Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, A Biographical Portrait (2003)

Polish title: Regiony Wielkiej Herezji
Translated by: Theodosia Robertson
Published by: Twisted Spoon Press

Sixty years after his murder by the Nazis, Bruno Schulz, one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most enigmatic writers, is experiencing a renaissance in part occasioned by this biography by the renowned Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski. Widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on Schulz, Ficowski reconstructs the author’s life story and evokes the fictional vision of his best-known works, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Including many of Schulz’s paintings and letters as well as new information on the Mossad’s removal of Schulz’s murals from Poland in 2001, this book will stand for years to come as the definitive account of the author’s tragic life. Developed for publication by The Jewish Heritage Project’s International Initiative for Literature of the Holocaust.

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Krystyna had written a review of the book, which she read to the group. She was puzzled by the ‘heresy’ of the title, given Schulz’s apparent lack of overt religious rebellion. Instead she wondered if he was not being sanctified by his biographer. She found some of the translator’s English words obscure. She, and others, compared Schulz’s work to Proust’s, in its detailed, ecstatic evocation of the remembered past, which Ken found interesting, given the brevity of Schulz’s oeuvre compared to the expansiveness of Proust’s. She found the letters included in the book to be poignant, a feeling again shared by others.

Grazyna read the book in Polish – the 1975 edition, which she had bought when it appeared but had never read. (This edition lacks the chapters on Messiah and the lost murals, and the selection of letters.) She said she didn’t find it an easy book to read, and was interested in the way Schulz tried to find a balance between reality and myth.

Robin admired Ficowksi’s decades-long commitment to his subject, and through reading him had been moved both to read Schulz, and others works inspired by Schulz – Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm, and Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller.

Zenon had found Ficowski’s book an easy and enjoyable read, though he found Schulz’s work overwritten and mellifluous (it reminded him of reading Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet many years ago.) He thought the high reputation Schulz has enjoyed might derive rather from his drawing and painting (though others pointed out that his reputation has sustained itself over time, and in translation as well as in Polish). He mentioned Plato’s distrust of the written word, and his preference for the fluidity of the spoken word; though in fact Schulz’s poetic prose has the effect of undermining or transforming conventionally fixed reality into something more heightened and meaningful.

Mark noted that Schulz was a secular Jew, writing on non-traditional themes, and that the Holocaust destroyed not only traditional but also modernist Jewish culture.

Jenny mentioned Ficowksi’s collection of Jewish folk poems, Raisins and Almonds (1964), and the major contribution he had made towards establishing Schulz’s post-war reputation in Poland. She used the word ‘heroic’ to describe Ficowski’s engagement with Schulz, and that for him this was the one book that he had to write, and went on writing during much of his life.

Ewa was struck by the intensity of Schulz’s descriptions of childhood experience. She thought of Schulz’s work as a resource for writers – you could take any page of his work and find inspiration there. She also mentioned Joseph Roth, another Galician Jew.

Ken was similarly struck by the way Schulz describes childhood, and quoted a passage from a letter by Schulz which Ficowski includes : ‘the books which we read in childhood don’t exist anywhere; they fluttered away – bare skeletons remain. Whoever would still have in himself the marrow of childhood – ought to write them anew as they were then.’ Although Schulz remained all his life in Drohobycz, his childhood home was destroyed in a fire, so when he came to write of it he had of necessity to recreate it from memory.

After the discussion we watched the film by Marcin Gizycki and Malgorzata Sady, Alfred Schreyer from Drohobycz, made with Studio Filmowe Kronika in 2010. Schreyer, a professional musician, had been taught by Schulz, and remembered him in fond terms, particularly the fascination with which his pupils would listen to the ‘fairy tales’ they encouraged him to tell towards the end of a lesson.


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