Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A fencing master of imagination

For those who haven't read The Street of Crocodiles for the Slaves of Golconda discussion, the book is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories (or novel, depending on who you talk to) originally published in 1934 under the title Cinnamon Shops, set in the small town of Drohobycz in southern Poland, where Bruno Schulz, its author, lived his entire life. The collection quickly won the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Letters. Schulz died in 1942, at the age of 50, gunned down in the street by an SS agent. No one knows where he was buried. An unfinished manuscript titled The Messiah that he was known to be working on was either destroyed or lost.

The description "semi-autobiographical short stories" seems a misnomer. "My soul sings of metamorphoses," Ovid tells us; Schulz's does as well. An uncle can become an electric bell. A calendar can "grow a thirteenth freak month," one that is "a hunchback month, a half-wilted shoot, more tentative than real." A father can transform into a cockroach, one that merges completely with the "crazy black zigzag of lightning" that pours from the cracks and chinks in the floor; a bird; a miracle worker, a "fencing master of imagination," and a grand heretic pontificating on the need for a second race of men "in the shape and semblance of a tailor's dummy." In short, the surreal permeates this more mythologized than remembered year of childhood, waging war, as the father did, as Schulz himself does, "against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled" their lives and their town. Banality is the true evil, the commercial Street of Crocodiles, for Schulz's characters. The cinnamon shops, as a counterpoint, represent the exotic, the extraordinary, the fantastic.

Schulz wrote in a letter to a friend: "It seems to me that the world, life, is important for me solely as material for artistic creation. The moment I cannot utilize life creatively--it becomes either terrible and dangerous, or morally vapid for me."

As someone who constantly found faces and creatures in linoleum patterns and knotty pine paneling while growing up, I delighted in passages such as this:

"Who knows," he said, "how many suffering, crippled, fragmentary forms of life there are, such as the artificially created life of chests and tables quickly nailed together, crucified timbers, silent martyrs to cruel human inventiveness. The terrible transplantation of incompatible and hostile race of wood, their merging into one misbegotten personality.

"How much ancient suffering is there in the varnished grain, in the veins and knots of our old familiar wardrobes? Who would recognize in them the old features, smiles, and glances, almost planed and polished out of all recognition?"

and I marvelled at the mind who could create a character who would glorify matter and creativity in such a provocative, perverse manner:

"Deprived of all initiative, indulgently acquiescent, pliable like a woman, submissive to every impulse, it is a territory outside any law, open to all kinds of charlatans and dilettanti, a domain of abuses and of dubious demiurgical manipulations. Matter is the most passive and most defenseless essence in cosmos. Anyone can mold it and shape it; it obeys everybody. All attempts at organizing matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve. There is no evil in reducing life to other and newer forms. Homicide is not a sin. It is sometimes a necessary violence on resistant and ossified forms of existence which have ceased to be amusing. In the interests of an important and fascinating experiment, it can even become meritorious. Here is the starting point of a new apologia for sadism."

(Also interesting in light of that passage is knowing that Schulz, who made his living as an art teacher in a high school, often drew himself in positions of submission and humiliation with women.)

This is a book read for its poetic language and imagery. I'm looking forward to reading Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, which continues the story of Schulz's family, and then returning to Street of Crocodiles; I don't believe I can possibly grasp all that Schulz intended on a first (or second attempt); it's much too rich.

I was cautiously happy to discover that The Drawing of Bruno Schulz was in our library (I say cautiously because I was afraid the masochism alluded to in articles about Schulz might be a little more than I could stomach--that didn't prove to be the case).

I learned that Schulz made a series of drawings to illustrate Cinnamon Shops and considered placing woodcuts within the text as was done in the early 19th century, but the collection was published without embellishment to keep production costs down. Schulz glued his original drawings into a copy of the book and presented it to his friend, the Polish novelist Zofia Nalkowska, who had first brought Cinnamon Shops to the publisher's attention. Unfortunately, this copy of Cinnamon Shops was destroyed. Schulz's pen and ink drawings were included in Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass when it was published three years later; stories and illustrations from the work were published in magazines as well.

Schulz began mailing manuscripts, letters, engravings and drawings from the ghetto in Drohobycz to others elsewhere Poland who he considered under less threat from the Nazis mere months before he was killed. Most of the work that survived has been gathered at the Museum of Literature in Warsaw. Much was undoubtedly destroyed, but there's still a possibility that some of his lost material will still be recovered.

