the translation reads really well, though.

Have you read any Cynthia Ozick? She recreates the life of Schulz (I think; or it's at least related to him in some way) in one of her novels: The Messiah of Stockholm.

Anonymous said...

What a great review of a wonderful book. I completely agree with you about the decadent feel to the prose, especially the lush sensuality of the descriptive passages. I'd add to Krauss's 'History of Love' to Lane Eliezer's. It's a powerful homage to Schultz's novel.