The Age Of Genius - The legend of Bruno Schulz

An afternoon in spring, Easter Sunday, 1933. Behind the reception desk of a small hotel in Warsaw stands Magdalena Gross. Gross is a sculptor, and her modest family hotel serves as a meeting place for writers and intellectuals. In the hotel lobby sits a Jewish girl of about twelve, a native of Lodz. Her parents have sent her to Warsaw for a school holiday. A small man, thin and pale, enters the hotel, carrying a suitcase. He is a bit stooped, and to the girl—her name is Jakarda Goldblum—he seems frightened. Gross asks him who he is. “Schulz,” he says, adding, “I am a teacher, I wrote a book and I—”

She interrupts him. “Where did you come from?”

“From Drohobycz.”

“And how did you get here?”

“By train, by way of Gdanski Bridge.”

The woman teases him. “Tanz? You are a dancer?”

“What? No, not at all.” He flinches, worries the hem of his jacket. She laughs merrily, spouting wisecracks, winking past him at the girl.

“And what exactly are you doing here?” she asks finally, and he whispers, “I am a high-school teacher. I wrote a book. Some stories. I have come to Warsaw for one night, to give it to Madame Nalkowska.” Magdalena Gross snickers, looks him up and down. Zofia Nalkowska is a renowned Polish author and playwright. She is also affiliated with the prestigious publishing house Rój. With a little smile, Gross asks, “And how will your book get to Madame Nalkowska?”

The man stammers, averts his eyes, yet he speaks insistently: Someone has told him that Madame Gross knows Madame Nalkowska. If she would be so kind—

And when he says this Magdalena Gross stops teasing him. Perhaps—the girl guesses—this is because he looks so scared. Or perhaps it’s his almost desperate stubbornness. Gross goes to the telephone. She speaks with Zofia Nalkowska and tells her about the man. “If I have to read the manuscript of every oddball who comes to Warsaw with a book,” Nalkowska says, “I’ll have no time for my own writing.”

Magdalena Gross asks that she take one quick look at the book. She whispers into the phone, “Do me a favor. Just look at the first page. If you don’t like it, tell him and erase the doubt from his heart.”

Zofia Nalkowska agrees reluctantly. Magdalena Gross hangs up the phone. “Take a taxi. In half an hour, Madame Nalkowska will see you, for ten minutes.”

Schulz hurries out. An hour later, he returns. Without the manuscript. “What did she say?” Magdalena Gross asks.

He says, “Madame Nalkowska asked me to read the first page to her out loud. She listened. Suddenly she stopped me. She asked that I leave her alone with the pages, and that I return here, to the hotel. She said she would be in touch soon.”

Magdalena Gross brings him tea, but he can’t drink it. They wait in silence. The air in the room grows serious and stifling. The man paces the lobby nervously, back and forth. The girl follows him with her eyes. Years later, after she has grown up, she will leave Poland, go to live in Argentina, and take the name Alicia. She will become a painter there and marry a sculptor, Silvio Giangrande. She will tell this story to a newspaper reporter during a visit to Jerusalem, nearly sixty years after the fact.

The three wait. Every ring of the telephone startles them. Finally, as evening draws near, Zofia Nalkowska calls. She has read only thirty pages, there are things that she is certain she has not understood, but it seems to be a discovery—perhaps the most important discovery in Polish literature in recent years. She herself wishes to have the honor of taking this manuscript to the publisher. The girl looks at the man: he seems about to faint. A chair is brought to him. He sits down and holds his face in his hands.

Of the many stories, legends, and anecdotes about Bruno Schulz that I have heard over the years, this one especially moves me. Perhaps because of the humble setting of this dazzling début, or perhaps because it was recounted from the innocent vantage of a young girl, sitting in the corner of the lobby, watching a man who seemed to her as fragile as a child.

And another story I heard: Once, when Schulz was a boy, on a melancholy evening his mother, Henrietta, walked into his room and found him feeding grains of sugar to the last houseflies to have survived the cold autumn.

Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer, was born in 1892 in the town of Drohobycz, in Galicia, which was then within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today is in Ukraine. His oeuvre is small: only two collections of stories survive, and a few dozen essays, articles, and reviews, along with paintings and drawings. But these pieces contain an entire world. His two books—“Cinnamon Shops” (1934; the English translation is titled “The Street of Crocodiles”) and “The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” (1937)—create a fantastic universe, a private mythology of one family, and are written in a language that brims with life, a language that is itself the main character of the stories and is the only dimension in which they could possibly exist. Schulz also worked on a novel called “The Messiah,” which was lost during the war. No one knows what was in it. I once met a man to whom Schulz had shown the opening lines. What he read was a description of morning rising over a city. Light growing stronger. Towers and steeples. More than that, he did not see. 

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