Below are two illustrations from Sanatorium:

Father Jacob, at times dead or transformed into a cockroach in The Street of Crocodiles, is alive (or in limbo) in Sanatorium, as are the other main characters. Here he is, flying over a table, in a story called "Eddie."

And here's Joseph, the narrator, with his father in a sketch for the story "Spring." The automobile-telescope that's on the cover of the most recent edition of The Street of Crocodiles --the one I believe most of us have--is also from Sanatorium.

My apologies for such a choppy post--I hab a cold and wondered for awhile if I'd manage one at all.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why do I have the notion that Bruno Schulz would approve of these? (Hat tip to WD.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Bruno Schulz: Three Self-Portraits

A reminder that the Slaves of Golconda will begin discussing Schulz' The Street of Crocodiles on Wednesday.

ca. 1919

ca. 1920

ca. 1920

(Artwork taken from The Drawings of Bruno Schulz, edited by Jerzy Ficowski, and published by Northwestern University Press.)

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Emmylou Harris has said that Steve Earle's "Goodbye" is the saddest song ever written. In my opinion, that makes it a perfect Sunday morning song.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A display of self-destructive fury

A taste of Bruno Schulz for those not reading The Street of Crocodiles for the Slaves of Golconda discussion on Jan. 31:

"And then we forgot the gale. Adela started pounding cinnamon in a mortar.
Aunt Perasia had come to call. Small, vivacious and very active, with the lace
of her black shawl on her head, she began to bustle about the kitchen, helping
Adela, who by then had plucked a cockerel. Aunt Perasia put a handful of paper
in the grate and lit it. Adela grasped the cockerel by its neck, and held it
over the flames to scorch off the remaining feathers. The bird suddenly spread
its wings in the fire, crowed once and was burned. At that Aunt Perasia began to
shout and curse. Trembling with anger, she shook her fists at Adela and at
Mother. I could not understand what it was all about, but she persisted in her
anger and became one small bundle of gestures and imprecations. It seemed that
in her paroxysm of fury she might disintegrate into separate gestures, that she
would divide into a hundred spiders, would spread out over the floor in a black,
shimmering net of crazy running cockroaches. Instead, she began suddenly to
shrink and dwindle, still shaking and spitting curses. And then she trotted off,
hunched and small, into a corner of the kitchen where we stacked the firewood
and, cursing and coughing, began feverishly to rummage among the sonorous wood
until she found two thin, yellow splinters. She grabbed them with trembling
hands, measured them against her legs, then raised herself on them as if they
were stilts and began to walk about, clattering on the floor, jumping here and
there across the slanting lines of the floorboards, quicker and quicker, until
she finished up on a pine bench, whence she climbed on the shelf with the
crockery, a tinkling wooden shelf running the whole length of the kitchen wall.
She ran along it on her stilts and shrank away into a corner. She became smaller
and smaller, black and folded like a wilted, charred sheet of paper, oxidized
into a petal of ash, disintegrating into dust and nothingness.

"We all stood helples sin the face of this display of self-destructive fury.
With regret we observed the sad course of the paroxysm and with some relief
returned to our occupations when the lamentable process had spent itself.

"Adela clanked the mortar again, pounding cinnamon; Mother returned to her
interrruped conversation; and Theodore, listening to the prophecies in the
attic, made comical faces, lifting his eyebrows and softly chuckling to

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Half of his salary goes on books. . .

Another description of a reader from "Ward No. 6," which I intend to finish today:

"With the agreeable thought that, thank God, he has had no private practice for a long time, and that no one will bother him, Andrei Yefimych goes home, sits down immediately at the desk in his study, and begins to read. He reads a lot, and always with great pleasure. Half of his salary goes on books, and of the six rooms of his apartment, three are heaped with books and old magazines. He likes writings on history and philosophy most of all; in the field of medicine, he subscribes to The Doctor, which he always starts reading from the back. Each time the reading goes on uninterruptedly for several hours without tiring him. He does not read quickly and impulsively, as Ivan Dmitrich used to, but slowly, sensitively, often lingering over places that please or puzzle him. Beside the book there always stands a little carafe of vodka, and a pickled cucumber or apple lies directly on the baize, without a plate. Every half hour, without taking his eyes of the book, he pours himself a glass of vodka and drinks it, then, without looking, feels for the pickle and takes a bite."

