Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles

1124764.gifI have very mixed feelings about this book; at times I hated it and at others I laughed or admired the writing or felt I could appreciate what Schulz was doing. Sometimes I was horrified by it.

It’s a series of short stories, sort of — I think of the chapters as being on the boundary line between stories and sketches. Some of them actually told a story with a plot, while others were more descriptive, without much, or any, narrative. They are about a young boy’s family and his city; I think we are safe in assuming that the main character is at least partly based on Schulz himself.

These stories are often fantastical. They might start off in a realistic mode, but most of them eventually veer off into the dream-like and the impossible. I wasn’t expecting this, and so I spent a lot of time figuring out what Schulz was doing and how I supposed to approach his stories. I found the reading experience to be disorienting — which isn’t a bad thing, really, although it wasn’t purely pleasure, either. As I was describing the stories to the Hobgoblin, he asked if they might be called “magical realism,” and I thought not, because to me magical realism is more about describing the fantastical or the magical as though it were real — to treat it matter-of-factly — when what Schulz does is the opposite; he takes the real and makes it strange and otherworldly.

My favorite chapters were the ones that had more narrative, such as “Birds” or “Cinnamon Shops.” The more descriptive chapters drove me crazy; I felt like I was drowning in Schulz’s incredibly dense language. As I look over the book trying to find a passage to show you what I mean, I realize that this isn’t bad writing really, not bad in the sense that Schulz loses control of it and his meaning gets away from him. Here’s an example:

Once Adela took me to the old woman’s house. It was early in the morning when we entered the small blue-walled room, with its mud floor, lying in a patch of bright yellow sunlight in the still of the morning broken only by the frighteningly loud ticking of a cottage clock on the wall. In a straw-filled chest lay the foolish Maria, white as a wafer and motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn. And, as if taking advantage of her sleep, the silence talked, the yellow, bright, evil silence delivered its monologue, argued, and loudly spoke its vulgar maniacal soliloquy. Maria’s time — the time imprisoned in her soul — had left her and — terribly real — filled the room, vociferous and hellish in the bright silence of the morning, rising from the noisy mill of the clock like a cloud of bad flour, powdery flour, the stupid flour of madmen.

I’m fine with the passage for the first two sentences, and even the third, although I do wonder what kind of “chest” Maria is lying in. I like the description of her as “white as a wafer and motionless like a glove.” Then we get the silence talking, and I feel like we’re entering into deeper waters, but I like the idea of silence talking, and even arguing and being loud. The last sentence begins to lose me, though — Maria’s time is filling the room? I sort of get it, if I stretch a bit. I like the image of the cloud of flour filling the room, but why the “stupid flour of madmen”? This book is full of language you can struggle with for a long time, if you want. Or, I suppose, you can refuse to struggle with it and just let it wash over you.

The sections that describe the father were the most powerful; it was these sections that horrified me. He goes back and forth between sanity and insanity, and during his insane times, he does things like keeping a flock of birds in the attic and crawling across the floor like a cockroach. And the family can’t really do anything about it. They often act as though he’s not there, as though there weren’t a completely insane man living in their midst. I wonder if some of the book’s mixing of fantasy and reality is the boy’s response to his father’s madness; in the world the boy lives in, how is he supposed to distinguish what is real and what is not? What does he have to hold on to that’s solid and certain?

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles

  1. With a book in translation you have to sort of wonder about the translator–especially in a book so descriptive as this. Is part of it just the translator or is this exactly how it sounded in Polish? There were some stories that I cared for less than others. I would like to go back and reread some of them, but the last one I found hard and felt like I was rushing through it a bit. I think it is interesting what you say about the magical realism and how he sort of switches things. It was all pretty fantastical and I had a hard time thinking what to write and how to explain the book. It’s not something really that you can easily describe!

  2. I can see how the book can be disconcerting. It took me a bit to let go of rational expectations and just let things happen and it wasn’t until the last three or four stories until I felt like I was really grasping what was going on. I liked The Birds but it was so sad too. My favorite was The Gale. Maybe because the wind was really blowing here when I read it so I had the proper atmosphere :)

  3. You know I’ve been working with the fantastic a lot lately, and I’ve come to terms with its madness by seeing that it works to make abstract things material. So emotions, invisible elements like wind or time, memories of the past or nebulous ideas take on solid, symbolic form. The effect of this is to personify and vitalise what is notmally considered to be either neutral or inanimate. I can see from your quotes that Schultz does this A LOT and that’s clearly what makes him such a difficult read. Most authors leave a fair amount of breathing space between their fantastical elements.

  4. Your quote about the flour in the air is from one of the stories I managed to read in Polish, and the translation is very exact. When I read that part about the flour (I didn’t really understand the time filling the room when I read it in Polish), I was completely bewildered. I’m sort of happy to see that it doesn’t make a great deal more sense in English. I understand what you mean about drowning in this language.

    I also think the “chest” in this story is a coffin. The Polish word for “wafer” is used for the communion wafer, and it is made from flour and water…is there any connection there with the flour in the air maybe? What in the world is the stupid *flour* of madmen supposed to be?

  5. The word for chest in Polish, skrzynia, could be like a storage bin, or a casket. I thought they went to pay their respects. Time’s left her — she’s dead. The flour? I don’t know. For me it calls to mind dust (from neglect) and ashes (death). I have an image of madmen swirling about in clouds of flour, white with it, something only madmen would do — the madness of grief, anger at stupid death, maybe?

    I’m not sure the father IS insane (I’d say eccentric and ill/old), it’s just how the child pieces together and tries to make sense of his actions and absences.

  6. I agree about feeling disoriented too. Some stories I know I just “didn’t get” at all. Actually the last story was the hardest for me. I don’t know if it was the story so much or the fact that I was kind of tired of being in this fantastical world. That may sound like I didn’t like the book, I did but it was a hard one.

  7. I think Maria must be dead in this passage, since she’s white now and was described as a saffron-yellow woman in the preceding paragraph.

    There were certainly stories and passages I didn’t enjoy as much. Sometimes it was hard to stay focused enough to make sense out of what I was reading. I’m hoping a reread will help with those in particular. Other times, I was totally engrossed and delighted.

    I’ve certainly never read a book quite like this one before.

  8. You’re right Danielle, this is not an easy book to write about! I definitely think it’s worth a re-read, although I’ll admit I probably won’t re-read it. But, then, one never knows. Stefanie — yes, reading this book is about giving up rational expectations, and I think it took me too long to figure that out, and I suppose I also didn’t want to give up rational expectations, and that’s the source of my trouble. Maybe I just don’t do well with this sort of surreal writing. Litlove, that’s totally what Schulz is doing, personifying and vitalizing the inanimate. I wish I’d had some time to think about that before I picked up the book! Karen, how interesting to know that the translation is exact! Thanks for the explanations. Reading this is really like reading a poem, where paying close attention to the language pays off. That’s interesting Isabella, that the father might not actually be insane; I certainly took him as insane, but I can see how that might be the child trying to make sense of things. Iliana, yes — I’ve written negatively about the book, but I did like it, or at least appreciate it. It just wasn’t pure pleasure reading it, I suppose. Susan, I’ve never read a book like this one before either, and a re-read would be a completely different experience, wouldn’t it?

  9. I have only dipped into this one, but I was led to it by a quite wonderful novel that I recommend if you haven’t read it already, David Grossman’s “See Under: Love.”

  10. Thanks Jenny D — I’ll check it out.

  11. Pingback: Framework Press » Blog Archive » The Streets Run Green With Crocodiles

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