Buried Treasure: A New Story by Bruno Schulz Unearthed
#language & literature
default, Buried Treasure: A New Story by Bruno Schulz Unearthed, 'Undula visits the Artists' from the 'Book of Idolatry', Bruno Schulz, 1920-22, 9,8 x 14,5 cm, cliché-verre, private collection, photo: courtesy of th, center, undula-u-artystow-xiega-balwochwalcza-1920-22_0.jpg
The imagination of Bruno Schulz fans has been occupied for years with the mythic vision of a package smuggled out of the ghetto containing the now-missing manuscript of Schulz's 'Messiah', which would later be miraculously discovered tucked away somewhere deep in the former KGB archives. That has not come to pass. And the actual discovery of unknown works by Schulz may have, in fact, take an entirely different path…
The posthumous fate of Bruno Schulz's writings is as unbelievable as his prose. The discovery of works other than we had expected to find has already become a commonplace – for instance, frescos by Schulz were Efraim Mojżesz Lilienunexpectedly discovered on the walls of a child's bedroom in what had been Nazi German officer Feliks Landau's villa in Schulz's hometown of Drohobycz. We continue counting on the eventual discovery of Messiah: we have the author's illustrations for this work that were published in a newspaper during the Soviet occupation of Drohobycz. We also dream of finding Schulz's letters to his fiancée Józefina Szelińska.
In Search of ‘The Messiah’: Bruno Schulz & His Detective
But for a very few exceptions – such as his recently discovered essay on the graphic works of Efraim Mojżesz Lilien – most of the discoveries connected to Schulz's oeuvre have been tied to his work as a visual artist. As for his literary output, the imaginations of researchers and admirers of Schulz (this is one of those cases in which it's hard to distinguish one from the other) are focussed on Schulz's later works about which we only have tantalising hints. Take the aforementioned legendary Messiah whose coming we either await with religious fervour or whose existence we doubt with atheistic dispassion, viewing testimonies as to its existence as insufficient evidence. In line with the peculiar logic of Schulz's posthumous legacy, the latest literary discoveries came from an unexpected source. Specifically, from the pages of the journal of oil executives Świt (Dawn) published in Borysław on 15th January 1922.
This story doesn't contain any sensational twists as in a spy movie. On the contrary, previously unknown stories which almost certainly were the product of Schulz's pen were waiting quietly for discovery – but no one had looked for them. Łesia Chomycz with her recent discovery undermined one of the foundations of what we thought for decades we knew about the author of 'The Cinnamon Shops'. If in fact 'Marceli Weron', who appears in Świt as the author of the story Undula, is really a nom de plume of the then thirty-year-old Schulz, that would mean that Schulz's debut as a writer took place almost eleven years earlier than we had thought until now. Eleven years before Schulz met Zofia Nałkowska, whose excitement about the manuscript of The Cinnamon Shops led to its prompt publication by the Rój publishing house. This would mean that Schulz's literary debut was almost simultaneous with his artistic debut and not several years later - and, like his first individual art exhibit just a year earlier, it took place in Borysław, not far from Drohobycz.
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Chomycz discovered previously unknown stories while researching a Schulz biography in the Wasyl Stefanyk National Research Library in Lviv. Alongside a text about an exhibit of 'graphic works by the young artist Mr Bruno Schulz', in one issue of the newspaper, which was clearly being read by the researcher for the first time – the newspaper's pages had not been sliced apart for the last hundred years – there was a story by the mysterious Marceli Weron. The semi-monthly for oil industry executives mostly published articles on specialised subjects related to the oil industry, but the editors seem to have had some cultural ambitions, so literary pieces were published from time to time. These took the form of regular appearances of poems and short pieces of prose primarily from members of the Kalleia artists' group, to which Schulz is known to have belonged.
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Undula is a story has much in common with Schulz's adult works, but there is also much in which it differs – this is a reason that it seems credible that it is an early draft. The greatest resemblances lay in the details. There are sentences and phrases that reappear over a decade later, slightly refined, but nearly verbatim on the pages of the stories that make up The Cinnamon Shops. Marceli Weron describes, for example, characteristic 'large black cockroaches', 'flat, headless carcasses' which appear to be dead, but which suddenly 'begin to run in a remarkable crablike run'. An almost identical description can be found years later in the Schulz story The Visitation in which there appear in the corners of the flat 'large cockroaches, enlarged by their own shadows, cast by every burning candle, that did not leave them even when one of those flat, headless carcasses suddenly started to run in a remarkable spiderlike run'.