Monday, January 22, 2007

One of his most morbid habits

He read a great deal. He used to sit in the club all the time, nervously pulling at his beard and leafing through magazines and books; one could see by his face that he was not reading but devouring, with barely any time to chew. It must be assumed that reading was one of his most morbid habits, since he used to fall with equal appetite upon whatever was at hand, even the past year's newspapers and calendars. At home he always read lying down.

--Anton Chekhov, "Ward No. 6"

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Proof. . .

that, for me, the Read From the Stacks Challenge is officially over.

I originally signed up thinking that it would be a good way to keep my focus on the books at hand, not the books I'd yet to acquire. And it worked well in November and December, but since the beginning of the year, my stockpiling urges have been impossible to keep under control.

Which to start first? (After I finish The Street of Crocodiles and "Ward No. Six," of course.) They all still have that I'm specialer than the others look about them. . .

Friday, January 19, 2007

Off Week

I'm having an off week--haven't felt like reading, haven't felt like blogging. I've been so off, in fact, that when I took the Myers-Briggs test linked at JenClair's, I manged for the first time in my life not to score as an INTP. Memo to self: don't take personality tests while migraining. I've been migraining a lot this week due to the weather, which probably has a lot to do with why I haven't felt like reading, haven't felt like blogging.

But I did want to mention that there's a stop-motion animation version of The Street of Crocodiles on The Brothers Quay Collection ($70 used at Amazon, but available at Netflix). It's

based on themes and images from Schulz's autobiographical oeuvre, rather than a
direct adaptation of the story itself. The film opens with an old man, a
caretaker of some kind, entering a decrepit room, a museum, perhaps. He
approaches a kinetoscope--one of the first motion picture devices and lets a gob
of spit fall into the machine. This brief introductory scene is filmed in a kind
of pixillated live-action: while an actor and an actual set are employed, there
is a jerkiness to the representation of motion that imparts a sense of unreality
to the scene. The camera then descends into the machine as it stirs to life.
Gears turn, string travels along a vast network of pulleys, and the main
"character" appears, a puppet with a face that is both frightened and sinister.
As this figure explores the surroundings, which resemble the cluttered old shops
and warehouses of Schulz's stories, other figures appear, objects move of their
own accord, and scenes are enacted that make more or less direct reference to
Schulz's writings.

I might watch it at some point after the Slaves of Golconda discussion on January 31. It sounds like just the thing to watch when you have a migraine and feel out of sorts anyway.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Oh, cursed be note of a three to six week wait: I want this one now.

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books by J. Peder Zane.

Book's website here, with the complete listing of books here.

Six Characters in Search of an Author

[Director] I should like to know, however, when anyone ever saw a character get out of his part and set about expounding and explicating it, delivering lectures on it. Can you tell me? I have never seen anything like that.

[Father] You have never seen it, sir, because authors generally hide the travail of their creations. When characters are alive and turn up, living, before their author, all that author does is follow the words and gestures which they propose to him. He has to want them to be as they themselves want to be. Woe betide him if he doesn't! When a character is born, he at once acquires such an independence, even of his own author, that the whole world can imagine him in innumerable situations other than those the author thought to place him in. At times he acquires a meaning that the author never dreamt of giving him.

[Director] Certainly, I know that.

[Father] Then why all this astonishment at us? Imagine what a misfortune it is for a character such as I described to you--given life in the imagination of an author who then wished to deny him life--and tell me frankly: isn't such a character, given life and left without life, isn't he right to set about doing just what we are doing now as we stand here before you, after having done just the same--for a very long time, believe me--before him, trying to persuade him, trying to push him. . .


I picked up Six Characters in Search of an Author on the cheap a few years back, never having heard of it before (I liked the title). The introduction makes clear that the play--first performed in 1921-- did not have an auspicious opening night --Pirandello and his daughter had to run out a side door to escape an angry audience shouting "Manicomio!--Madhouse!" By the time I finished it last night I had a bit of sympathy for that original audience, who would have had no expectations that anything like this might take place on a stage.

It's hard to get the full effect of this one on the page, though, since some of the characters never speak, so I'll be checking out both video versions of Six Characters from the library this week.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

"I try not to discuss politics with my cats; sometimes the conversation degenerates into hissing matches. I'm not that good a hisser, so the cats walk off thinking they have won. Of course, the cats always walk off thinking they have won, so nothing new there. They're geniuses at repurposing defeat as victory. If we put a cat in charge in Iraq, we'd be out of there in six months and everyone would be sure we'd won."

