The Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz described Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass , the second of his two surviving collections of stories, as "eliciting the history of a certain family, a certain house in a provincial city — not from documents, events, a study of character or people's destinies — but by a search for the mythical sense, the essential core of that history These mythical elements are inherent in the region of early childhood fantasies, intuitions, fears and anticipations characteristic of the dawn of life. Schulz's first book, The Street of Crocodiles Cinnamon Shops in the Polish original , pursues the same aim, which he called "the mythicisation of reality". Its publication in December saw Schulz — a shy, rather awkward schoolteacher — join Stanislaw Witkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz in the front rank of Polish modernists. Rarely does such a strange work win immediate recognition, but Schulz's writing pulls off the neat trick of being at once direct and arcane. Instantly striking for its beauty and peculiarity of vision "sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy"; beds "disordered from the weight of dreams", standing "like deep boats waiting to sail into the dank and confusing labyrinths of some dark starless Venice" , its narrative paths are conversely crooked and confounding, leading the reader into neighbourhoods of paradox and uncertainty.
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The Cinnamon Shops. Bruno Schulz. IN THE PERIOD OF the shortest, sleepy winter days, caught on both sides, from morning and from evening, in furred, crepuscular edgings — whilst the town branched its way deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of the winter nights, to be called back and shaken to its senses by a merely fleeting dawn — my father was already lost, sold, pledged to the other sphere.
His face and head became luxuriantly and wildly overgrown in those days with a covering of grey hair, protruding irregularly in bunches, bristles, and long brushes, shooting out from his warts, his eyebrows, and his nostrils, which lent to his physiognomy the appearance of a pugnacious old fox. His senses of smell and hearing had become inordinately sharpened; and it showed in the agitations of his tense, silent features that he remained, through the mediation of those senses, in continual contact with an invisible world of dark nooks and mouse-holes, musty empty spaces beneath the floor, and chimney ducts.
All the scratching and noisy nocturnal knocking, all the secrete, creaking life of the floor, found in him an unfailing and vigilant observer, a spy and a co-conspirator.
Beyond the point of no return, he was absorbed by that sphere, inaccessible to us, which he made no attempt to explain to us. Often, when the antics of the invisible sphere grew too absurd, he could only flick his fingers and laugh quietly to himself. At such times he would confer with our cat by a glance; also initiated into that world, it would raise its cold, cynical face etched with stips, and narrow in boredom and indifference its slanting chinks of eyes.
During dinner he might put aside his knife and fork in the middle of the meal, and rise with a feline motion, his napkin tied under his chin. He would creep on toe-pads to an adjacent door, and empty room, and peek with the greatest circumspection through the keyhole. Then he would return to the table as if ashamed, a sheepish smile emerging through purrs and indistinct mutters, which pertained only to the inner monologue in which he was engrossed.
As a way to provide him with some distraction, and to tear him away from his morbid investigations, Mother would take him on evening walks, which he acceded to silently and without resistance, albeit half-heartedly, distracted, and miles away. Once, we even went to the theatre. We found ourselves again at last in that great, dimly lit and dirty hall filled with sleepy human hubbub and chaotic commotion.
But once we had pushed through that human throng, the gigantic, pale sky-blue curtain loomed before us, like the sky of another firmament.
Great, pink-painted masks with puffed out cheeks undulated on its enormous canvas expanse. That artificial sky spread wide, flowed down and athwart, swelling with an enormous gulp of pathos and great gestures, the atmosphere of that world, artificial and full of radiance, which was erected there on the clattering scaffolding of the stage. A shudder flowing through the great countenance of the sky, a breath of the enormous canvas at which the masks bulged and came to life, betrayed the illusoriness of that firmament, gave rise to that tremor of reality which we, in our metaphysical moments, sense as a glimmer of the mysterious.
The marks fluttered their red eyelids; their coloured lips voicelessly whispered something; and I knew that the moment was approaching when the secrete tensions would reach their zenith, and the brimming sky of the curtain would really part, float away to reveal stupendous and enchanting things. But it was a moment that I was not destined to savour; for Father had meanwhile begun to display certain signs of anxiety — he grasped at his pockets, and finally he announced that ha had forgotten his wallet, together with his money and important documents.
Mother judged that there was still plenty of time until the commencement of the performance, and that, given my nimbleness, I could easily return in time.
It was one of those bright nights in which the astral firmament is so immense and branchin, almost fallen apart, broken into pieces and divided into a labyrinth of separate heavens, enough to be shared by whole months of winter nights, to overlay with its silvered and painted globes all of their nocturnal phenomena, adventures, scandals, and carnivals. It is unpardonable recklessness to send a young boy out on an important and urgent mission on such a night; for in its half-light the streets will become tangled and multifarious, each exchanged for another.
Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelganger streets, mendacious and delusive streets.
Such temptations of winter nights usually begin innocently, with the intention of taking a shortcut, of chancing some unaccustomed or swifter alley. The enticing arrangements of an intersection arise, of convoluted progress along some untried cross street. But this time, it began differently. Having gone a few steps, I realized I had left my overcoat behind. I was on the point of turning back, but on reflection this seemed a needless waste of time, since the night was not cold at all; quite the reverse, it was veined with streams of strange warmth, the wafts of some false spring.
