Jerzy Ficowski. Regions of the Great Heresy. Ed. and trans. Theodosia Robertson. NY: W.W. Norton, 2003. 255 pp. $25.95
On the back cover of every book by or about Bruno Schulz that has been published in English is a citation from Isaac Bashevis-Singer, which I can quote by heart: "Schulz wrote sometimes like Kafka, sometimes like Proust, and at times succeeded in reaching depths that neither of them reached." This is imagining Schulz badly. In one of the rare undiplomatic moments of Regions of the Great Heresy, Jerzy Ficowski states "Schulz's writing is unlike that of Kafka's. Only a superficial acquaintance with Schulz's writing would suggest a similarity." The likenesses emerge only after reducing both writers to caricature. The comparison to Proust is tempting in an immediate sense: the preoccupation with memory and nostalgia, the density, almost syrupiness of the writing. But, we do well to remember Adorno's assertion that, when dealing with true art, comparison is the lowest form of criticism. In fact, Bashevis-Singer's unfortunate and oft-quoted statement ultimately signifies no more than, "We are dealing, in Schulz, with something artistically profound"; all a comparison with geniuses as remote as Kafka and Proust could hope to signify is that Schulz, too, is a genius of unique proportions.
Which, coincidentally, is the all-but-stated mandate of Ficowski's biography of Schulz, Regions of the Great Heresy. A classic in its native Poland, the book was published in its first edition in 1967, and is now finally appearing in English, translated by Theodosia Robertson. Ficowski, who may be known to North American readers from his introductions to Celina Wieniewska's translations of Schulz, is a significant writer in his own right, author of numerous books of quite singular poetry and a remarkable volume of short prose-almost none of which, needless to say, is so far available to those same readers. Ficowski's life-long engagement with Schulz began when as a teenager he wrote an appreciative letter to the author, only to learn of Schulz's death a few months later. "No longer able to tell Schulz personally about my experience with Cinnamon Shops (Street of Crocodiles in English translation), I decided to write about him myself."
Who was Bruno Schulz, then? The average synopsis tells you he was a sickly, neurotic, Jewish-Polish school teacher from Drohobycz (a provincial town which now belongs to the Ukraine). One or more of these aspects is magnified or minimized, depending on the needs of the critic. Most importantly, though, he left behind two books of short stories before being shot in World War II, Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, books which elude all classification, baffling, sumptuous, tactile, fantastical, baroque cathedrals in words with fat little cherubs swooping skyward in exultation.
In a story entitled "The Book" Schulz writes:
For ordinary books are like meteors. Each of them has only one moment, a moment when it soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame. For that single moment we love them ever after, although they soon turn to ashes. With bitter resignation we sometimes wander late at night through the extinct pages that tell their stone dead messages like wooden rosary beads. The exegetes of The Book maintain that all books aim at being the Authentic.
Ficowski is precisely such a contemporary exegete, holding up Schulz as the Authentic, as literature that will not turn to ash. The chapters of his Regions, then, divide roughly into (a) those which expound Ficowski's iiberBoswellian enchantment with Schulz's prose, and the vicissitudes he has encountered unearthing Schulz's widely-dispersed correspondence and drawings, as well as testimonies of old acquaintances, (b) Ficowski's reflections on Schulz's philosophy, and (c) standard biographical chapters. The first category works because Ficowski is the confessional rather than the proselytizing type of sermonizer. …