A new Jon Carroll cat column. Hurray!

Friday, January 12, 2007

So we're watching The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and there's a scene that shows four horses carefully picking their way down the narrow trail clinging to a canyon wall . "Oooh, that's just like Utah!" I say, making sure the guys notice how far a rider would fall if the horse stumbled and fell onto the rocks below. And I add that the path we were on in the Swell was even narrower.

And then a pack horse spooks on the screen and falls to its death in slo-mo.

The guys were not amused.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Fore-Edge Art.

Reading Across Boundaries

I came very close to resolving not to get caught up in any reading challenges this year other than the two I'd already committed to, not because I don't like them, but because too many can make even a good thing feel like a chore.

But Kate's Reading Across Boundaries Challenge is too intriguing to ignore.

The idea, of course, is to read more books (Kate's gunning for ten) from the areas of the world that you'd ordinarily ignore, particularly in translation.

I have several either underway or on the schedule for the next couple of months, but some others that I have on hand and that I'm going to attempt to give some priority to this year are:

A Tale of Love and Darkness. Amos Oz (Israel)

World Light. Halldor Laxness (Iceland)

The House of the Spirits. Isabel Allende (Chile)

Kristin Lavransdatter. Sigrid Undset (Scandinavia)

Istanbul. Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)

Half of a Yellow Sun. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)

Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Haruki Murakami (Japan)

Palace Walk. Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)

Snow Country. Yasunari Kawabata (Japan)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

This afternoon my daughter made a confession: the first time she read The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Pavlovich's behavior in "The Old Buffoon" chapter reminded her of her grandmother's.

I nodded. I'd experienced a frisson reading that chapter myself. Of course, neither of us had any idea at the time that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

We then proceeded to discuss how the be- the- center- of- attention- no- matter- how- big- an- ass- you- make- of- yourself gene had skipped me (for the most part), rendering me an Ivan, the observer in the family.

And then we agreed that all those Russians seemed awfully Southern.

My son, nearing the end of Part Three, is dead certain he knows who the murderer is.

With any luck, we'll be finished by the weekend.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

What to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon when you can't go to the gym with the guys (pulled muscle, left calf)? A trip to the used bookstore always works wonders for me.

Usually I go and just wander, but this time I went prepared with a list of authors from my amazon wish list, a totally useless list as none of the authors except Cather--and I'd've remembered Cather without the list--had any representation on the shelves.

I spotted a half price Against the Day--there she blows!-- but couldn't justify it since I've yet to read any of the Pynchon already on my shelves.

I came home with:

Patrick O'Brian's The Hundred Days :
At the top of this barren rise, while the Turks made a fire for their
coffee, Stephen watched a brown-necked African raven fly right across the vast
pure expanse of sky, talking in its harsh deep voice all the way, addressing his
mate a least a mile ahead. 'That is a bird I have always wished to see,' he said
to the guide, 'a bird that does not exist in Spain.' This pleased the guide more
than Stephen had expected, and he led his charges fifty yards or so along the
track to a point where the rock fell precipitously and the path wound down and
down to a dry valley with one green spot in it--an oasis with a solitary spring
that never spread beyond those limits. Beyond the dry valley the ground rose
again, yet beyond it and to the left there shone a fine great sheet of water,
the Shatt el Khadna, fed by a stream that could just be made out on the right,
before the mountain hid it.

Kay Boyle's Year Before Last:
After lunch she walked them up the Champs Elysees in the little pieces of sun
that had begun to appear. It was then she began to see in the eyes of other
people that her short fur coat went up in wings on her shoulders and came in too
tight at the waist. She took the dogs to their Arc de Triomphe, and they cowered
under it as if she had beaten them sore. The city was no success whatever for
them, and they were grateful to get into the train at night and lie as quiet as
badgers under the seat.

Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop:
The two companions sat, each thinking his own thoughts as night closed in about
them; a blue night set with stars, the bulk of the solitary mesas cutting into
the firmament. The Bishop seldom questioned Jacinto about his thoughts or
beliefs. He didn't think it polite, and he believed it to be useless. There was
no way in which he could transfer his own memories of European civilization into
the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto there
was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate
to him. A chill came with the darkness. Father Latour put on his old fur-lined
cloak, and Jacinto, loosening the blanket tied about his loins, drew it up over
his head and shoulders.

