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Regions of the Great Heresy

Bruno Schulz, a Biographical Portrait

Reviewer: Danusha Goska

Regions of the Great Heresy

Bruno Schulz, a Biographical Portrait

By Jerzy Ficowski. Translated by Theodosia Robertson. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. ISBN 0393051471. 225 pages. Hardcover. $18.17 on

Writer and artist Bruno Schulz was born in Drohobycz, Austrian Poland, in 1892. The son of shopkeepers, Schulz, timid and frail, was sometimes called "the oaf" by his schoolmates. But his gift with words seduced listeners. In 1930 Schulz began writing to poet Deborah Vogel. She encouraged him to fashion these missives into book form. He did so; they became Cinnamon Shops (1934). Schulz's reputation rests on this and another short story collection, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). This oeuvre has been classified, by turns, as surrealistic, modernist, or a precursor to magical realism. Schulz's subject matter is his unremarkable hometown. In his work, though, a speck floating down from the sky can contain a human embryo, and a man can become a cockroach.

Alhough Schulz's work was praised by some of the best writers of the day, and although he won prestigious awards, he did not enter into a glamorous writer's life. He continued working as a schoolteacher. In 1939 the Soviets, and then, in 1941, the Nazis, invaded Schulz's hometown. His artistic talent was exploited by a Nazi officer. In 1942 this officer had a feud with another Nazi who, as part of this feud, shot Schulz dead.

Schulz's work was not translated into English until 1963. The World Cat lists twenty-five English language books devoted to Schulz as subject; in comparison, it lists nearly eight times that many devoted to his contemporary and compatriot, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

In 1942, an eighteen-year-old Polish student, Jerzy Ficowski, read Cinnamon Shops for the first time. Enthralled, he wrote to personally thank the author. After learning that Schulz was dead, Ficowski resolved to write about Schulz himself. In 1967, Ficowski's Regions of the Great Heresy, devoted to Schulz, was published in Polish.

Two factors render Regions of the Great Heresy's publication in English a cause for celebration. Schulz's own biography is one of world literature's most poignant; equally poignant is the story of the eighteen-year-old who successfully resolved to make this lost author's work known. Without Ficowski or someone like him, Bruno Schulz would probably remain little known outside Poland. Merely as a history of literary lore, it deserves attention. It recounts decades of travel, detective work, and hopes cruelly dashed and miraculously fulfilled. Ficowski assembled the scant surviving Schulz literary and artistic works and letters, and conducted interviews with persons who knew Schulz. Regions thus offers a narrative of heartfelt dedication and sacrifice more moving than that found in most biographical or critical works. Of course, we can also celebrate Regions' appearance in English because it makes the work and life of a writer who deserves attention more accessible.

Regions' structure varies. Some chapters offer sketchy but still factually informative and emotionally affective accounts of Schulz's life; others are devoted to literary criticism of Schulz's writing; still others accounts of Ficowski's quest. Material added to the original version addresses Yad Vashem's controversial 2001 removal of Schulz murals from an apartment in Drohobycz (now in Ukraine). The events of Schulz's life are not treated sequentially. Some events not mentioned in the main narrative find their way to an appended timeline. Schulz's acquaintances are given sketchy treatment. Deborah Vogel, for example, is in and of herself "not of primary importance"; rather she is mentioned merely as a "muse for Bruno Schulz." Though Schulz almost never left his hometown, he lived in the Austrian Empire, Poland, the Soviet Union, and under the Third Reich. These political addresses suggest the titanic world events that stormed around Schulz, shifting and erasing nations and populations, events that are given cursory treatment in Regions.

Ficowski's commentary on Schulz borders on the worshipful. Schulz's unique gift, Ficowski writes, was to reenter childhood itself and deliver it to his readers. With the perceptions of a child, Schulz's vision penetrates beyond mere appearances down to the mythic essence of things, and communicates that essence to the reader. Ragamuffins are transformed into magical soothsayers; a merchant becomes a prophet. Not just persons, but every thing as well, quivers with life. Ficowski says that in Schulz's worldview, it is within the pages of books that things acquire their life-giving, mythological essence.

Evidence of the strength of Regions is that it inspires the reader to yearn for more. After finishing Regions I wished that the very next book I could read would be a lengthy biography of Bruno Schulz, one that treated his life in chronological order, giving full play to this extraordinary narrative; a book that fleshed out the famous and obscure characters who had an impact on Schulz, from Tluja, the town beggar woman, to Zofia Nalkowska, Schulz's mentor and lover. I am eager to read criticism that dares to find fault with Schulz, however minor, and a thoroughgoing analysis that places him in relation to more familiar authors to whom he is frequently compared, including Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust.

I would like to read an essay that addressed ownership of Schulz's works, a front-page issue since Yad Vashem's appropriation of his murals. I would like to read insightful hypotheses about relations between Schulz's psyche and his work. Also, the literally and figuratively in-your-face masochism of Schulz's art is hard to ignore. I would like to read a writer who, in the context of a full biographical treatment, dared to discuss those masochistic themes in relation to powerful stereotypes of Jews as inferior physical specimens, a stereotype that Jews themselves worked to decommission, at least partly through Zionism. I would like to see an author dare further and courageously address Schulz's highly charged final commission, as a creator of masochistic pornography for a Nazi.

Then there are the contradictions. Many an artist has fled his hometown and its responsibilities; in spite of his yearning to devote time to art, Schulz continued for decades at a job that frustrated him in order to support indigent family members. He said of himself, "I stand remote from real life." Ironic words from a man who lived through the First and Second World Wars. Ficowski quotes those who knew Schulz, assessing him as constitutionally inadequate to face reality's demands, and yet he struggled for survival under the Soviets by painting images of Stalin, and under Nazi occupation as well. He was called cowardly, but he spoke with calm matter-of-factness to a Catholic Pole about the imminent "liquidation" of Jews, including himself.

For me, Regions came most fully alive, and communicated the most about Schulz, in its reproduction of Schulz's letters. The main character of these letters is a Sabatini hero, a swashbuckler who strides across the page and the reader's imagination with unassailable confidence.

Regions of the Great Heresy whets the appetite for further discussion of Schulz. Literature lovers, scholars of the Holocaust, of the history of Jews in Europe, and of Polish literature and history, would do well to celebrate the arrival of Regions in this new English language edition.

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Last updated 10/08/03