Modernist Night--The fiction of Bruno Schulz

Modernist Night: the fiction of Bruno Schulz

26 March - 25 April 2015

“The life of the word consists in tensing and stretching itself towards a thousand connections, like the cut-up snake in the legend whose pieces search for each other in the dark” - Bruno Schulz

Udolpho is pleased to present the first exhibition dedicated to the fiction of one of the great solitaries of 20th century literature, Bruno Schulz. The exhibition assembles the handful of Schulz’s works published before his murder in 1942, including his only two printed books, personally designed by him, and now of mythical rarity.

Isolated in a small provincial town in what is now western Ukraine, Schulz perpetrated what was surely one of the more arcane assaults on western literary modernism. Much of this was plotted with his colleague and rival Witold Gombrowiz - the other leading figure of pre-war Polish avant-garde literature - but Schulz’s writing occupies a category all of its own, with a reputation for having appeared spontaneously as if out of nowhere, entirely self-generated, and in this sense he has been compared to Rimbaud or Trakl.

Still largely unknown to the wider reading public, amongst writers Schulz’s hermetic texts have proved irresistible since their rediscovery in the 1960s. Perhaps because of their very elusiveness they have become something of a literary totem, inhabiting in a ghostly afterlife an increasing list of other people’s books, from veiled paraphrase in Philip Roth, to overt appearance, a book-within-a-book, in Roberto Bolano.

Schulz was born and lived almost exclusively in the Galician town of Drohobycz, the handful of spells he spent away including two years studying architecture at the neighbouring city of Lvov, and an incomplete year studying at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He supported himself until shortly before his death working as a teacher in the same high school he attended as a boy. Unable to write outside Drohobycz, all his fiction is staged in a parallel of the town of his birth and its environs. In this confined space Schulz evolved a highly esoteric style, marked by themes of fetishism, metempsychosis, and time-dilation. But this studied obscurity masked an intense engagement with the wider literary world, his acknowledged influences including Rilke, Proust, Thomas Mann (with whom he corresponded), and Kafka (Schulz’s name appears on the first Polish translation of Kafka, although there is some debate as to whether he was in fact the translator); more recently it has been suggested that he owes a considerable debt to Louis Aragon.

Schulz’s life as a writer was brief, out of all proportion to his reputation. Beginning at the age of 41, he published over a period of only nine years, often in small local literary magazines, many of which are now of great rarity. His entire printed oeuvre consists of just 32 short stories, 28 of which were collected in two novels, Sklepy Cynamonowe (Cinammon Shops), 1934, and Sanatorium pod clepsydra (Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass), 1937. He apparently regarded the appearance of his two books as integral to their effect, and personally designed both of them. From evidence pieced together from his correspondence, a number of other works existed in manuscript in varying states of completion. These include a short story, Der Heimkehr (The Homecoming), written by Schulz in German and sent to Thomas Mann, and a full scale novel, Mesjasz (The Messiah).

In 1942, at the age of 50, Schulz was murdered in Drohobycz by a Gestapo officer. All his unpublished manuscripts subsequently vanished. It is known that a proportion of them at least were entrusted to a number of residents of the town, but none have been traced, although there have been persistent rumours of the survival of Mesjasz, possibly in a KGB archive.

Persona non grata in the early years of the Soviet occupation of Poland, Schulz’s writing lay entirely forgotten until 1957, when his two books appeared for the second time in print, published together with Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke by the Polish critic Artur Sandauer. This led to his discovery by Maurice Nadeau, publisher of Les Lettres Nouvelles, and literary king-maker of Paris. Nadeau printed a French translation of Schulz’s Dead Season in Les Lettres Nouvelles in 1959, and then a selection of stories under the title Traité des Mannequins in 1961. In his preface for Traité des Mannequins Nadeau claims for Schulz “a place amongst the great writers of his period, for a great writer and brilliant innovator he incontestably was. I have rarely been this sure about unveiling a writer to the French public.”

1961 also marked Schulz’s first appearance in German: initially a translation of The Night of the Great Season in the literary journal Merkur, and then a complete translation of both Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium. But it was only considerably later that Schulz came to truly international prominence, with the publication in 1979 of an English translation of Sanatorium edited by Philip Roth. John Updike provided the introduction, and the rediscovery of Schulz began in earnest: “Bruno Schulz was one of the great writers, one of the great transmogrifies of the world into words”.

“If someone had eavesdropped on our conversations in those, now distant, years, he would have taken us for conspirators. What was the plot? Bruno talked to me about an “illegal codex” and I spoke to him about a “liberating cacophony.” … What sort of laboratory was this? In fact we were conspirators. We were consumed with experimenting with a certain explosive material called Form” - Witold Gombrowicz

The exhibition is accompanied by the essay Modernist Night by Henry Sussman, Visiting Professor at the Department of German, Yale University. Prof. Sussman's books include Playful Intelligence: Digitising Tradition (2014), Idylls of the Wanderer: Outside in Literature and Theory (2007), and The Aesthetic Contract: Statutes of Art and Intellectual Work in Modernity (1997).