BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
[This collection of short stories is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Bruno Schulz
1977, Viking Penguin
Originally written for an audience of one, Bruno Schulz composed the first draft of The Street of Crocodiles in a series of letters to a friend. After editing, publishing, republishing, and translation, these stories still retain the intimacy of personal correspondence. Each one invites you into the narrator’s life, his city, home, and family, and insists that you stay, not just for supper, not just for the night, but as a guest in one of the extra rooms at the top of the stairs.
It’s neither a novel nor a conventional story collection. While characters and conflicts reappear throughout, there’s no continuous narrative arc, and though each piece has its own peculiar preoccupations, the setting and the narrator remain constant from one to the next. It reads like both a childhood memoir and a work of mythology, at once willfully domestic and larger than life.
The prose casts a spell from the first paragraph of the first story:
In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.
From there, the world of the narrator’s childhood unfolds in page after page of lush description, a world full of wonder and menace, ruled by adults with mysterious motives. There’s Adela, the servant girl and matron of the house, counterpoint and nemesis to Father, the eccentric merchant and collector of exotic birds. There’s withdrawn Mother and Uncle Charles, “a grass widower,” who lives alone in the city while his wife and children spend the summer in a country resort.
Different family members each take their turn as the hero or the villain, but the narrator’s constant companion and final rival proves to be the passing of Time itself:
Everyone knows that in a run of normal uneventful years that great eccentric, Time, begets sometimes other years, different, prodigal years which—like a sixth smallest toe—grow a thirteenth freak month…
…It sometimes happens that August has passed, and yet the old thick trunk of summer continues by force of habit to produce and from its moldered wood grows those crab-days, weed-days, sterile and stupid, added as an afterthought; astonished and quite unnecessary. The sprout, irregular, uneven formless and joined like the fingers of a monster’s hand, stumps folded into a fist.
Taking forms both elemental and human, Time rolls over the narrator’s city in waves of seasons and in the rising tide of industrialism, free enterprise, and sin.
I can’t help wondering how much more Schulz might have written, or how his work might have changed, had he lived a little longer to reflect on what Time wrought in his city. In 1942, he was shot dead in the street by a Gestapo officer over a spat with a rival officer. All that remains of his work, all of it written before World War II, are his letters and two books, this one and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. His stories are modern, and yet isolated from modernity. They’re postcards from a small island in the expanse of the 20th century, an island populated by tailors’ dummies and tropical birds, bustling with commerce and weather, now sunk in the mire of history.
Similar reads: Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (Schulz), The Image (Isaac Bashevis Singer), There Once was a Woman Who Wanted to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (Lyudmila Petrushevskaya)