The snow dwindled into white strands, into an innocent, sweet fleece scented with violets; and into those very strands the sky began to thaw, where the moon showed itself twice, three times over, demonstrating by this multiplicity all of its phase and positions.
I called them the cinnamon shops, in honour of that dark hue of the wainscoting with which they were paneled. Those truly noble businesses, open late into the night, had always been the object of my fervid dreams; their dimly lit, dark and solemn interiors exuded a rich, deep aroma of paints, lacquer, and incense, a fragrance of remot countries and rare materials.
There you might find Bengal lights, magic caskets, the stamps of long vanished countries, Chinese decals, indigo, colophony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, parrots, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake roots, mechanical toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in tiny pots, microscropes, and telescopes; and above all, rare and peculiar books, old volumes full of astonishing illustrations and intoxicating stories.
I remember those merchants, old and dignified, who served their clients in discreet silence and were full of wisdom and understanding of their most secret wishes. But most of all there was a certain bookshop there, where once I saw a number of rare and forbidden editions, the publications of secret lodges, lifting the veil from tormenting and intoxicating mysteries. According to my reckoning, I must proceed along a certain side street, passing two or three corners, in order to reach the street of the nocturnal shops.
This would lead me away from my objective, but I could make good the delay if I returned by way of Zupy Solne. Lent wings by my desire to visit the cinnamon shops, I turned into a street that I knew — flying more than walking, anxious not to go the wrong way. Thus I passed three or four cross streets, but the street that I was looking for was not along any of those. Not a trace of the shops. I walked along a street where the houses had no entrances; only windows shut tight and blinded by a gleam of the moon.
The correct street must lead along the other side of those houses, I thought to myself, where their entrances are. I anxiously quickened my step, beginning deep down to relinquish any hope of visiting the shops; merely with the intention of emerging swiftly from there into a region of town that I knew.
I approached an exit, uneasy about where it might bring me out this time, and entered a broad, sparsely built-up highway, very long and straight. At once a blast from its expanse swept over me. Here, alongside the street or deep within gardens, stood picturesque villas, the decorative buildings of the wealthy.
Parks and the walls of orchards were visible in the gaps between them. At a distance the vista was reminiscent of ulica Leszniariska in its lower and seldom visited regions. The moonlight was pale and as bright as day, unraveling into a thousand strands, silver flakes in the sky, and only the parks and gardens loomed blackly into that silver landscape. Scrutinizing one of the buildings more closely, I concluded that before me stood the rear and hitherto unseen side of the gymnasium school.
I went directly up to the entrance, which to my surprise was unlocked, the hallway lighted, and entered to find myself on the red carpet of a corridor. I was hoping to steal unnoticed through the building and leave by the front gate, thus taking a magnificent shortcut. Our little group of students would be all but lost in that great, dark room, the shadows of our heads growing enormous and fragmented on the walls, cast by two small candles burning in the necks of bottles.
In truth, not many of us used those hous for drawing, and the professor did not stipulate too exacting demands. One or two of us would have brought pillows from home and now settled down on the benches for a light nap.
Only the most studious would sit under a solitary candle, drawing some object in the golden circle of its radiance.
Growing bored, holding sleepy conversations, we had usually to wait a long time for the professor to arrive.
At last the door of his study opened, and he entered — a small man with a beautiful beard, all esoteric smiles, discreet concealments, and an aroma of mystery.
He quickly closed his study door behind him, through which, for the brief instant it had stood open, a throng of plaster shades had huddled together beyond his head: classical fragments, mournful Niobids, and Tantalids; a whole sad and barren Olympus withering throughout the years in that museum of plaster figures.
Even in the daytime that room was filled with a cloudlike haze, overflowing sleepily with plaster dreams, empty looks, fading profiles, and musings receding into nothingness. We often liked to eavesdrop at that door, on the sighting, whispering silence of that rubble, crumbling amid cobwebs, that twilight of the gods, decomposing in boredom and monotony.
The professor strolled, solemn and dignified, along the empty benches, amid which we, dispersed in small groups, made our drawings in the grey gleams of the winter night. It grew hushed and sleepy. Here and there my colleagues were settling down to sleep.
Slowly the candles burned out in their bottles. The professor was engrossed in a deep glass case full of old volumes, antiquated illustrations, etchings, and prints. Making esoteric gestures, he showed us old lithographs of evening landscapes, dense nocturnal forests and the avenues of winter parks, looming blackly on white, moonlit pathways.
Amid our sleepy conversations time passed unnoticed. It ran unevenly, seeming to tie knots in the flowing of the hours, somewhere swallowing whole periods of their duration.
Imperceptibly, without transference, we rediscovered our group already making its way home along a lane white with snow and flanked by a dry, black thicket of bushes. We walked along that shaggy edge of the darkness, brushing against the bearskin of the bushes, which cracked under our feet in the bright, moonless night, the false, milky daylight long after midnight.
