Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bruno Schulz, "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass" (1937)

Once in awhile I begin reading a book that seems so tedious that I have to make a decision about whether it is worthwhile to continue with it. I generally give it 50-100 pages before I'm willing to make that kind of judgement. If I decide to give up on a book, I usually do so with a sense of time wasted. Usually I will try to slog through. Such was the case with the book I am finishing up today- Bruno Schulz's Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.

Schulz was a Jewish novelist and painter born in Drohobych, which was then located in the (now defunct) region of Galicia. I was initially intrigued by his birthplace, since my Grandfather was from Galicia (the area is now part of Ukraine). Schulz has a reputation as a great twentieth century prose stylist, and authors such as Philip Roth and John Updike are among his admirers. He made money teaching drawing, and led a fairly hermetic life otherwise. In his unfortunately abbreviated life, he was only able to complete enough work to fill out two thin volumes. In addition, he was noted for translating Franz Kafka's The Trial into Polish. He lived in Drohobych during the Soviet and German occupations of the area during World War II. Fortunately Schulz had found a protector- a Gestapo officer who was enamored with his drawings. But his luck was not to last. In 1939, as he was completing a public mural, Schulz was shot to death by another Nazi Gestapo officer who was upset with his protector. He was 50 years old.

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937) is a collection of short stories tenuously connected by a few recurring characters. Its protagonist is a young man living in a private fantasy world, besieged by strange characters and vulnerable to abrupt transformations. Schulz's prose is florid, and he seems particularly attracted to serpentine descriptions of the sky during "Magic Hour". It seemed to me during the first part of the book, that Schulz was primarily obsessed with minute descriptions of transitory states of his environment. The words seemed to flutter by almost beyond notice, and I found myself having to go back over the lines repeatedly.

Well... to achieve the exact opposite of Schulz's achievement, and "make a long story short", I kept turning the pages... forcing myself to take the words as they came, and not letting myself get caught up in staring at the sun. Mercifully, the stories toward the end of the book seemed to establish a more cohesive set of narratives... and I began to actually enjoy reading them a bit. Particularly fascinating were the profiles of several of the protagonist's peripheral relatives- men saddled with disabilities, and struggling to integrate themselves in the flow of normal human interaction. It made me wonder how Schulz perceived himself. I certainly can't give an unreserved recommendation of the work, but ultimately I don't feel like I wasted my time.


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