Portraits of Bruno Schulz – Image Gallery
In Undula there also appear the character of the 'former chambermaid Adela' and the figure of the Demiurge, but its narrator, as Schulz put it, didn't yet 'grow into childhood' – Undula returns to 'her childhood flat', but still hasn't full access to her childhood world. The sentences sag under the sheer weight of metaphors and epithets, but the language of the story is not yet as dense as Schulz's in The Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass or the masochistic underpinnings of the illustrations of the titular Undula in The Book of Idolatry which seem a bit like something out of an operetta. The masochistic eroticism, however, is more evident here than in Schulz's more mature literary texts where it remains present, but as a never fully enunciated subtext: here, as in the illustrations, it manifests itself plainly on the surface.
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The connection between Undula and The Book of Idolatry is surely not coincidental – the artist was working on Undula in the early 1920s and some of the graphics of The Book of Idolatry appeared just nine months earlier in Schulz's exhibit in Borysław, a fact we can ascertain from the description on the pages of Świt regarding both the iconography and the technique of cliché-verre used by the artist first and foremost in The Book of Idolatry. Serge Fachereau proposed the thesis that Schulz intended the illustrations of The Book of Idolatry to complement the text. If Fachereau was correct, it is not impossible that Undula as published in Świt was a sort of trial run for that later text. Undula herself was surely a character created by Schulz to fill a gap in his personal artistic mythology.
Bruno Schulz: The Immortal Artist
While it is possible that the graphic representations of Undula could have been an inspiration to the otherwise unknown author Marceli Weron when he wrote his short story, it is harder to view the many other resemblances to Schulz's later works as a coincidence, especially since Schulz was quite sensitive to copycats and imitators of his own creations. When Kazimierz Truchanowski sent Schulz a letter expressing his admiration, Schulz responded equally politely and warmly. But when Truchanowski's All Saints' Street was published (considered by many to be a near-plagiarism of Schulz's Crocodile Street, much like Truchanowski's later Pharmacy Under the Sign of the Sun was clearly derivative of Schulz's Sanatorium Under the Sign of Hourglass), Schulz called it an 'unintentional parody' of The Cinnamon Shops, 'a caricature created by the incompetence and naiveté of the author'. There is no chance that Undula is dated incorrectly: while you might re-evaluate the dating of a manuscript, you cannot disregard the date of a newspaper. So everything points to the reality that Marceli Weron and Bruno Schulz are one and the same person.
The Pen or… the Pen? A Brief History of Polish Literary Beefs
The masochistic eroticism evident in the illustrations of The Book of Idolatry may be one of the reasons, says Łesia Chomycz, that Undula might have been published under a pseudonym. Schulz himself in a later conversation with Józef Nacht acknowledged, already as an experienced and well-known writer, that he 'wouldn't be capable of writing a masochistic story' and furthermore that he would 'be ashamed' were he to do so. His brother Izydor Schulz's position in the oil industry might have opened doors to Bruno to publish his early work in the oil industry journal but, at the same time, Izydor might have put in his own two cents, encouraging Bruno to perform some light self-censorship. This argument, however, is none too convincing – after all, Świt received the equally masochistic and erotic art exhibit (organised by the Union of Oil Executives and credited expressly to Schulz) with great and enthusiastic praise and Schulz already in the 1920s had earned himself the label of a smut monger in the more prudish segments of society. A single story of that type would hardly have altered the Schulz family's overall reputation, even given that eroticism in visual arts was more readily accepted than in literature at the time.
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Łesia Chomycz's discovery seems to undermine both the thesis of a sudden eruption of literary genius propounded by Jerzy Jarzębski and the more careful suggestions of Jerzy Ficowski who, whilst lacking any solid evidence, didn't exclude the possibility that Schulz might have taken his first literary steps in the late 1920s. Over decades, many details of Schulz's biography were and remain unknown, yet it was long assumed that the broad trajectory of his career had been established beyond any doubt: the artist from Drohobycz began his career as a visual artist and only relatively late in his career – after age forty – he began to exhibit his literary talents in marginal notes appended to letters he wrote to his friends. Now it is clear that his talent didn't suddenly 'explode' late in his career, but rather – as in real life and not in romantic Hollywood fantasies – it resulted from years of writing and polishing his craft and not from some sudden stroke of divine inspiration.
Regions of the Great Heresy and Environs - Jerzy Ficowski
- Read Bruno Schulz's Undula translated into English by Stanley Bill here!
20th century polish writers
world war ii
Originally written in Polish, May 2020, translated by YJR, Jul 2020