An Oddball Miles From Anywhere

Hot and silent, dusty and deserted, the town of Drohobycz seemed, during the few summer days I spent there some years ago, like a place forgotten in time. The houses had a certain faded, Austro-Hungarian glamour, but seemed to have been built for different people, in a different era. The central market square had a certain pleasing symmetry, but practically no business was conducted there. The peasant women who had carved small vegetable gardens out of the tangles of weed that passed for shrubbery looked up suspiciously when a stranger passed, and then looked quickly down again. The curse of Drohobycz is not merely that it is a provincial Ukrainian town, on the edge of what used to be the Soviet empire. The curse of Drohobycz is that it has always been a provincial town, on the edge of something else. In the 19th century, it was a distant outpost of Austria Hungary. In the first half of the 20th century it lay on the eastern edge of Poland. Worse, nothing has ever happened in Drohobycz, aside from a brief burst of oil-related prosperity in the 1890s. In fact, the only thing that has ever brought Drohobycz any notoriety is the life and work of one writer, an eccentric art teacher named Bruno Schulz, whose main subject was the town itself. And even he was hardly flattering. ‘Let us say it bluntly, ‘ wrote Schulz of his native region, ‘the misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Gestures hang in the air, movements are prematurely exhausted and cannot overcome a certain point of inertia . . .’

Schulz’s life was brief, and, until the end, uneventful. He was born in Drohobycz in 1892, the son of an assimilated Jewish merchant family, and lived there most of his life.

He published two short works of experimental fiction, which gained him a certain amount of notice among other Polish writers of experimental fiction, but not, at the time, an international reputation. He drew and painted the people around him, in the same surreal poses he often described them striking. He began work on a longer book, and then the second world war broke out. When Drohobycz fell to the Wehrmacht, he came under the protection of a German officer who commissioned him to paint frescoes. In 1942, a rival of the officer shot him while he was walking home with a loaf of bread.

Since then, no one has done more to record the events of Schulz’s life and to cultivate his enigma than Jerzy Ficowski, whose biography of Schulz has been translated into English for the first time. A Polish poet himself, Ficowski has spent much of his life tracking down Schulz’s letters and drawings, and interviewing people who knew him. In the penultimate chapter of this book, he describes how tantalisingly close he has come to locating the manuscript of Schulz’s lost novel, which he believes is hidden away in the Soviet archives. In the final chapter, he describes a more recent incident: the discovery of some of Schulz’s wartime frescoes in an old building in Drohobycz, and their subsequent disappearance. Four months later, they reappeared in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, which had apparently done a deal with Drohobycz local leaders, behind the backs of Polish and Ukrainian cultural authorities. The incident worsened arguments about whether Schulz was a ‘Jewish’ writer or a ‘Polish’ writer, and to which culture he really belonged.

But the proper answer is both and neither.

The truth is that Schulz was a provincial oddball from Drohobcyz, a place which isn’t near anything in particular, but isn’t far enough away to be truly exotic. And the conflict itself is nothing but testimony to the skill with which Schulz evoked the dreaminess, the otherworldliness of a provincial oddball’s life. ‘Beyond this gate spread out the landscape,’ he wrote. ‘Pale and opalescent like faded tapestry, wrapped in the vast air, skyblue and vacant, that landscape is extensive as a map.’

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