John Steinbeck's East of Eden:
There was a wall against learning. A man wanted his children to read, to figure,
and that was enough. More might make them dissatisfied and flighty. And there
were plenty of examples to prove that learning made a boy leave the farm to live
in the city--to consider himself better than his father. Enough arithmetic to
measure land and lumber and to keep accounts, enough writing to order goods and
write to relatives, enough reading for newspapers, almanacs, and farm journals,
enough music for religious and patriotic display--that was enough to help a boy
and not to lead him astray. Learning was for doctors, lawyers, and teachers, a
class set off and not considered related to other people. There were some
sports, of course, like Samuel Hamilton, adn he was tolerated and liked, but if
he had not been able to dig a well, shoe a horse, or run a threshing machine,
God knows what would have been thought of the family.

C.S. Forester's Mr. Midshipman Hornblower:
Without any skilled advice he was having to learn the business of managing
livestock at sea; each moment brought its lessons. A naval officer of active
service indeed found himself engaged on strange duties. It was well after dark
before Hornblower called a halt to the labours of his men, and it was before
dawn that he roused them up to work again. It was still early in the morning
that the last of the grain sacks was stowed away and Hornblower had to face the
operation of swaying up the cattle from the lighter. After their night
down there, with little water and less food, they were in no mood to be
trifled with, but it was easier at first while they were crowded together. A
bellyband was slipped round the nearest, the tackle hooked on, and the
animal was swayed up, lowered to the deck through an opening in the gangways,
and herded into one of the stalls with ease. The seamen, shouting and waving
their shirts, thought it was great fun, but they were not sure when the next
one, released from its bellyband, went on the rampage and chased them about the
deck, threatening death with its horns, until it wandered into its stall
where the bar could be promptly dropped to shut it in.
Hornblower, looking at the sun rising rapidly in the east, did not think it
fun at all.

And on Friday I found Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk on the Free Books table at the library:
She sighed audibly and that broke the spell. She began to amuse herself by
looking at the roofs and streets. The yearnings would not leave her. She turned
her back on the wall. Looking at the unknown had overwhelmed her; both what is
unknown to most people, the invisible spirit world, and the unknown with respect
to her in particular, Cairo, even the adjacent neighborhood, from which voices
reached her. What could this world of which she saw nothing but the minarets and
roofs be like? A quarter of a century had passed while she was confined to this
house, leaving it only on infrequent occasions to visit her mother in
al-Khurunfush. Her husband escorted her on each visit in a carriage, because he
could not bear for anyone to see his wife, either alone or accompanied by him.
For now, though, it's Dostoyevsky and Pollan.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

I like to think of myself as having much more in common with a goat than a sheep, but when it comes to reading I tend to follow the herd.

How else to explain why I'd start The Omnivore's Dilemma this morning (Stefanie wrote about it last night), expect Sybil Bedford's The Favorite of the Gods in my mailbox any day now (LitLove put it on her 2006 list of favorites), and spend my time on the treadmill this week with George Gissing's short stories (brought once again to my attention via a reading forum)?


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I love this: 75 Books I Failed to Read.

The Calvino Meme

via Kate, who had the brilliant idea of starting this one:

The Book You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages
The first book that springs to mind is William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach. I can remember reading the newspaper review back in 1990 and thinking how much I'd like to read it. But alas, in those days I had next to no money to spend on books and library selection was limited to grab-what's available before moving on to the children's section, and this one I never saw on the shelves. I've since read two other books by Boyd and bought a used copy of BB, and one of these days I'll get around to reading it.

The Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success
Affordable first edition Anne Tylers up through Morgan's Passing. Mine are either ratty paperbacks or BOMC editions.

The Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case
Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape is the latest one I'm trying to justify.

The Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer
Sins of the 7th Sister
The Sea Lady

The Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves
I really ought to have a complete set of the Aubrey-Maturin books, instead of the randomly acquired out-of-sequence volumes that I've picked up second-hand.

The Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
Science books. I buy them, but rarely read them.

Books read long ago that it’s now time to re-read
The Sheltering Sky
No Exit

Books that if you had more than one life you’d certainly read but unfortunately your days are numbered
Those books by Tolkien that everyone else goes on about

Monday, January 01, 2007

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

--Wendell Berry, The Country of Marriage

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...