The Street of Crocodiles
When people arrived for the meeting to discuss this book, they confronted Jenny, who had suggested it, by laughingly telling her that she had some explaining to do.
We all admitted to never having read anything quite like it before, finding it puzzling, even confounding, yet for some of us it was fascinating and compelling. In fact it was Jenny who seemed to like the book least, although Clare said she had given up on it and hadn't finished it.
Billed in blurbs as the work of perhaps the greatest Polish writer between the two wars, it's a story cycle set in Schultz's home town of Drogobych, and while clearly steeped in his own boyhood memories, is anything but realist: the whole thing is like a dream in which logic is defied and things transmute: rooms in houses are forgotten, birds fly across ceilings, a bicycle rises up into the sky and a man is turned into an electric bell. A key figure in the book is the father of the narrator, the owner of a fabric and tailoring store, who, after abandoning his store and retiring to his bed and suffering unidentified agonies (seemingly physical and metaphysical) embarks on a series of apparently crazy or fantastical projects - hatching exotic birds' eggs in the attic, corralling the housemaid and the seamstresses to listen to treatises on the souls of tailer's dummies (and other matter usually considered inanimate), and dabbling in the new phenomenon of electricty by persuading a relative to give up his body to become an electric commodity. Meanwhile he skulks in cupboards, jumps up onto pelmets and lies on the floor to watch cockroaches, finally appearing to become like one himself. At one point it appears that he has died, only for him to pop up later in another chapter/story with another scheme.
I said that, since the main protagonist is the narrator as a child, what the book is mediating is the pschology of childhood, which doesn't create the demarcations between reality and fantasy in the way that adult thinking does. This I think is why the book is so vivid - we all agreed that it had stayed with us. It really does have that dream-like wonder with which children apprehend the world. There is constant anthropomorphism - window blinds and shadows 'brood', weeds 'luxuriated quietly, glad of the interval for dreams'. I said that initially I had found this naif, but had come to feel that, again, it was a replication of a child's perspective, which doesn't differentiate so strongly between the animate and the inanimate. The book, as John said, is also about memory (and presumably its fantastical, dream-like nature). At one point the narrator says '...even at the time, I could not tell whether these pictures were implanted in my mind by [the housemaid] Adela's tales, or whether I had witnessed them myself.' One story justifying the notion that Schultz was specifically and consciously interested in psychology is 'Nimrod', an exploration, which I found exquisite, of the developing consciouness of a puppy that is brought to the house - though, in spite of its being more realist than the other stories, Jenny didn't like this either.
Ann however suggested that the book perhaps represented a different way of thinking and seeing the world now lost to us, and which survived longer in Eastern Europe, less influenced by Enlightenment rationalism than western Europe. For this reason she found the book fascinating, as well as for the picture it painted of the conditions of living in Eastern Europe in the twenties and thirties - the boiling hot summers and the dreary snow-filled winters - and their psychological effect on the population. Schultz is quite explicit about that effect - 'Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom'; 'the old thick trunk of summer continues by force of habit to produce and from its moldered wood grows these crab-days, weed-days, sterile and stupid' - and about the fact that his father's schemes were an effort to triumph over them:
'The affair of the birds was the last colourful and splendid counteroffensive of fantasy which my father. that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defenseworks of a sterile and empty winter.'
I said that I had read an academic paper that took this further, arguing that the book was about longing for the transcendence that art gives an artist, and that the father's initial agonies are those of the failed artist (who can't transcend himself), and his schemes his doomed attempts to do so. Ann commented that this is exactly the kind of book that academics like to write about, open as it is to multiple interpretations.
John, as usual, pointed out the aspects of the book that we now find politically incorrect - the 'ragamuffins' hanging around the square, the descriptions of the resident shop assistants with their 'ugly' feet, the snobbish distaste for the more demotic parts of town and the 'scum' who lived there, and the 'thick, black blood' of its female shop assistants with 'cockroachy looks' whose 'overintense colouring' seemed to leave 'a dark trail of freckles, a smudge of tobacco, as does a truffle with its exciting, animal smell'. John found it strange that as a Jew Schultz should express such basically racist sentiments, but others noted that he was very much an assimilated Jew.
Jenny, who seemed to feel that she needed to justify her suggestion of this book, said she had been made curious about it by reading of the fate of its author, and proceeded to tell us about it. Schultz was an art teacher in the local school, who apparently hated his job and had begun writing these stories piecemeal and sending them to a female correspondent, who urged publication. When the war began and he was confined to the ghetto, he sent further writings into the care of another, but they were subsequently lost in the Holocaust. While in the ghetto, he was 'protected' by a Gestapo officer for whom he had painted a mural. Unfortunately this Gestapo officer shot dead a Jew protected by another officer, and one day in 1942 when Schultz was on a pass into the Aryan quarter, that other officer shot him dead in revenge.
Somebody in the group commented that the author's story was more interesting than the book, but some of us said that, whatever we had thought of the book at first, we were very glad to have read it. It has certainly stayed with me and become part of my mental landscape.
Next discussion (August): We have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Jenny's suggestion).
of books discussed