The diffuse whiteness of that light, drizzling with snow, the pallid air and milky space, was like the grey paper of an etching where strokes and hatching of compact brushwood were tangled in deep black. It was hushed and warm in those nests, where we sat in our shaggy coats on the soft, summery snow, goring ourselves on nuts which the nazel bushes were replete with that springtime winter.
Martens, weasels, and ichneumons wound their way silently through the brushwood: furry, sniffing little animals stinking of sheepskin, elongated, on short little paws.
We suspected that among them were specimens from the school cabinet, which, however disemboweled and moulting, had heard in their empty innards and that white night the voice of an old instinct, a mating call, and had returned to their lair for a brief, illusory lifespan. But slowly the phosphorescence of the spring snow grew cloudy, and died away, and the thick, black murk before daybreak set in.
Some of us fell asleep in the warm snow, whilst others scrabbled in the dense thicket for the entrances to their houses. They groped their way into those dark interiors, into the dreams of their parents and siblings, falling into a continuance of the deep snorting that they had tracked down on their tardy ways. Those nocturnal assemblies were full of mysterious charm for me, and I could not forgo this opportunity to peek for a moment into the art room, resolving to spare only a few minutes for the visit.
But as I ascended cedar backstairs filled with ringing echoes, I realized I was now in a hitherto unseen, unknown part of the building. Not the slightest sound disturbed the solemn silence here. The corridors on this wing were more spacious, lined with plush carpet and abounding in finery. Small, dimly glowing lamps shone at the corners. Having passed one such turning, I found myself in an even wider corridor, bedecked in palatial sumptuousness, where one of the walls, through wide, glazed arches, opened into the interior of an apartment.
Before my eyes a long enfilade of rooms began, receding into the depths and furnished with dazzling magnificence. My eye was drawn along a lane of tussore-silk hangings and gilded mirrors, expensive furniture and crystal chandeliers, far into the downy pulp of those extravagant interiors, all coloured whirling, shimmering arabesques, winding garlands, and budding flowers.
The profound silence of those empty parlours was inhabited only in the secret looks that the mirrors exchanged, and a panic of arabesques which ran aloft in friezes along the walls, and were lost in the stucco-work of the white ceilings. I stood in admiration and awe before that sumptuousness. My heart pounding, I stood transfixed with curiosity, ready to take flight at the slightest noise.
For how, if discovered, could I justify this, my nocturnal espionage, my audacious snooping? Besides, absolute silence reigned everywhere in those interiors, filled with sumptuousness and illuminated by the dimmed light of the indeterminate hour.
I could see through the arches of the corridor a large glazed door at the far end of a great parlour, leading onto a terrace. It was so quite all around that I mustered my courage. There did not appear to be too great a risk involved in descending the few stairs to floor level, and crossing a few bounds the great, expensive carpet, to the terrace, from where I could easily reach a street that I knew.
I did so. And as soon as I had stepped down onto the parquet floor of that parlour, beneath the great palms that stood in vases there, shooting up as high as the arabesques of the ceiling, I noticed that I had in fact reached neutral ground; for the parlour had no front wall at all.
It was a kind of loggia, connecting by two or three steps to the town square, an offshoot, as it were, of that square, where a few items of furniture were arranged on the pavement. I ran down the few stone steps and once again I was in the street.
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The Cinnamon Shops and Other Stories
The Street of Crocodiles Polish : Sklepy cynamonowe , lit. First published in Polish, the collection was translated into English by Celina Wieniewska in Schulz's earliest literary endeavors can probably be dated back to Although it was already in that Schultz wrote the short story A July Night , it was included in the second volume entitled Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass which was published in All Debora Vogel's efforts to have Schulz's works published were in vain. The original title of the collection can be literally translated into English as "Cinnamon Shops. Cinnamon shops mentioned by the narrator of the story are situated in the centre of the town where the narrator lives.
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A brief survey of the short story part 30: Bruno Schulz
The Cinnamon Shops. Bruno Schulz. IN THE PERIOD OF the shortest, sleepy winter days, caught on both sides, from morning and from evening, in furred, crepuscular edgings — whilst the town branched its way deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of the winter nights, to be called back and shaken to its senses by a merely fleeting dawn — my father was already lost, sold, pledged to the other sphere. His face and head became luxuriantly and wildly overgrown in those days with a covering of grey hair, protruding irregularly in bunches, bristles, and long brushes, shooting out from his warts, his eyebrows, and his nostrils, which lent to his physiognomy the appearance of a pugnacious old fox. His senses of smell and hearing had become inordinately sharpened; and it showed in the agitations of his tense, silent features that he remained, through the mediation of those senses, in continual contact with an invisible world of dark nooks and mouse-holes, musty empty spaces beneath the floor, and chimney ducts. All the scratching and noisy nocturnal knocking, all the secrete, creaking life of the floor, found in him an unfailing and vigilant observer, a spy and a co-conspirator. Beyond the point of no return, he was absorbed by that sphere, inaccessible to us, which he made no attempt to explain to us.
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