Here, in the third volume of his Diary (Northwestern University Press, trans. Lillian Vallee, 1993), Witold Gombrowicz, the most bitter and self-pitying of writers, forever staring in the mirror, shocks us with his generosity of spirit. “Joy” out of Gombrowicz’s pen packs the unlikely wallop of “perky” out of Kafka’s. The object of this rare gratitude is Bruno Schulz, the Polish author of The Street of Crocodiles, a story collection I first read around 1978, when Philip Roth was editing the Writers from the Other Europe series for Penguin. The pages of my old paperback have turned brown and brittle, so it’s no longer a reading copy, but I find one passage in the book underlined from an earlier reading. It’s from the story “Cinnamon Shops” and suggests how Schulz revels in the arcane and exotic in the midst of mundane reality. You might find such a scene in a story by Steven Millhauser:
“These truly noble shops, open late at night, have always been the objects of my ardent interest. Dimly lit, their dark and solemn interiors were redolent of the smell of paint, varnish, and incense; of the aroma of distant countries and rare commodities. You could find in them Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long-forgotten countries, Chinese decals, indigo, calaphony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, parrots, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake roots, mechanical toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in jars, microscopes, binoculars, and, most especially, strange and rare books, old folio volumes full of astonishing engravings and amazing stories.”
On the same shelf as the Schulz volumes are Cynthia Ozick’s, including The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), about a Swede convinced he is Schulz’s son and has found a copy of Schulz’s final lost manuscript, The Messiah. Ozick signed the book when I met her, the day I also met Raul Hilberg and Aharon Appelfeld. On this date seventy years ago, on Nov. 19, 1942, in his home town of Drohobych, while walking home with a loaf of bread, Schulz was murdered by a Gestapo officer.