One of my all-time favorite writers is Bruno Schulz. I emphasize writer because I’m referring specifically to his ability to command language and use it in new, interesting, and stunning ways. (I have a separate list of my favorite storytellers). I’ve never been able to describe exactly what makes Schulz’s writing unique – part of it, no doubt, is the difference between Polish and English. I read his book The Street of Crocodiles (the English translation, of course) a few years ago in a class I took on Absurdist Fiction. The other author who reminds me of Schulz in terms of syntax, diction, and imagery is Steven Millhauser.
Here’s an excerpt of Schulz’s book, which is actually a collection of short stories.
On such a night, it was impossible to walk along Rampart Street, or any other of the dark streets which are the obverse, lining as it were, of the four sides of Market Square, and not to remember that at that late hour the strange and most attractive shops were sometimes open, the shops which on ordinary days one tended to overlook. I used to call them cinnamon shops because of the dark paneling of their walls.
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.
Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles. Penguin Books, 1963.
I call Schulz’s writing “poetic prose” becuase it blends together musical and poetic elements with deep, dense, strange imagery. What I love about this passage is the progression from normal to slightly unusual to truly bizarre, a process that moves the narrator and reader to an alternate plane of reality. It’s as though Schulz has accidentally stumbled upon a parallel universe. It’s trance-like, dreamlike.